Launch a polished mobile app, not an MVP

Getting featured in top charts is crucial for your success in the app store. To get featured, avoid launching an unpolished app. Instead, go above and beyond to launch with a bang.

In 2018 there were 2 million apps on Apple’s App Store and 2.5 million on Google’s Play Store. They were downloaded a total of 194 billion times, but those downloads are not evenly distributed.

74% of all apps were downloaded less than 1000 times, and last year 80% of downloads were generated by the top 1% of publishers.

In other words, it’s a ‘winner takes all’ market. This tip is about what makes a winner.

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To be successful, get featured by the app store at launch

Impacted metrics: Customer acquisition
Channels: Apps

Recommendation

Launch a high quality ready-for-the-market app with a clear and differentiating value proposition. Try to coordinate with the app store to get featured at launch (e.g. with a compelling story behind the app). Otherwise, look for trends of how other apps got featured at launch and try your best to achieve the same.

If you launch an app that’s not fully polished (e.g. a minimum viable product - MVP - that’s too basic), you won’t get featured by the app store. Once you miss that, chances are high that your app will never pick up (<1000 downloads) - especially if it’s a paid app.

Click-to-Tweet: “Getting featured at launch by the app store is crucial for app success. Instead of launching an MVP, test it extensively pre-launch (e.g. in closed beta). Then, launch a polished app to increase your chances of being featured.

Effects

  • Four main factors relate to the number of app downloads: app store top charts, user reviews, app updates, and prices. There are some differences between paid and free apps.

  • App store top charts are by far the biggest drivers of downloads (e.g. ‘Top Overall’, ‘New and Noteworthy’, ‘Editor’s Choice’), especially at launch or early on. It’s particularly important for paid apps, which tend to get featured early on, while free apps still get featured later in their lifecycle once they gain traction.

  • User reviews matter both in quantity and how positive they are. However, very positive early reviews for free apps can backfire since people consider them fake.

  • Apps with regular updates have more downloads. However, several minor and medium updates in the first three months are negatively correlated with downloads. This is likely because those apps did not work properly at launch.

  • For paid apps, a pricing discount at launch is more effective than an initial low price. As the app matures and more reviews come in, customers become more willing to pay so you can raise the price.

Why it works

  • New apps may be hard to find and won’t have many reviews (and we may perceive them as fake). Getting featured on a top chart has a huge effect on downloads not only because it makes the app discoverable, but also because we see it as an endorsement by the platform that it’s a good and reliable app.

  • App stores will feature you if they think your app is going to be a success because it benefits them (they take a sizable cut from app or in-app purchases). For paid apps it’s difficult to gain early traction, so they often make their own assessment of the quality and value proposition of the app and feature it early on (at launch or soon after). For free apps, you should still aim to get featured early, but they may first observe traction and behavioral feedback from users (e.g. do they return to the app often?) before deciding whether to feature it.

  • For paid apps, discounting early on is more effective than a low price because we find discounts, especially if for a limited time, more attractive than the equivalent standard price.

Limitations

  • This analysis makes correlations between different factors (e.g. number of reviews, size and frequency of updates) and the number of app downloads. Although the researchers take this into account in their interpretations, we have the age-old problem of correlation ≠ causality. In practice, the biggest unanswered question is whether a sizable number of early downloads are needed in order to get featured on top charts - even for paid apps - or if those downloads are entirely driven by being featured.

  • The dataset used is dated (2012 - 2013). To compensate for this, this tip focuses on dynamics that are unlikely to change rather than specific % figures. Still, one possible change is the dynamic between paid and free apps since revenues from in-app purchases of free apps have soared since then. This may have changed profitability incentives of app stores to promote certain apps vs others since then.

Companies using this

  • Many early-stage startups launch their apps when they are still unpolished MVPs. This means they likely miss out on one of the biggest drivers of success: getting featured by the app store.

  • On the other hand, don’t wait until you’ve raised $1.75B before you launch your app (i.e. Quibi).

Steps to implement

  • If you expect the app store to be the main channel of growth for your app, you may want to hold off your launch until you have a polished app, value proposition, and marketing plan. Don’t launch an MVP mobile app.

  • Instead, test the app extensively without launching it on the app store (e.g. extensive alpha testing, closed beta tests) until you’re fairly confident it works and users like it. You can also test your value proposition on the market with a web app, before launching a mobile app on the app store.

  • To get featured in top lists, analyze how other recently launched apps got featured. Pay close attention and go beyond the app store guidelines (see Apple App Store guidelines and Google Play Store guidelines).

Study type

Market observation (of a random sample of 979 apps on Apple’s App Store for 1 year from their launch)

Source

Gokgoz, Z. A., Ataman, M. B., & van Bruggen, G. H. (October 2020). There’s an app for that! understanding the drivers of mobile application downloads. Journal of Business Research, 123, 423-437.

[Link to paper]

Affiliations

Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University and Koc University, The Netherlands and Turkey

Remember: Because of the groundbreaking nature of this paper, it could be disproven in the future (although this is rare). It also may not be generalizable to your situation. If it’s a risky change, always test it on a small scale before rolling it out widely.


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