So you’ve created an app; now why hasn’t anyone discovered it?

September 17, 2012

You’ve gone through the Apple’s app review process and patiently waited (sometime very patiently) for a green light. Your new app is now live. You look at your server logs — no explosive growth. You look at your iTunes connect report the following day — no magical revenues. You scroll through the Apple App Store rankings — you’re not even there. You run a search in the App Store to make sure your app is indeed listed: yes, it’s there.

So you wait a week, two weeks … No gold rush for you. You’re app is not taking off. Why can’t all developers find their way and be successful? Why is success limited only limited to a few? You want to blame the Apple’s App Store for not having the right discovery mechanisms built for your app. But the reality is, this is not just Apple’s fault.

Most developers underestimate how hard it is to be successful in Apple’s App Store. And even if Apple is improving things, it’s not going to be enough. Ever since the App Store launched, I’ve been frustrated with app discovery. We all have our obsessions. I’m obsessed with finding great apps, which is why I cofounded Appsfire, a company focused on finding a solution.

But why is this problem so hard to solve? The answer is not straightforward. Let’s look at the various angles.

The developer side

It’s not enough to build a great app with a nice design and a nice user experience. A mobile app is a business, and it has to be managed like one.

If an app doesn’t solve a critical need in a beautiful way, it has little chance of survival in the long run.

The marketing plan, including knowing your own competition, has to be built and implemented before you even launch an app. Remember, apps are displayed in iTunes, which is a content store.

Apps need to be analyzed and optimized based on usage data and lifetime value. Many developers are still obsessed with low CPIs (cost per install) rather than trying to get the best users and keeping them engaged.

Launching an app is not just a design exercise backed with solid code. It’s a real business. Some of app studios have become so big (e.g. Zynga and Outfit7) that they don’t even need any sort of favor from Apple or Google to get massive visibility. They just self-promote their app.

The Apple App Store side

Apple announced 700,000 live iOS apps (close to one million have been created so far) and a newer app store. They also announced that 90% of all apps were downloaded every month. But everyone knows that only those apps in the top ranks or highlighted by Apple get any real traction.

So, is Apple doing enough for your new app?

Well, many developers forget that it is only a store. It’s not a marketing or advertising company.

Yes, Apple released a new version of its App Store. And just like any other online retailer, Apple does not let developers control the majority of the discovery process (even when they feature you).

What can Apple do to make life easier for developers?

A speedier review process would help developers iterate faster. A better interface for app management/analytics would be useful. Separate apps in the games category from non-games to give the other 20-plus categories a better chance. Those would all be nice upgrades but not dramatic changes.

What would be a dramatic change? Killing the top charts.

Rankings are the primary way consumers discover new apps. This is why so many app developers are trying different marketing techniques and bots (before bots were blacklisted by Apple) to get into the top ranks.

Killing the ranking system would force users to be more active in finding apps. And it would give more chances to more developers.

But it’s unlikely to happen.

The consumer side

Most smartphone users have more than 75 apps on their device. Only a few are regularly used. Most are forgotten and sometimes uninstalled. That’s the tough reality.

Consumers have a hard time finding good apps. But, paradoxically, they don’t care enough to read reviews, compare apps or even search for apps. On mobile people are lazy.

People need trusted sources to make quick decisions. This explains the growing popularity of third-party discovery solutions. They provide a good shortcut to decisions, just as shopping engines have done for e-commerce sites.

And trust in app discovery is probably the most important missing brick today. It is hard to build, communicate and maintain, because it requires a consistent effort of transparency, engineering, expertise, relevancy and independence

The App Store is not enough. It is built the same for everyone.

This explains why Facebook has developed the App Center. But that’s far from enough. You can’t trust your friends with every single decision they make. The solution is more about a specific taste graph for apps. And Facebook is not there.

The ad networks’ side

Millions of users find out about apps though advertising or paid discovery. (Something Apple does not include in its $5 billion paid to developers).

But the mobile ad industry is still young, and mobile advertising is not yet very consumer friendly or advertiser friendly. Banners are annoying, intrusive and inefficient. Many times they don’t even look like advertising.

An app developer can easily get lost, and understandably so, in the jungle of ad networks, each claiming billions of impressions per week, with different pricing structures, ad units, tracking technologies (when they work) and little commitment on results.

Paid app discovery is very hard and (to be successful) very expensive. It is not just not enough to buy advertising to succeed — thousands of developers do. It is complex, time consuming and expensive to run an efficient mobile ad campaign.

Bottom line

You can’t attribute the (lack of) success of an app just to one single factor. Building a business with a mobile app is hard, because it involves a long list of parameters very few developers really understand or can control.

We’re in the early days of the mobile app business. There is no “magic recipe” for mobile app success. It is more about experimentation than following a prescribed list of directions.

And everyone can learn how to cook this way. Those who make it will try and fail until they succeed. 

Ouriel Ohayon is the cofounder of Appsfire, a discovery and promotion network for mobile apps. Prior to Appsfire, he founded the French edition of Techcrunch and ran early stage investments for Lightspeed Ventures and Gemini Israel funds.

For more on this topic, attend GigaOM’s Mobilize conference, where Ouriel Ohayon will take part in an onstage conversation about how developers can disrupt the app distribution model. (September 20 – 21, San Francisco)

Image courtesy of Flickr user vikasiamoto.

(c) 2012, GigaOM.com.

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