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Why I Don’t Use App Review Services

Getting users to review your apps is hard. We all know how important it is to score some early reviews to boost your ranking and make it look like at least someone is using your app. So what are your options?

Ask Your Friends

This is probably the most obvious one. Beg your friends and family to download your app. Take them out to dinner. Buy them coffee. Buy them a beer. If you have five friends in the world, you can make this happen.

Annoy Users With Rating Requests

As you can tell by the headline, I’m not a fan of this one. I have used this approach off and on over the years and it always makes me feel icky. I don’t like disrupting the user experience. If you are going to do this, try something more interesting. Check out what Brian Mueller has done with the Carrot Weather rating request. It doesn’t get in the way but gives those inclined to leave a review an easy option.

 

Carrot Weather

Buy Reviews

Yuck. Don’t do this.

Review Exchange Sites

What these sites do is allow you to earn reviews from other developers by reviewing their apps.

I have personal experience with one of these sites. I gave honest reviews of apps and received reviews in return. Some of the reviews were good, such as a 4 star with details that showed the other dev actually tried the app. Others were not so good, such as a 5 star “Great game!!!” review of my app that wasn’t a game. The hardest part for me was the sheer number of terrible re-skins I had to deal with. It seemed like about 90% of the apps I was asked to review were in this category. I was getting plenty of reviews and I thought it was a great service to at least kick start my reviews after launch or an update.

One day last June, after using the service for a month or so, all my reviews disappeared and most of the reviews I had received through the service were gone. I talked to Apple about it and they had cleaned house and deleted what they felt were fake reviews, blacklisting Apple IDs along the way. Talk about scary. I was lucky they didn’t suspend my developer account. To this day I am still unable to review other apps through my dev account login.

I do not personally think these services are against the rules or shouldn’t be allowed. Apple thinks differently. As far as Apple goes, paid reviews are against the guidelines and they categorize developers reviewing other developers for each others benefit as paid reviews.

I would discourage anyone from using these services. All it takes is for Apple to clean house and you could be blacklisted or worse.

I believe the best way to get reviews is to make a good app that users like enough to feel compelled to review. I did that with my app, Quit That. Read about it’s success here.

App Store Integrity: A Fresh Perspective

Many apps on the store frustrate me. I don’t consider being hammered with ads and constantly dismissing nag screens to be a good user experience. Why do apps do this? You already know the answer. Because it works. If your app is popular and users have to see ads or make purchases to get anywhere, you are going to generate revenue. But at what cost? We are all trying to make some money on the store, so it’s tempting to just go with the flow.

Can You Generate Revenue Without Compromising Your Integrity?

I struggle with this every day. I think it’s mostly a user experience issue for me. I understand how advertising works and I’m not trying to vilify the ads. I don’t think apps shouldn’t have ads. I just don’t like the tactics that have come to be acceptable. I don’t mind in-app purchase nag screens in my apps, but I know to get more conversions, I need to present them more often. I need to nag much more. But what about the user experience? You could argue, and make some good points, that since this is what users expect, you actually are giving them the user experience that they want or deserve.

Am I different than my users in that I don’t like nag screens and ads? The answer is definitely yes, I am different from my users. I think most of my fellow developers are too. We care about our apps. We reward the developers of other good apps with purchases. It’s easy for us to forget how different we actually are from most of our users. But that doesn’t mean we should accept the norm when it comes to ads and in-app purchase practices.

The Crossy Road Way

Is there a way to have a free app that generates revenue and allows you to sleep at night? The developers of Crossy Road took a fresh perspective. I really admire how they were able to take a fun, addictive game and monetize it without ruining the experience. For example, you can play Crossy Road all day and never see an ad, nag screen, or review request. When Crossy Road first hit it big, the guys on ATP were discussing their monetization strategy and how they were probably leaving a lot of money on the table. They weren’t saying this was a bad thing, just pointing it out. Crossy Road may have left some money on the table, but based on their revenue, they’ve done very well. More importantly, they have respect for the way they present in-app purchases and ads. You can optionally watch an ad after you die every so many times. The app also may show you an in-app purchase that is available after you die. Instead of being a pop up ad, it’s just part of the regular screen. It’s a nice way of getting it in front of the user, but it doesn’t force the user to dismiss it to get where they should already have been.

courtesy of iMore

courtesy of iMore

Crossy Road also allows you to try out a character for limited time. The characters are unique and make interesting sounds. If you try one out and you like it, you are going to more inclined to buy it through in-app purchase, or watch videos to have a chance to ‘earn’ the character. I love the idea of allowing all the features of your app to be used for a limited time when first downloaded. Letting the user see what they would be paying for adds credibility.

My five year old son doesn’t care about how far he goes on Crossy Road. That seems to be the point of the game to me, but all he cares about is getting coins so he can get new characters. He jumps in front of a train as soon as he gets 100 coins to quickly cash them in for a new character. He is happy to watch the video ads every chance he gets. But, he never brings the iPad to me, wanting me to fix it after he has been redirected to the app store because of strategically placed cancel or buy buttons. The app keeps it simple and doesn’t try to fool you.

My Takeaways on App Store Integrity

  • Treat your users with respect, even if you don’t think they care.
  • Consider a paid app if you can make it work (then you can just drop all the BS and give the user a great app without restriction).
  • Look for ways to make ads available without killing the design of your app or getting in the users way.
  • Think of creative ways to generate revenue. Don’t just look at what all the other apps are doing to squeeze every cent out of users.
  • App store integrity is important. Don’t compromise your values for a quick buck.
  • You can probably always learn something from an Australian company named Hipster Whale.

Development Cycle Length: How Long is Too Long?

Matt Hall - Crossy Road Development Cycle

Matt Hall – Crossy Road

I was listening to the AppMasters podcast with Steve Young that featured Matt Hall, one of the developers of Crossy Road. There was a little nugget in the podcast that wasn’t really expanded on, but I felt really hits on the pulse of the App Store in it’s current form. Matt stated that the development time for Crossy Road was about eight weeks with three core team members. Why is this significant? How long should a development cycle be for your average iOS developer?

Let’s Compare

On the flip side of the Crossy Road development cycle length is Monument Valley. Monument Valley was in development for 55 weeks and is estimated to cost around $852,000 with eight core team members. Both apps have been a huge success. On January 13th, 2015 the Guardian reported Crossy Road had made over $1 million from ads alone since November 2014 or about $350,000 a month. Monument Valley, according to Tech Crunch, has made over $5.8 million since April 2014, or about $680,000 a month. Both took different approaches regarding development length. The Crossy Road team didn’t want to take the chance on spending a year in development for something that may or may not stick. Monument Valley had a larger team and more money to spend, mitigating their risk. Both teams took on risk, but in different measurable ways.

Minimum Viable Product

Shipping the minimum viable product minimizes your risk by getting your app in the store without investing in too many features or dragging out development. That doesn’t mean you don’t polish your app or ship before it’s ready. It just means you can’t spend your time adding a bunch of features when you don’t even know if your app will have any success. It is increasingly easy for a well done app to be lost in the App Store shuffle. If you don’t nail the marketing AND have a great app, it’s very difficult to sustain any kind of success.

As you are working on your app, you’ll be thinking of all the features that you need to have. In my experience, you can throw out at least half of them for the first release, probably more. Work hard on polishing the core functionality. Think of the problem your app solves and focus on that. If a feature isn’t needed for the app to solve the problem, save it for a future release or drop it altogether. Apple likes simple. Users like simple. If your app solves the initial problem and finds any success, users will lead you down the feature path. Paying attention to features actually needed shortens the development cycle and minimizes the risk that you may be spending all your time on something that isn’t a viable product.

Do You Really Need That Feature?

Overcast - Development CycleMarco Arment has talked extensively about his podcast app Overcast on the ATP podcast. When it was first released, the big knock I heard everywhere was that it didn’t support streaming. A podcast app that doesn’t support streaming? Seemed odd. Not supporting streaming out of the gate had to do with how he was implementing his groundbreaking Smart Speed feature along with limitations of the streaming framework. Marco had revealed earlier that he knew this was a must sought after feature that he planned on implementing. At some point along the way, however, he came to realize that streaming wasn’t actually as in demand as it appeared. Most of his support emails were less about streaming and more about being able to save podcasts you’ve already listened to. So Marco has shifted gears and now has no timetable or commitment to offer streaming. I think it’s a good study in assuming a feature is crucial for survival when it actually isn’t. I remember thinking when I first downloaded Overcast that I wouldn’t end up using it because of the lack of streaming. After a week or so, I realized I didn’t miss the feature and have been a happy Overcast user ever since. Not only did Marco leave this seemingly obvious feature out of version 1.0, he has learned it’s actually not in as much demand as originally thought.

 

Should Developers Worry About iOS Piracy?

Monument Valley - iOS PiracyMonument Valley bucked the freemium model last year and was highly successful. They made news recently by discussing their download numbers. It seems the headlines focused on this: Only 40% of iOS downloads were paid. Does that mean that 60% of downloads were pirated? That’s what the headlines would make you think, but I found it difficult to believe that was the case.

The company later clarified by stating “a portion of those are people who have both a phone and a tablet”.

That is significant. When you consider how many devices the typical Apple household has, most of the 60% are probably not pirated. I don’t even play Minecraft and I have probably installed it at least four times on different devices for my kids and my own phone. Grabbing the 40% number for iOS piracy is just another one of those headlines that attracts eyeballs but has little substance behind it.

Build & Analyze iOS PiracyIndie developers of paid apps can spend way too much time trying to figure out how to stop iOS piracy. I remember a couple years ago I was worried about piracy on one of my paid apps. It was a $3.99 app and a good revenue producer. I spent a significant amount of time researching app piracy and everything involved. Like most of us, I had pirated plenty of software in my younger days, so I knew how common it was. Then I heard an episode of Build & Analyze with Marco Arment where he discussed the reasons he, for the most part, ignores piracy. His post here sums it up nicely.

“Or you could just ignore the pirates, since hardly anyone jailbreaks their phone and they’ll never pay for anything anyway, and spend that time making the app better to attract more paying customers.”

This is pretty much what I was thinking as I was researching this problem. It sucks to think that someone is stealing your software, but it’s not worth your time to risk hurting your current users with anti-piracy measures. Instead, spend your time coding, marketing, and coming up with great app ideas.

The Success of Quit That!

A few months ago, I created an app that lets you track bad habits you are trying to quit. It is a simple app and I borrowed (heavily) from Stuart Hall‘s 7 Minute Workout app. I had read his awesome An App Store Experiment article and it motivated me.

The app is called Quit That! and it has received a lot of praise and some success. I measure the success not on how much it’s made (not much), but on downloads, reviews and customer support emails. As an independent with a full time job, I’m trying to build my knowledge and portfolio, learning along the way. The feedback I have received from the app is immeasurable.

Quit That! Main Screen

Quit That! has been downloaded about 8,000 times. That’s not a ton compared to some of my other apps. Engagement is good, though, and I can’t tell you how good it feels to get tons of emails telling me how much the app has helped them. There are plenty of bad habit apps on the store, but I wanted one that was dead simple without all the features that can bog down the main purpose.

“Ah!! A free app, a good app, that is without ads, and voluntary donation!! That is to my heart. Beautiful. Thank you.” -Anne

“Just donated. No intrusive ads, early iPhone 6 support. This is a great model for apps and you’ve helped me give up smoking for 23 days. Thanks from the UK.” -Paul

I get emails like this all the time. Also, if you take a look at the reviews, it’s more of the same. People from all over the world love the app.

Quit That Reviews

Now the hard part. Quit That! doesn’t make any money. I’ve made less than $100 since it was released back in August 2014. I wasn’t trying to make money on the app. It was more of an exercise to see what I could do with a week and some motivation from Stuart Hall (Thanks Stuart!). The experiment part of it for me was making it donation ware. Not a good model to make money, huh? Here’s the donation page I used.

Quit That Donate Screen

I wanted to make it personal. (BTW, I know it doesn’t look the best on iPhone 6 Plus, I only have so much time!) I think it works pretty well, but you’re not going to hear a bunch of stories of developers living off their donation ware.

Why is Quit That! successful?

  • I learned a few new tricks while developing it (nice clean flat ui, iCloud, etc)
  • I learned more about ASO and marketing the app with no budget
  • I get great feedback which motivates me to improve Quit That! and my other apps
  • I have genuinely helped many people fight their addictions (have I mentioned this is cool)
  • I added to my arsenal of app templates if I want to create something similiar (I already have and will post about that experiment soon)
  • I did make $100 so it paid for 1/5 of my new iPad

Success in the App Store is what you get out of it. Quit That! is a step in the right direction. I do plan on adding a few features and making a Pro version, so maybe I can turn Quit That! into a nice app that pays for dinner every day.

Using Sensor Tower to Optimize Your App Keywords

I’m in the process of updating my app, Censor Ninja, and I thought I would give Sensor Tower a try. Sensor Tower is a keyword optimization and research service. I have used AppCodes in the past, but have been hearing many other developers talk about Sensor Tower and it’s great keyword research tools. As an indie with a limited budget, I had been hesitant in the past to give it a go with a minimum cost of $79 per month (as of 8/5/14). They do offer a free trial, which does fit my budget, so I jumped in, prepared to fry my brain with every keyword related to a censor app you could imagine.

First Impressions

After I signed in for the first time, I was impressed with the user interface. Coming from http://www.appcodes.com/, which isn’t visually appealing, Sensor Tower has a nice simple layout and easy to understand tools.

My first stop was the Keyword Optimization tool, which told me my keywords were optimized correctly. I have worked hard on my keywords and know most of the tricks to maximizing how many you can cram in those 100 characters, so no surprises there. However, I know many developers out there that can use this tool to learn about what they are doing wrong (no spaces!). This is also a good tool to see where you rank on all your current keywords. Here’s how I ranked on my top keywords.

Sensor_Tower_-_Keyword_Optimization

Keyword Suggestions

The Keyword Suggestions tool is a good place to start a brainstorm session. I learned from this tool a few keywords that I hadn’t thought of before. It’s important that you use keywords that are relevant to your app. It wouldn’t do me any good to use ‘twitter’ as a keyword even though you can share your censored pic there because my app is never going to rank high for “share my pic on twitter”. But keywords like block, private, and mask are relevant and important for me to target. This tool can be a little intimidating with ‘seed’ keywords, weights to each keyword, and filter strength, but there is help available that explains it all fairly well.

Keyword Research

My favorite is the Keyword Research tool. Simply type a keyword or phrase and see what apps rank high for that word. If I try ‘photo censor’, my app ranks fifth.

Sensor_Tower_-_App_Marketing_and_Mobile_SEO_Keyword_Optimization_for_iPhone_and_iPad

You can also use this tool to see what apps show up for keywords or phrases you want to try. It’s important to look at the traffic, difficulty and number of apps for each keyword. I keep a spreadsheet with potential and current keywords showing this data so I can easily sort to see which keywords might be easier to target. For instance, if the traffic is 2.4, but difficulty is 1.1, this is a keyword I may want to target.

Sensor_Tower_-_App_Marketing_and_Mobile_SEO_Keyword_Optimization_for_iPhone_and_iPad

Other Features

The keyword translation module is good for research, but I would be very careful relying on machine translation with an app. It can be ok for the Spanish translation of ‘pixelate’, but bad for phrases and words that don’t translate from English well. The Keyword Spy is a nice tool for letting you compare your shared keywords with your competition. I really like be able to see the keywords that my closest competitors are using that I am not. It’s nice to see them using keywords that aren’t helping them, especially.

It’s also nice to get daily digest emails that show any changes in keyword rankings. As a developer, it’s common to work on keywords, submit to Apple, and then get caught up in the next project. It’s important to closely follow how the keyword changes you have made effect your downloads and how your rankings improve. Unfortunately, marketing you app is just as important as coding it, so no dropping the ball here.

My Killer Feature Request

I do wish there was some sort of mechanism to keep track of keywords you would like to try, but haven’t. It could also track how your keywords have changed over time. Since Sensor Tower can connect to your dev account, it can pull in your downloads. All the data should be there to give you a birds eye view of what keywords are underperforming along with what potential keywords could replace those. Sensor Tower is awesome at researching keywords, but you ultimately have to keep track of your keywords in a spreadsheet or text file.

Overall Impressions

Sensor Tower has an impressive feature set. Although the price can be steep for indie’s like me, I think that if you use the tools correctly and put some time into it, you should easily make up the difference in increased app sales. I’ve tried a few keyword tools and I agree with my fellow developers that Sensor Tower is the best. With several apps in the store, I will be spending quite a bit of time with Sensor Tower this week.