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Anatomy of a Successful iPhone App

iPhone apps have become every frustrated geek’s dream path to riches. While computer games now demand the budgets of Hollywood movies and productivity programs mean eventually going head-to-head with either Microsoft or Adobe, iPhone apps can still be created in the way that software should be made: by lone developers spending their weekends in their bedrooms with a keyboard, a Mac and a manual for Ruby-on-Rails.

And it can work. While many apps have been developed by companies rather than individual programmers, there’s no shortage of stories about programmers who have struck it rich enough to give up the day job and dedicate themselves to a life of one-man mobile game-making.

So what are the key ingredients of an app that goes all the way? What sort of decisions does a developer have to make in order to increase the chances of success? And what can programmers learn from the experiences of others?

The Price is Right

Perhaps the biggest decision a programmer will need to make is whether to charge for the app or give it away for free. And if you are going to charge for it, what’s the right price: 99 cents or $899.99?

Surprisingly perhaps, it may well be possible to make money from the advertising on free apps — but only if the app is very successful. According to AdWhirl, a mobile ad network, because each use of an app generates several ad impressions, free applications that make the App Store’s top 100 can generate from $400 to as much as $5000 a day in CPM revenues.

Clearly though, only a small fraction of free apps will make it into the top 100, leaving the rest to pick up cents from each download, instead of the 99 cents (minus Apple’s 30 percent cut) that many paid apps earn.

One solution then is to use the free app not as a way to bring in ad revenues but as a tool to advertise the paid version. Perhaps the most famous success story that used this method is iShoot Lite, an artillery shooting game developed by Sun programmer Ethan Nicholas. After the full version of the game sold only a few downloads, Ethan released a free lite version that offered a limited selection of weapons. Within ten days iShoot Lite was the most popular free app in the App Store. At the same time, boosted by the 13 percent of free users who decided to upgrade, the $2.99 version topped the paid charts, generating almost 17,000 downloads a day. Within a month, Nicholas had netted over $600,000 and was no longer working for Sun. It’s no surprise then that the free app listings are now filled with lite versions of paid games.

Buy While Stocks Last!

Ethan Nicholas didn’t spend a dime on marketing. Once his app was in the charts, its high visibility was enough to keep it there. That’s not always the case though and many developers recommend marketing — even paid advertising — as the most effective way to push a new app. Brook Lennox, for example, has talked about using the iPhone ad networks as a way of promoting his company’s Textfree app. (The lite version of Textfree even integrates ads as a way of both promoting the paid version and recouping some extra revenue).

“Spend $200-$500 and see where it gets you,” he says on his blog. “You can target by country, device, and test several ads at once. Make sure you can track your new users and ranking hourly.”

For those with low budgets — or no budgets at all — reviews can also be helpful. A positive report from a review site like AppCraver or AppStorm can generate some free traffic. Feedback from users though is even more valuable. Buyers do pay attention to the number of stars an app receives in the same way that eBay customers look at buyer reviews.

That opens a couple of opportunities. Although app prices tend to be fairly low, those priced above 99 cents have the freedom to be cut for a limited time, creating a sense of urgency, and — no less importantly — increasing the chances that some of those initial buyers will offer enough reviews to keep the momentum going when the price rises again. Dmitriy Glebenok’s PandoraBox was created specifically to make the most of this opportunity, allowing downloaders to see which apps have recently been reduced in price so that they can snap up a bargain.

The second opportunity is to do a little black hat marketing. Infomedia, creator of perhaps the App Store’s most famous app, iFart Mobile, was accused by makers of rival app Pull My Finger, of placing negative reviews in the App Store. The discord between the competitors eventually led Pull My Finger to sue Infomedia for copyright infringement in its marketing material. Infomedia has counter-sued.

A better option then, is to add viral marketing to static reviews. DataViz, makers of mobile productivity suites, has been using Twitter to keep followers up to date with progress of its iPhone release, and has created a Facebook fan page to respond to customers’ comments. It’s even used giveaways on Twitter to bring new customers in and spread the word about the approaching release.

So pricing is an important part of a successful iPhone app, and it is possible for a free app to generate income, both alone and as a way to promote the full version of an application. Paid advertising on networks like Quattro and Millennial Media can bring rewards, while viral marketing and good reviews are free. Success too brings more success, and nothing generates sales faster than hitting the top of the App Store’s charts.

Perhaps the most important ingredient for an application’s success though is the same as that for any endeavor: you have to like what you’re doing. Ethan Nicholas didn’t set out to create an app that would allow him to say goodbye to Sun. He wanted to create a game that he would enjoy playing. Whether you’re creating something as trivial as The Moron Test or as serious as IRA Pro, create an app that you want to use and you should have the first and most important element for success.


  1. David Gehring Says:

    Totally useful post! Thanks! I'm eager to see whether free marketing options will remain vaibale as the App store gets more and more crowded over time.

  2. Anthony Says:

    Thanks to new companies like http://www.quickappfactory.com,now everybody can turn their idea into an app for just $100...i too can sell my idea now..how kewl is that...!

  3. vlad Says:

    If you want to make an app and maintain it easily and quickly there are many cloud based services which allow to do it. Most of them even support drag-n-drop functionality that works for non-programmers too. I am using snappii platform that offers lots of helpful features and allows creating really feature-rich and complex native apps.

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