Top the App Store in 2021


For mobile app developers in 2009, life was easy. The iPhone was just two years old and had sold little more than 40 million units. The App Store had launched the year before, with an initial offer of just 500 applications. By November 2009, the store had generated two billion downloads from only 100,000 apps.

The number of apps available varied from region to region though. So when Rovio, a Finnish game developer, quietly launched its Angry Birds game in its local store in 2009, the journey to the top of the charts was short. In a 2010 interview with GigaOm, Rovio CEO Mikael Hed, explained that the company did no more than tell their friends and family to buy the game. With just a handful of purchases, the app was able to break into the top ten.

“That was not so remarkable,” said Hed, “but what was remarkable was that it then continued to go to number 1 and stayed there for weeks.”

What looks remarkable now isn’t that Angry Birds did so well, but that it took only a few downloads to win the attention that chart-topping can bring. Today’s app developers have to do a lot more than tell their friends and family about their app in order to land a top spot in an app store charts. Without the support of a marketing plan, even a well-designed game with a good story and satisfying physics is easily lost under a giant pile of similar applications. In 2020, global downloads of applications totaled around 71.5 billion, with more than 52 billion coming from Google’s Play Store and 18.3 billion from the iOS App store. There are now almost 3 million apps in the Google Play Store and close to 2 million in the iOS store.

Those apps generate a lot of money. On New Year’s Day alone, Apple’s App Store customers spent $540 million, a 40 percent increase on the previous year. During the previous week, the company had made $1.8 billion worth of App Store sales.

But the numbers vary for app makers. While top brands like Tinder and Facebook will generate millions of downloads, and top game-makers can expect to sell treasure boxes and subscriptions from inside their apps, products from small firms struggle to attract attention, build a name, and generate the downloads that improve its prominence. With so many applications launching each day into an already crowded market, it’s easier to build an application than is to build a user base.

So what can an app maker do to top the App Store in 2021?

According to Mick Rigby, CEO of app marketing firm Yodel Mobile, the place to start is with the competition. “In order to set up a campaign for a new app you need to first understand where the app sits in the marketplace and how it compares to other apps in the industry,” he says. The app maker needs to analyze competitors, understand the breadth of the opportunity, and figure out where the app will need to compete. That insight will then allow the app maker to establish key strategies and lay out a schedule for app store optimization and paid user acquisition.

All app businesses, says Rigby, need to differentiate between owned, earned, and paid channels to build downloads.

Own Your Audience

Owned channels are strategies that drive users from the company’s own databases or from third party databases towards the app. They allow businesses with multiple divisions or products to move their customers from one offering to another. A website that has built a newsletter subscriber list, for example, could shoot out an email telling its readers that it has now launched an app and urge them to download. It’s a way to get even more out of the audience the company has already built.

When Starbucks launched its app, for example, the café chain already had a large bank of customers. It placed its focus on people who were using reward cards. By telling them that they could ditch their cards and use the app to collect their points, the company was able to give customers a valuable reason to use the app. And once they were using the app, they would also be able to place orders before reaching the line, improving the service experience.

The value of that strategy suggests that it’s never too early to begin marketing. Start building an audience even before the app has launched, and you’ll have an audience in place when the app is ready. That audience might not be big enough to push the app all the way to the top of the App Store but it will start to generate word-of-mouth marketing, produce reviews, and allow you to see how people are using the application.

The creation of owned channels will be easier for some app developers than for others. Companies that have already launched apps or that have built customer bases will have channels in place that they can then exploit.

New companies working on their first app though will face a dilemma. Until the app is complete, it’s too easy to believe that it will never be finished. Before it’s ready for beta testing, there’s little sense of having anything to promote. Once it’s ready though, it’s too late to introduce it to owned channels that haven’t yet been created.

One solution is to start building relationships with complementary businesses that have their own channels. You might not have your own mailing list but if you know a company whose list matches yours, then you might be able to borrow it. You’ll need to give the company a reason to let you access their subscribers: a share of the price of paid downloads, for example, or a discount for their customers, or the delivery of a service that the company’s customers will find useful.

Customers of a photography business that sells lenses for wildlife photography, for example, might want to use an app that lets them identify the birds they photograph. Offer free use for a period to the list owner’s customers, and they’ll get to give the company’s customers a gift while you get to use their owned channel.

It’s never too early to start building those connections that can grant access to owned channels.

Earn an Audience

Owned channels contain users that you—or a partner—have already acquired. Earned channels are created through word-of-mouth and public relations. They’re the result of any publicity gained through promotional efforts that extend beyond paid media.

Strava, for example, could have satisfied itself with being another fitness app. It would let joggers and cyclists track their routes and measure their times and count the calories they’ve burned off. That would have put it in a crowded marketplace competing against native apps such as Apple’s own Fitness+.

By combining the app with a community, though, Strava was able to open channels for word-of-mouth marketing. As fitness enthusiasts told other members of the cycling or running club about the app, word could spread. Challenges and hashtags keep people talking and showing off the application, ensuring that the app’s users continue to talk about the application—and continue to market the app on behalf of the company.

Strava made good use of social media to build that community, and that approach can provide a model for other app makers looking to build earned channels.

One approach is to begin talking about the app publicly as you near the end of the development process. Once you can see that the app is taking shape, that it will work, and that you will be releasing it, create social media pages. Build the website and start collecting email addresses. Release screenshots and ask community members which features they’d like to see in the app. The more of a potential audience you can build before you launch, the more you can encourage it to talk about your app, and the bigger your earned channel will be.

The disadvantage is that unlike owned channels, earned channels can require some out-of-pocket expenses. Social media audiences don’t come free and building a community can require the efforts of a full-time community builder. That brings earned media closer to paid media.

Paying for an Audience

Mick Rigby, whose consultancy was named Mobile Agency of the Year 2019 and has helped to launch and grow more than 300 apps, defines paid media as “any media that you pay for, such as Apple Search ads, Facebook ads, or Instagram ads.” On the one hand, it’s a simple strategy. You can pick your audience criteria, design the ads, test different copy, and optimize your campaign. You’ll always know exactly how much you’re paying for each new user, and you’ll be able to compare that cost with the value that your new user brings.

But the downside is that paid users reach the app knowing only what they’ve seen in the ad. Even a small price on the app will affect willingness to download, but free apps—and those with in-built purchase options—can be deleted as easily as they’re downloaded. Users that come through owned and earned channels arrive primed to believe that an app that a trusted brand or a friend has recommended will be good. Users who come through paid channels are much more skeptical.

The Challenge of Mixing Your Channels

In practice, an app developer is unlikely to rely on a single channel, and not just because they each start in a different place and with different resources available. Each app is unique and each will face its own challenges generated by its country, its target audience, and the level of its competition. The dynamics of each category in each store pose their own problems and will also determine the kind of marketing plan the app needs.

“A highly saturated category may require an app to ensure it incorporates unique messaging that stands out and may require increased spend to compete amongst the big players,” says Mick Rigby. “On the other hand, an app that has a completely distinct offering will need to focus first on educating its audience.” That app will need to communicate its features effectively and make sure that the audience understands its purpose.

That makes predicting the marketing budget for a new app difficult. Too much depends on the nature of the app and its market. An app developer won’t know the cost of user acquisition for their particular app until they’ve already produced it and started testing the market. Data becomes critical to understanding not only who the app’s users are, how they use the app, and where to find them, but also how much each user costs.

In 2021, the journey to the top of an app store is now much longer than it used to be and much harder than it used to be. Today, even the maker of an app as effective as Angry Birds, would have to do a lot more than tell their friends and family.

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