Five lessons from app discovery services that are still relevant to mobile marketing

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App discovery services have died a slow and somewhat protracted death over the past few years. Since the introduction of the notorious 2.25 clause in the rules of the app store, services like App Gratis, Free App Magic and Free App A Day have faded pretty much into irrelevance in the app marketing landscape.

It’s something I know all to well, considering that part of the reason I became a freelancer was to escape the ship as it slowly slipped beneath the surface. But I’ve realised that there is a lot of knowledge and information that came out of those services that both a) remain relevant today and b) haven’t really been reported.

So I’m going to take this week to outline a few of the key things I learned when working for such a service and how those lessons remain useful in the app economy today.

Note: In general, where possible, I’ve avoided quoting exact statistics due to the fact that I’m not really sure where I stand legally on citing them. Rest assured, I am not simply pulling fake figures out of my arse and if you want to challenge me on them feel free to.

1) Tools, Casual Games and IPs attract a smartphone audience.

Every day, every week and every month, I’d take time to look at the conversion rates of our campaigns. As both a way of making sure the apps featured were of a necessary quality for our users to enjoy and to make sure the sales team weren’t taking the piss, I’d pore over our performance stats.

And a couple of key features stood out in terms of what apps worked with a casual audience. Although our audience size varied depending on time of year, casual games, genuinely useful utilities and recognisable IPs would out convert all else the vast majority of the time.

Why this was the case is always difficult to precisely ascertain. But for an audience looking to bargain hunt as much as discover, practical tools that expanded the functionality of a handset and price reductions in recognisable gaming IPs (such as an Angry Birds price drop) would always convert well.

As for the success of casual games, two things worked in their favour. The first is that recognisable types of games such as Match 3 titles were more easily understood than complicated MOBAs, RPGs etc. And the second was the prevalence of women in the audience; unmoved by hardcore and midcore titles, they regularly drove up downloads of casual titles.

Of course, it is difficult to generalise too much about the broader significance of this in the app economy. But when I saw the stats from the IAB in the UK investigating the rise in gaming amongst women, I felt that there is perhaps something in this point.

2) Native as a concept works – but don’t pollute your product.

App discovery/app recommendation worked because it was native from inception. Although it was always pitched as an editorial recommendation service, the nature of the CPI and free to play app economy meant that aspect died away relatively early in the life span of these services.

So instead, it became a form of early native advertising instead. By enforcing as best as I could a set of content guidelines over which apps we featured (review score, app type, discount effect etc), we were able to straddle the line between genuinely recommending apps and providing interested users to anyone who advertised with us.

The only problem was the fact that, at the heart of this, there was some dishonesty. As John Oliver has already outlined, when editorial gets compromised by commercial too nakedly the entire business suffers and that certainly happened in the later years of the service. But the fact remained that an app which simply advertised other apps retained users, showing that a native concept well executed can succeed.

3) Editorial works

One of the only statistics I am comfortable citing in this piece is something I’ve already written about for the Top Floor Flat: the app discovery conversion rate. While many people told me how impressed they were with a conversion rate of a couple of percent from certain formats, I was going ballistic at my team if sales conversion was dropping below 14% over the week.

And the reason is that editorial worked bloody well as a model. We’ve of course all seen the problems in the media of retaining an audience, but with our model already having an audience and us driving a positive voice of genuine recommendation we did much more than most ads did. We didn’t just push wares; we aimed to inform in an entertaining way and we saw really good results from it.

Now that doesn’t mean you can directly replicate this: after all, the app that recommends other apps business model has been banned into an early grave by Apple. But opportunities exist to make the most of the things learned in that business.

You could create an editorially driven interstitial for your ad network/game; you could spend more time crafting the words written beneath your Facebook ad; you can make sure that your video marketing script is particularly interesting. And if you can’t make a practical use for it, the knowledge at least explains why app stores across the world are taking editorial recommendation seriously.

4) Localise, don’t translate

Whether you’re a big name company or a lowly start up, you’ll think about international expansion and try to do it in a cost effective manner. But if you end up scrimping on cost and opting for a translator, you’ll miss out on the effectiveness a proper localisation delivers.

Because the truth is having someone who can deliver text in an idiomatic but branded style for their territory helps you in the long run. While I can’t give exat numbers, I did get two linguists of varying quality to have a go at working on an editorial project – one who played with the language to fit their tone, another who simply tried to say what I said. The difference in performance in favour of the former was so significant, I didn’t use the other translator again at all – even though it increased my team’s costs a bit.

And the reason why is that in the long run a small increase in costs of even £100 a day can translate into massive returns in a different territory. In the same way that British consumers will resent Americanisms and punish your business if you treat everyone the same way, so other territories will do so if you don’t localise from your own idiom.

The app stores may seem global, but the value is delivered from a local level. Keep that in mind when translating.

5) If you’re not adding seasonal content to your app, you are an idiot

The one pillar of the MagicSolver business model that always worked well were the themed calendar apps. Building up excitement to big annual events (Advent and Christmas being the obvious one, Halloween and Valentine’s also being included), they and the themed content featured within it out converted every daily campaign by such a margin that it was laughable in comparison.

In particular, I can remember one app really benefitting from this. Despite the fact that the conversion rate for campaigns featuring the app had gotten worse and worse over the majority of year, we were able to increase downloads 100% simply by convincing the maker to put a Halloween skin on it.  Theming content just works really well with a casual market.

And the reason is that it fits perfectly with the nature of a casual user. The kind of person who scans the top charts for something that suits their fancy right here, right now, seasonal and themed content perfectly hits the spot of the modern (arguably short attention spanned) consumer. If you match what they are thinking about (“there’s a sporting tournament on”, “I’m getting excited for Christmas”) in your app or marketing efforts, you can sweep up more consumers than you’d probably expect you could.

So if you have an app or game and don’t put any resources into seasonal content, you’re being a fool. In the same way that it’d be stupid for John Lewis to not run a sickly Christmas ad or for gaming publications to ignore major console launches, failing to adapt your content for a certain time of year is a sure fire way to hand a competitive advantage to your rivals.

And that’s about it for this piece really. App discovery and app recommendation found its way onto its death bed as a result of a swing from the banhammer and an unwillingness to evolve from an easy to monetise model (buy users, advertise to them, repeat). But the lessons I learned along the way shouldn’t die with it and this will hopefully prevent that from happening.

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