The rankings in Apple’s App Store can make or break an app development company.
If your app is “featured” by Apple’s staff in the App Store — given a special display that most other apps don’t get — it can transform your app into an overnight hit.
Apps that don’t get featured must either go viral on their own, spend money on advertising and PR, or otherwise get lucky. There are millions of apps in the App Store, yet only a tiny fraction of 1% get featured, or climb on their own to the top of the lists where users can see them when they open the App Store on their devices.
Most apps are doomed to the same fate: They sit unseen, undiscovered, and un-downloaded in the hidden depths of the App Store, hoping that users can find them by searching persistently. (And that problem is compounded by the fact that Apple’s App Store search engine is famously terrible.)
So how do you get to the top of the App Store, or persuade Apple to feature your product?
Business Insider recently visited Berlin and Prague and put this question to a bunch of app developers and startup founders in Eastern Europe’s burgeoning tech scene. We went as part of Engage 2015, the giant social media conference hosted by Socialbakers in Prague.
In Berlin, we spoke with senior executives at apps such as Wunderlist (a to-do/productivity app), Navabi (a high-end, plus-size fashion retail app), Onefootball (a soccer news app). In Prague, we met Brand Embassy (a social media customer services company), Geewa (casual mobile games), CDN77 (website delivery/traffic management infrastructure), Cognitive Security (anti-malware), eCorinth (animated 3D image publishing), Warhorse (crafting game set in medieval Bohemia and funded on Kickstarter), GoodData (analytics as a service), Invea-Tech (web security), Verifeyed (fake photo detection), STRV (maker of gay dating app Lavendr), SkyPicker (cheap flights), and Gamee (a social network for casual gamers). Here is what they told us.
How to succeed in the App Store
1. Have a really great product.
Obvious but true, unfortunately: Apple staff review every single new app in every country, by section (games, productivity, etc). It’s a very strict, thorough process. So if your app sucks, it’s not going to get attention. Just being the best is half the battle. “The product has to speak for itself,” says Onefootball CEO Lucas von Cranach.
2. “Support the platform” …
… as Wunderlist’s Lehnert says. Apple updates its mobile operating system, iOS, once a year. Same with its desktop system OS X and it will begin doing the same to its Apple Watch version of that. Apple likes to see developers update their apps to take advantage of iOS’s new look and new features as soon as possible. Wunderlist and Onefootball, for instance, both launched Apple Watch apps as soon as the new device was out. Onefootball’s Cranach says his app was one of the first 1,000 apps on iOS when the App Store first opened in 2009.
3. Send developers to Cupertino.
Apple brings in outside developers to tell them about new stuff and train them in its products’ new capabilities and guidelines. If you can wangle an invitation, be prepared to send developers to the company’s California HQ for extended periods of time. You want as much facetime as possible with people inside 1 Infinite Loop as possible.
4. Have a pre-existing relationship with Apple.
It is a depressing fact of life that the App Store is not always a meritocracy. Apple’s App Store review staff are much more likely to feature your app if they already know who you are from previous experience. “We have go-to people [at Apple] for almost everything,” says Benedikt Lehnert, Wunderlist’s chief design officer. “Same with Google,” which runs the Google Play app store. (Hugo Barra, Google’s former Android product manager who is now the vp/international at Chinese phone-maker Xiaomi, is a friend of Wunderlist founder Christian Reber, and that helps too.) “We know a lot of people in the company,” says Onefootball’s Cranach.
5. But if you have relationships inside Apple, DON’T pull those strings.
Calling up your friend in Cupertino and asking them to get you featured in the App Store is a bad idea, we were told. Instead, concentrate on making the app really good so when your contacts inside Apple see it, they will take special note. We were told this analogy: Be like that attractive stranger at the bar who isn’t talking to anyone. It’s reverse psychology. Let Apple come to you, instead.
6. Make sure your app makes sense for the device it’s on.
An Apple Watch app shouldn’t try to repeat a miniature version of everything you can do in the iPhone app. The watch is only good for a few core things — notifications, for instance — so design for those. The iPad works better for large format experiences like magazines.
7. Make your app beautifully simple.
Apple publishes fussy app design guidelines — the new ones for Apple Watch apps are typical — and they tend to favour a certain look. The Apple look is beautiful and simple. So think twice about complicated, clunky or ugly designs.
8. Metrics count.
Apple looks at reviews, engagement, star rankings, downloads, revenue and sales, and simple stuff such as whether your app carries the appropriate key words for search, targeted in the right way. “We are trying to do everything possible to get high in the ranking,” says STRV’s Lubo Smid.
9. Don’t pay to acquire users.
It’s not clear whether Apple frowns on apps that advertise in other apps to get new users. But one thing many of the apps that are ranked highly have in common is that they do zero user-acquisition marketing. Apple seems to respect apps that go viral organically.
10. Keep Apple’s secrecy.
Apple loves secrecy and it hates people talking about internal stuff to outsiders. So if you want to maintain a relationship with Apple that might help get your app noticed later, then shut the heck up.