I'm about to outline the single most powerful thing you can do to improve sales/downloads of your iPhone app. I know this is a bold claim, but read on and I will justify it. I first presented this at 360iDev San Jose 2010. Apple made us an amazing market for our software and threw in a fantastic distribution & sales platform. All that for just 30% of receipts, which IMHO, is an incredibly good deal for developers. But the app store doesn't help anyone find your app right? Wrong! The app store is a catalog of ads for iPhone apps, and millions of people are browsing through those ads - especially the top 100 lists. These browsing people are primed and ready to download, you just have to make them notice your 'ad' among the 200,000 others. When people are looking in the app store they are scrolling through a table of app listings. It doesn't matter if they are checking out the top 100 games or they searched for 'gardening', everything in the app store is shown as a list of apps. The listing shows: icon; app name; price; star rating, company name. Get someone to notice your listing, and they will tap through to your app's page. There they see the screen shot and maybe download your app, but that can't happen until they've tapped on your listing in the first place. The key then, is to get them to tap on your listing. To make the very best performing app listing you need to carefully select the best icon and the best app name. How do you know what will be the best performing, and what do I even mean by best performing anyway?
If you study how to be successful advertising on Google, or you learn about AARRR metrics for online business, you will discover that a key metric for online ads is is the Click Through Rate. CTR = clicks / impressions. (Clicks: number of times it was clicked on by people; impressions: number of times the ad was seen by people.) Better CTR means a better performing ad. Study this or try it yourself, and you'll soon find that no-one makes money on Google by writing an ad, paying for the clicks, and sitting back while money pours in through their web-site. This is because it nearly always cost more for the ads than you can make back by selling your stuff! To make money you need to test several ads, figure out which is the best performing, take that 'winner' and make more variations to test. Keep repeating this until you have discovered one that performs well enough so that it is cost effective to pay Google a bunch of money to run the ad in large volume. iPhone app developers should use this same approach to figure out the best performing app listing: change name or icon, measure, compare, repeat.
OK, so how do you measure CTR of your app listing? You need to know impressions and clicks. But you don't know these, only Apple knows how many times your app listing was shown and how many times people tapped on it (assuming even they are tracking this stuff). Hmmm... What we need is a way to test our app listing outside of the app store. It turns out there is something almost as good and extremely affordable: Admob. Below on the left is an app store listing for one of our old apps 'Smart Caller'. On the right is an Admob ad in an iPhone app. Consider the content, structure, and context - they are very similar. So what I'm saying is that you can use Admob ads to test different icons and different app names for your app, to figure out the very best performing app name and icon for your app in the app store.
You can run an Admob mobile banner ad campaign for as little as $50, which will buy you 1000+ clicks (click prices vary by geography and demand). You might have a CTR of 1-2%, so that $50 is buying you 50,000+ impressions. This means you can test your icon or app name by sampling it 50,000+ times (which probably translates to almost 50,000 different people) all in a day. Survey 50,000 people in one day for just $50 to see which icon or which app name most catches peoples attention? Wow, if that doesn't blow your mind then you'd better leave your app marketing to someone else. You can even test several ads at once in one $50 campaign, though you might have to baby sit it a little in order to get even testing of each. Now repeat a few times and you can find an app name and icon that performs much better than the ones you started with, all this for around $200 and a few hours work.
OK, here's some proof for you of just how powerful the app icon and app name is. The graph below is real download data for one of our free apps. I won't explain all the in & outs of the various name and icon changes the app has been through here, but you can see from the graph what a huge effect changing the name and icon had on downloads. Each blue line marks where we changed name or icon, and the red line is the daily download rate. (Of course when you do this, you are trying to increase downloads, and you can see that we decreased downloads... but exactly what happened there is for another blog post!) For this app, we saw 20x difference in download rate for the best app listing vs the worst. Wow. Now in testing via Admob you won't see such a huge difference in CTR, because live in the app store, a better CTR for your app listing has a leveraging effect. Double your CTR and you double downloads. Doubling downloads will increase your rankings a whole lot, and with increased rankings more people will see your app (more impressions), which leads to even more downloads. Your app listing CTR has massive leveraging power, which I'll discuss more in a later blog post.
Often when app publishers (especially indie developers) look at paid promotions like Admob ads, it's not clear if it's money well spent because of the question of how many actual downloads you will get for your money. It can cost a lot per download (Admob does have a way to measure downloads per impression and per $ spent, which is very neat). For example, one campaign we ran ended up costing us $2.50 per download for a free app, which was not a cost effective way of acquiring users for that app. Figuring the download rate (aka conversion rate) for your ad is a more sophisticated way to measure how 'good' the ad is, and you should try to measure conversion rate if you are using ads to acquire users / makes sales. But here I'm not talking about acquiring users, I'm talking about A/B testing your app name and icon, and for that, your $200 might well be the best money you'll ever spend.
Why do I claim this is 'the best' thing you can do? Consider your sales funnel. Below is the sales funnel for a free apps that doesn't have a bunch of PR, blog reviews etc. Its downloads come only from people finding it in the app store. To get people out the bottom of the funnel where you actually get paid, you need people to enter in at the top and keep moving down the funnel. To improve the conversion rate at which people will move down from one level to the next, you have to do more work and spend more money. All the conversion rates multiply together to result in the overall conversion rate of your sales funnel, so you can double your overall conversion rate by doubling conversions at any one of the stages. Improving how much people love to use your app (app use stage, or activation and retention in AARRR metrics) is probably quite hard and expensive, but improving how many people click on your app listing in the first place (acquisition) is quite easy and cheap by doing what I just described. Then on top of how cheap this is to do, add in the leveraging effect your app listing CTR can have and I hope you can see the potential here.
You can and should test your app name before you release your app, but you can also do it for an app that's been out for ages. Got an app sitting there not selling? Experiment with different names and icons and find something that performs better for you. In our experience, existing users won't mind you changing name & icon, but do consider changing only one at one time unless you go for a full rebranding, in which case just tell existing users what you are doing.
Would you like to de-risk your entire app making business by using this technique? Do app name testing before you ever write a line of code or design a single pixel. Are you an iPhone game developer? I bet you have many ideas for different games, but you're not sure which one to invest the time and money to develop? Use ads to test several concepts, and build the one with the best click through rate. By doing this you'll be pre-picking the one that has the best chance of being noticed by people and rising up the app store charts. Up-front market research like this is part of what the customer development & lean startup approach is all about - testing your idea as early as you can.
When you try this watch the CTRs for your ads and see if they change over time. When the ads first run, CTR tends to show higher in the reports than it will end up. As time goes on CTRs drop. Then leave it a few days and you'll sometimes see CTRs rise again (even once the ad campaign has finished). I think it's just differences in timing of how the click data and impressions data gets reported. I also suspect there's an effect because of 'ad-click jockeys', users who really like clicking ads to see what new apps are out there, so these people click on new ads as soon as they see them. If this is happening its just fine, because click jockeys are the same people who are going to push your app up in the charts. So do keep an eye on the CTRs, and check back after a few days to see how the numbers settle.
I'd love to hear from anyone else who's doing this kind of stuff with their mobile app business, and if I've inspired you to try it, let me know how it works out for you. Comment below or email markj at markj dot net. I'd love it if you could share the CTRs you get for different kinds of apps and the ranges you find between best and worst performing in order to develop some benchmarks for evaluating app ideas. I'll be writing more on these topics myself, so please consider subscribing to this blog. Below are some references to the people I learned these techniques from, I encourage you to go read their blogs, books, and hear them speak if you can.
Steve Blank: developed the 'Customer Development' approach to the startup business, which my iPhone business is based on.
Eric Ries: was Steve's student, and went on to pioneer customer development for online businesses in combination with agile engineering practices, resulting in the 'Lean Startup' movement.
Dave McClure: has fantastic work on metrics for online businesses and understanding your sales funnels, a lot of which applies well to the app store. AARRR!
Sean Ellis: Lots more great advice on startups and marketing.
Al Ries and Jack Trout: their book 'Positioning - The Battle for your Mind' explains the challenges in communicating with your customer, and sets the background for just why your app name is so powerful if you get it right.
Perry Marshal: great material on understanding online advertising with Google (and by proxy Admob etc).
Glenn Livingston: teaches online marketing, emotional marketing, and understanding customers (which is at the heart of whole customer development approach).
Neil Young: At iPhone and game conferences, Neil stands up and lays out ngmoco's strategy to us. (And I started on a ZX Spectrum too!)
Dave Wooldridge: The Business of iPhone App Development a great practical marketing book for iPhone devs. (Which I was the tech reviewer for.)