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Free promotion: a small case study

Launching an app? Chasing the secret of the art of the reveal? Promoting your app? Considering a form of promotion? Marketing is not the magic word that can transform your business, the key point is what strategy to follow to make some money and the right business model is specific of your own app. There are no universal rules here, just a small case study.


FreakyAlarm is my first app released on the App Store, an alarm clock for sleepyheads that forces you to wake your brain because you will have to solve a series of logical-math games in order to get it to stop annoying you. It also provides a means to control your own path of recovery, as measured by the iWake coefficient. You can monitor the trend of your progress and achive badges. I released FreakyAlarm on 28th July 2010 without any marketing action also because the initial version included only 10% of what I had in mind. Do NOT follow my stupid example. New & Noteworthy, anyone? The launch is crazy crucial and you have to try to make the most of the initial visibility so that you can push your app up the charts before losing momentum. That means that you’ve gotta have a big launch, which means you’ve gotta have a big build-up.
More than an update, FreakyAlarm 1.1 was a brand new application reprogrammed and redesigned from the scratch, it came out on 19th October 2010 with a good acceptance thanks to some reviews. Sales bounced around for a while and then they had stabilized at a few downloads per day.

Version 1.2 for free at launch

The best way to deal with sales is to improve your app, the best way to deal with piracy is to improve your app, the best way to deal with life is to improve yourself. After a few months of discontinuous work FreakyAlarm 1.2 was ready. Press kit, promo video, stylish screenshots, demo video, website update, iPhone blogs spamming… and four days of promotion as an experiment.
1. get as much visibility as possibile
2. enlarge the installed base of users
3. get numerical information in view of a lite version

Information Visualization

Update 1.2 was released on 17th March 2011 – incredibly bad timing since it was St. Patrick’s day and there were so many apps on sale or St. Patrick special editions! I did not notice this coincidence, 17th March is just like any other day in my country, but however the experiment gave good results.

Inspired by Christopher Waite (Bytesize Adventures) that wrote a great post to share his stats, I prepared some interactive charts with Google Chart Tools.

Check out here:


Downloads charts are generated from sales report data.
During its free period (17th – 20th March) FreakyAlarm was downloaded a total of 6,335 times.

Continental distribution by Day
The interactive intensity map displays total downloads by country as a color scale. The considerable difference between the United States and other countries is evident, in fact the US represented 41% of the total downloads.

Top 20 Countries by Downloads
The bar chart to visualize the top 20 countries with the highest number of downloads

Continental distribution by Day
The column chart below to represent continental distribution for each day of promotion. The United States is by far the country with more downloads, but it’s interesting to note that the whole Asia has gradually reached and surpassed North America in the following days.


Rankings charts are generated from MajicRank data.
During its free period FreakyAlarm was in the Top 200 Productivity list of almost all countries. Anyway the app didn’t appear in any Top 200 Free list.

Rankings of Top 5 Countries
The line graph to draw the ranking trends in the Top 200 Productivity list of the 5 countries with the most number of downloads

Rankings of Big Eight Countries
Ranking trends in the Top 200 Productivity list of the eight countries with major economies.

Highest Ranking by Country
The bar chart shows the highest position reached in the Top 200 Productivity list in each country. Countries are sorted by ranking and limited to the first 40.

On the spot

So? Well, it’s been a really exciting experience. I’m pretty pleased to know that such a large number of people have used my app and now other 6,335 people wake up in the morning with FreakyAlarm ;)
I’m sure an app in the Top 200 Free has MUCH higher numbers, but I’m very satisfied with the result. Unlike the launch of the previous version, this time I did get some press through only three sites (AppAdvice, iPhoneItalia and iPhoneFreak). But that’s nothing new! Blogs report all the same news and only want to write about popular stuff from people they already know.
This means that the obtained findings are largely due to auto-generated buzz and app finders like appbzr (on which FreakyAlarm was the hottest app in the entire Productivity category), and that’s great!


First of all it seems that the introduction of the French and Russian localizations yielded no effect. Only 90 downloads in France and 70 in Russia are too few, but this assessment is not significant without a some form of marketing campaign on the iPhone blogs of those countries.

Taking a look at the last 5 week you can see that there was an immediate affect on sales when FreakyAlarm get back to paid. After a transient phase the downloads has stabilized at a level slightly higher. Not enough even as part-time income, but that’s good. However this was not the purpose. The aim was to assess the numbers of a hypothetical lite version.

So what has this proved? Doubtless the need for a lite version. Probably the revenues from free + ads model would be greater than those from sales. I’d always planned to make a lite version with a subset of the features according to the art of product versioning and including ads (iAd banner when a new advertisement is loaded or full version banner when offline). But if it’s true that the business model is not complete without a lite version, the lite version must be the right lite. I wanted to make sure that the app is as good as possible before to launch a lite and for this reason the preparatory step is to further improve and polish the app.

What do you think about it? What was your experience with free? I’d love to hear your comments.


A matter of quality

It’s a well-known story. In July 2008, Apple launches the App Store and everything really changes. An assay wouldn’t be enough to take a deeper dive into all aspects (mobile revolution / software-centric model / walled garden / user-focused experience / “right combo of empathy, vision and dictatorship”1 / …). What I want to talk about is a little consideration about mobile software development up to date.

It is fairly obvious, but should be noted that the scenario has changed. Four years ago there was a whole prairie to conquer and colonize. Once created the platform, Apple unveiled an uncontaminated new Wild West. Colonization and gold rush started.

A key point to highlight is that any developer — big, medium and small software companies, independent developers, students, nerds, spare-time developers, etc — can seek his fortune. Everyone has the same opportunities because the distribution channel is the same for all. Ironically a rigid centralized control has imposed an almost “democratic” system. Every developer can distribute his work in a way only giant companies could. Today the App Store gives them access to 150 million potential devices, 200 million iTunes credit card pool, a simple payment processing system, and all the hosting, bandwidth, transaction, delivery, reporting, and several incredibly valuable assets: marketing Apple provides, the App Store’s ease of use and its huge visibility. All included in a simple 30% fee2. But I have digressed too far.

The matter under discussion is that the scenario was a Wild West for each pioneer regardless of the resources, a Wild West without existing competitors (Indians), a brand new market with an explosive consumer demand. In this situation it does not matter HOW, but WHEN you hit the App Store. In this situation your intention matters more that the way in which you put it into practice. It was a gold rush.

Now, let’s get back to the present day. First of all, mobile software development is not a easy game. Many are convinced that the App Store is El Dorado and an app is a little more than an idea. Some success stories do not mean that everyone has become millionaires. “Some” means “a few” cases in thousands. And even when an app looks like an overnight success from the outside it always has years of working away unnoticed preceding it. Angry Birds was Rovio’s 52nd game that they made. Once there was the Plato’s doctrine of ideas, today the development doctrine of ideas. All ideas suck, because they are just ideas. They’re worth nothing. Ideas are just a multiplier of execution.

Secondly (and mainly), there is no longer a borderless prairie, but a borderless metropolis. Buildings and skyscrapers are everywhere (more than 370,000 active apps and about 80,000 unique active publishers). It’s very difficult to find a building plot. Once there was a dozen of review blogs, today tens of thousands (as a parallel business). Once there was an enthusiastic user, today an exigent user who doesn’t care to bet on you and wait until your app improves. Given the way Apple’s ranking algorithm works, the launch (first four day period) is crazy crucial, that means you’ve gotta have a big launch, which means you’ve gotta have a big build-up3.

Now it does matter HOW you hit the App Store. Now it does matter how much carefully and attention to detail you put into execution. It’s a matter of quality. Nothing happens overnight, so you need patience, competence, passion and determination to keep going4.

That’s why software companies increasingly now dominate the ‘Top 200′ lists. Mobile development is not a game. It takes time and resources. It requires different skills (from psychology to engineering). It’s a matter of quality, a matter of high-profile skills, a matter of hard work.



Apple iPhone’s Business Model

Apple iPhone’s Business Model is the title of an essay that I wrote for a “Business Models for Information Technology” course (Master in Computer Engineering at Sapienza, University of Rome) in Fall 2009.

This paper traces the history of the first three generations of the iPhone by analyzing in detail the strategies and business plans used by Apple for the iPhone platform. The work includes the assessment of the data supported by graphs and numbers, the study of the key factors of rapid growth, the individuation and illustration of the various business models over the years, the reasons for the success of the App Store and the future threats.

Download: “Apple iPhone’s Business Model” essay

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