Hand writing Ethics topic on chalkboard

It happens all too often.

The office phone rings, and on the other end is an app developer with the same story. “I worked with these ‘app marketing experts’ and I have nothing to show for it. They don’t even pick up the phone when I call any more!”

As it becomes harder and harder to succeed in the app space, developers desperate to do anything to promote their apps are all too often fleeced by savvy sales people at agencies that are promising the world and in the end offering very little. As more of these so-called agencies pop up, I feel that as the old guys on the app marketing block it is our obligation to point out some of the red flags and ethical grey areas that we see more and more of our competitors engaging in. With that in mind- here are my tips for spotting a poor quality marketing firm, or one that is simply in it to take your money.

Avoid any agency that has app marketing “packages” listed on their website

Marketing is not one-size-fits-all. You do not market a game in the same way that you market a shopping app or social network. Having a shopping cart of services on your website indicates to me two things – the first is that you have a template of services and you keep trying to do the same thing over and over no matter who the client is, and second that you will take on any client as long as they can pay your fee. Why is that bad? Because the PR side of marketing is built on relationships, and relationships with journalists require a certain level of  quality control. If I pitched Rob LeFebvre at Cult of Mac your Tetris clone… he would laugh in my face, or worst of all for an agency that relies on communication… he would stop paying attention to my emails and miss out on the high quality apps and stories I sent his way.

Beware the ASO “Expert”

This statement may well offend a few people in the app marketing space. Frankly, there are too many people running around the internet calling themselves “ASO Experts”. ASO is nothing like SEO. With SEO there are literally dozens of tweaks and changes that you can adjust and monitor that will affect how your website shows up in search. In iTunes… there are three. (Yes, there are more than three things that determine how your app shows up in search, but there are only three that you as the developer have direct control over). App name, keywords and company name. Other factors like app store reviews and number of downloads you are getting are vastly important – and there are marketing tactics that you can use to help those variables, but most everything you need to know about keywords for app store search you can learn from a couple of hours of research online.

Don’t mistake this for me saying that ASO is not important. It is. Search optimization is a foundational tactic in app marketing that needs to be performed correctly in order for your app to succeed. It will not however, cause your app to succeed. There are tens of thousands of app doing ASO “correctly” – this will only get you onto the playing field. It will not win the game for you.


You get what you pay for

Appency has never been the lowest cost agency out there, and we do not ever plan to be. Our team is made up of professional marketers, the kind with degrees in marketing and years of experience working with apps and brands and have a deep understanding of the variables and tactics that make the difference between success and failure.

The median salary for a publicist in the United States is around $40,000 a year – often more for a marketing generalist that can handle all of the various aspects of marketing for a product. That salary does not take into account all of the overhead that goes into having employees. When you hire an agency, you as essentially hiring a team of people to do the job instead of having to hire that person in house. When you hire Appency, you get access to people with experience in public relations, ASO, social media, advertising, video production, on-boarding tactics, graphic design, and more. You may not get them for 40 hours per week like you would an in-house person, but you are getting access to a team of people that cover a variety of skills you would be hard pressed to find in a single individual.

On top of that, good agencies have access to some expensive tools that it would not make sense for you as a developer to have to purchase on your own because an agency can spread the cost of those tools out over a number of clients. Media contact databases, social media management tools, data extraction tools and more all cost a pretty penny.

All this to say that someone charging you $1,000 a month to solve your app marketing needs is most likely not putting in the time or effort to your account that they need to be, or they are simply ripping you off knowing that you have very little recourse to come after them when they fail and throw up their hands with a “well, we tried”.

App review websites will not make your app successful

In the early days of the app store, there were literally hundreds of app review websites, and interest in this new app world was high enough that these sites received enough traffic to keep them alive with ad dollars. That world is gone.

Over the years, we have watched the majority of these sites fail, to the point where there are less than 10 sites that focus solely on reviewing apps (caveat – not counting gaming sites), that have enough traffic to drive any decent amount of downloads. Not to say that many of those low traffic sites are not still running – many of them now work on a pay-to-play model, happy to take your money to post a review on their site that no one will ever see.

Before paying for a review – do your research. Ask for a sites Google Analytics report. Check their Alexa ranking. Look at other reviews the site has done and see how much conversation is being generated on each article. Look up the last few apps they reviewed in AppAnnie and see how that app is doing. See if the app reviews are praising apps that do not deserve praise. All of this will give you a better picture of if the cost the site is asking is worth it.

The lie of “guaranteed” coverage

Which brings us to the lie of guaranteed coverage. Ethical journalism cannot be bought, and sites that have high quality, high volume traffic do not tend to sell coverage. When someone guarantees you coverage, they are generally saying “if we do not get coverage, we will buy cheap reviews on sites that get no traffic to cover our obligation and not have to give you back your money”. Not to say that all guarantees of coverage do this. Some agencies may be so confidant in their relationships that they will put themselves on the line, but before you fall for the guarantee trap – get an idea of what size of site they are guaranteeing you. To be fair – Appency does offer guaranteed coverage, but only for a very specific type of PR outreach called survey focused PR, and when we guarantee it, we are guaranteeing coverage on a major (top 20 online traffic) site like AOL, MSN, Huffington Post, etc.

Cheap downloads do not create loyal app users

This goes back a bit to the “you get what you pay for” point. I spent some time talking on the phone the other day to a marketer for a brand who was very interested in our expertise and full service approach to app marketing. As we got to advertising – he asked me that dreaded question. “How much will I pay for installs?”.

First of all… let me say this. Unless you are attempting burst marketing, DOWNLOADS DO NOT MATTER. They don’t. Stop thinking about downloads as the end goal.  The end goal of app marketing is USERS. The most successful app business models (freemium and ad driven apps) will not generate any revenue from downloads unless the downloads actually start using your app. Even pay-to-download apps, while they do make money from the download itself, are hurt by poor quality downloads over the long term.

Which brings me back to the question of “How much will I pay for installs”.

My general answer to that question is to start with the industry average cost of Facebook driven installs in the United States, which means the answer is $2-$4 per install. I use Facebook as my point of reference because it has high quality traffic and good targeting options at a cost that tends to be lower that other well targeted ads like Google AdWords for mobile.

I follow up the $2-$4 with the caveat that at the beginning of an ad campaign, costs tend to range on the higher side and start to go down as targets are narrowed down by the data that we receive and Facebook works on its own optimization. I even mention that its possible to go under the $2, but that is mostly for broad stroke apps like games with a very wide audience that does not need a ton of targeting.

These are facts. This is the cost of a decent quality download.

“Well…. so and so told me that they could get me download for a dollar”.

In the end… this person will not receive a proposal from me. It is a battle of lies that I do not want to get into, and a high quality app marketing proposal and plan takes a decent amount of time from the person writing the proposal that I do not want to waste on a client who has made it clear that all that matters to them is the lowest cost per install.

Cheap downloads are available, but in the vast majority of cases, the quality of the download you will get for the dollar range are so poor that none of those downloads will turn into users, and you have just spent hundreds if not thousands of dollars on a lie.

This may piss a few people off

I will be the first to say that there is an exception to every rule. There are going to be a couple of agencies that use the “package A, package B, package C” on their website that are trying to do the right thing. There are paid app reviews that are on the higher quality side (especially in the world of Mommy Bloggers). There are people who do ASO that are worth what they are asking you to pay them assuming you simply don’t want to take the time to do it yourself, and there are low cost downloads that can be found on occasion. What we ask is that you as a app developer do your research before you spend a single penny on app marketing. Ask the questions. Know the red flags to look for and when you finally make your decision, do it knowing that you are informed.






Apple Killing ASO

Apple is killing the small developer through app store search

On a daily basis the Appency team gets emails from frustrated app developers looking for help solving their app marketing problems. We have spent the last seven years fighting an ever more challenging battle for our clients against an app store that is flooded with apps on a daily basis (to the tune of 1.5 million available apps in iTunes) With every passing day success gets harder to reach for the average mid-sized developer.

One of the first things we do when an app that is already live in the app store comes to us, is take a quick peek at it in the App Store. Even a ten second glance at an app’s page can identify some fundamental issues and give us great information. We can see when it was launched, what its ratings are, how an apps screenshots and descriptions look, etc. Even an app that has poor quality app search search optimization (ASO) can be found because the developer has given us the name of the app to pull it up.

At least that’s what we thought.

Something happened to me today that was a first. Something that I feel is a dire omen that app developers need to be acutely aware of.

I went to the app store, typed in the app’s exact name…. and it did not show up in search.

I am not saying it did not come up in the top 10 or 50 search results. The app didn’t show up AT ALL.

I figured there must be a mistake. Maybe the app wasn’t live yet. Maybe it was live in other countries but not in the US app store where I was searching. I went to the app developers web page and found a direct link to the app and clicked on it. The link took me right to the app, which was definitely in the US app store. Just to double check I searched again for the app name.


I scrolled through all 100 results in the iPhone app search looking for the hard to miss icon.


Zip. Zero. Zilch. It was like the app did not exist.

Now, it is understandable that there may be over 100 apps that use reasonably similar search terms that may be doing better than this app. However this was a perfect name match search. I was looking for a specific app in the app store and I could not find it.

At least Apple had some advice for me:

ASO failure

Not sure how much more specific we can get.

“Use more specific search terms”.

Like what? What is more specific then a perfect match on the apps name? (And I can tell you that the words “Tomato” and “Pie” were not part of this apps name like search result number 95 might suggest). The 100 apps that appeared in search were almost all games – while the app we were searching for was not, it was an app for tracking a baby’s developmental progress.  It took me searching for the app development companies name for the app to finally show up in a search result, something no regular consumer would do if they were not desperately trying to find the app. Most customers would have given up long before this.

Even more interesting…. the exact same search in Google Play discovered the app in position #14. Not only that, but of the 13 apps that were shown before it, only one of them was a game. The other 12 were apps that were also related to an infant’s developmental progress.

The Death of the Small Developer

ASO is the most basic, foundational level marketing an app developer can do. If your app does not show up in search results in the app store, hardly anything else matters. This is even more important for a small app developer that has little to no money to spend on expensive app install ads, versus a large app developer who can jump start their apps life with direct download ads. Even good public relations for an app, a less expensive solution than advertising, will do little to help an app that is not appearing in search results as our experience has shown us that many downloads from a user reading a review or story online tend to come from the user going to their phones and desktop computers and performing a search for that apps name.

Any ASO expert will tell you that the most important factor in determining an apps search results is the apps name. Everything else, like keywords and app ratings are supposed to be secondary to that fundamental principle. If Apple cannot show in the first page of search results an app with an exact name match to what you searched for, then Apple’s search is broken and in need of a major overhaul. While I know that Apple has less experience in search than their main competitor Google, it seems like something this basic should be a given. There is no excuse for Apple presenting close to 100 games when searching for a baby tracking app when Google Play quickly shows you a list of apps that actually match what you were searching for.

For small app developers, many marketing efforts are hard to sustain. Public relations (PR) can help a launch, but later in an apps life without major news PR becomes less and less of an option. Advertising is expensive, and even for large developers achieving a positive return on investment is near impossible (This does not mean you shouldn’t advertise, this is only one of the reasons and I am happy to talk to you more, just drop us an note).

Fixing the Problem

Yes, this app developer has done ASO poorly. Their name is generic enough that many other apps are going to be grabbing onto the exact keywords in the name and using them as a part of their name or in their hidden keywords field. Saving Apple fixing their search, there are a few things this and other app developers in a similar situation should consider.

  1. Change the name of your app. Use something unique that will allow people specifically looking for your app to easily find you. Save the more generic search terms for a tagline that can also be a part of your app’s name.
  2. Get friends and family to download your app. Even if they don’t need it. I never understand the developer who comes to me and says “we have had zero downloads”… if you are not willing to use your own network, or simply cannot convince even the people closest to you that the app is worth downloading, then maybe you should be in a different business.
  3. Pay for some downloads. If app store search is penalizing developers with no download traffic as much as it seems they are – then the life and death of your app depends on getting more downloads, and with your app not showing up in search, you are going to have to directly point people at your app page. Advertising is by far the quickest way to do this, however it does come at a cost. Consider finding a professional in the space to help you with getting the most for your ad dollar.

Supporting the developer is the best way for the App Store to make money. As it gets harder and harder for developers to succeed, they will move to other platforms that help them pay the bills and keep the lights on. App store search is not a small problem – it affects every app in the store, and needs to be addressed before the entire independent developer ecosystem collapses.


*UPDATE 3/6/2016*

I wanted to add that the search being done is on the iTunes desktop. The app DOES show up in search when you do your search via the iPhone or iPad, in or about position #20. While I believe that there are more apps downloaded from the phone than from the desktop, I do not believe that the desktop traffic is so little as for it to not matter to the developer. Unfortunately, data on if a download comes from desktop or mobile is difficult if not impossible to find. I have reached out to SimilarWeb.com to see if they might have data around this and will post an update when I hear back.