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This article was published on May 2, 2013

Beyond the hype: App discovery and promotion need better quality standards

Beyond the hype: App discovery and promotion need better quality standards
Ouriel Ohayon
Story by

Ouriel Ohayon

Ex-VC. Still blogger. French - Israeli. Co-founder of @Appsfire and @Isai_fr. (early stage VC) Ex-VC. Still blogger. French - Israeli. Co-founder of @Appsfire and @Isai_fr. (early stage VC)

This is a guest post by Ouriel Ohayon, co-founder and CEO of an app discovery and marketing service.

All eyes on app discovery: suddenly, because of what happened to a single app promotion company (ref. Appgratis), the background noise indicates that everyone is now concerned about the entire field of app discovery: what it means and how it should work.

It is surprising that this debate did not raise, so far, more participation from other app discovery and promotion services in place because there is a lot to be said. Perhaps everyone is trying to keep a low profile…

As a player in this field, we’ve been listening quietly. We are concerned that a specific case is going to create so much confusion that the ecosystem will suffer from it. It is easy to mix things up, compare what shouldn’t be compared, and put everyone in the same basket.

App discovery should be all about trust. Trust with the users and trust with the developers. A good recommendation has to be based on a good product and a trusted voice. Break that trust and your recommendation is worthless. Faith is lost.

The mobile app ecosystem is young and as it grows, it needs better rules and better standards to enforce and maintain that trust. App discovery implies several stakeholders and the whole value chain has to be considered: users, developers, and App Stores.

App discovery can’t be totally owned by app stores

Because the app stores are not paid marketing channels but unpaid editorial and algorithmic retail spaces, a lot of companies, including ad networks and services who are solely focused on app discovery and promotion, but also others partially focused on App discovery (blogs, review sites, social networks) play a big part to what gets “discovered” or not. This is the learning based on a research by Forrester Group

They key take away is: App discovery is not and will never be “owned” totally by a platform, although it is clear that the discovery of apps still take place in the store by a large proportion.

The same happens in other verticals like music (Do you discover all your music on iTunes only? Certainly not.) or even physical products you want to buy (Do you discover all you want to buy on Amazon? Certainly not).

There is always a disconnect between the “discovery” phase and the “purchase” process. They can be tightly or loosely coupled, or completely decoupled. And this is why a big chunk of the mobile app discovery is not taking place in the app stores in significant proportion: In the news (on The Next Web for example), in ads, in magazines, on Twitter, on Facebook, in the latest PSY video, on Pinterest, on Google and so on and so forth.

That’s the reality.

On the rankings: why it matters and why it doesn’t

App Discovery is very hard. But app store top rankings (on iOS mostly) are known as the Holy Grail of discovery. Unless you get featured by Apple or Google, this is the second most effective way to get discovered. Anyone who has already reached the top 25 rank of a given country store knows exactly what we mean. They generate pure organic downloads (sometime twice what you would normally get by not getting there) without much effort because millions of users are checking them every day. Leader boards are popular, and rightly so.

What everyone is secretly asking is “how do i get there?”. This is the first obsessive question we get from developers we work with. The answer is clear “there is no simple way”. You either pay 3rd party ad networks (legit or not) or be lucky enough to enjoy one of the following:

1. Apple/Google/Amazon features you (App of the week, Deal of the week,… )

2. You have a massive existing app user base and self promote your app (eg Zynga Games, Temple Run 2 / Temple Run).

3. You run a hugely popular website where you suggest your users to download your app (eg go to, from your mobile browser and see how they suggest you to download their app)

4. You obtain extensive PR coverage (which sometimes needs out of pocket money) in a short period of time. If you make the cover of the New York Times and are mentioned the same day on CNN expect to jump to the top 10 rank.

5. You have a stunning app that will generate a massive network effect such as Instagram/Snapchat/Whatsapp

That’s it. Nothing else.

What you need, really,  is as many downloads as possible in a short period of time per store to raise to a rank. Everyone knows that. But the difficulty is how to make it happen.

Unfortunately getting high in the rankings doesn’t matter in itself. Too many developers are only obsessed with top ranks vs creating a sustainable, continuous store presence – and many times because they have been advised by marketing agencies to do that or are just seeking the dream of vanity spotlight. They just don’t invest enough energy on a comprehensive marketing plan. It’s fine to build momentum but you also need to keep growing and keep engaging users. Ranks matter only if they are part of a larger equation which includes engagement metrics and also strategies to keep growing continuously (read this great Quora thread on the topic).

This obsession of getting to top ranks has created a myth that only ranks matter to discovery. It’s about time developers wake up and get deeper into the customer lifecycle. This is also the role of app discovery services and ad networks to educate developers in that direction

App Discovery and Ad Networks can’t guarantee top ranks (technically)

So…can you buy as many download as possible in a short period of time?

Let’s talk about the “paid” discovery and how ad networks operate. You can find two type of solutions in the market: Those who will guarantee a ranking result (“pay me, get to the top 10”) and those who will not guarantee a ranking result.

We have been interacting with many small and large networks and we can confidently say that many known networks never guarantee top ranks because either:

a- they don’t actually know App Store numbers (yes!)

b- their ad platform is based on bidding and therefore the outcome is unpredictable

c- they “sell” [more precisely “make you pay”] only traffic generated and not downloads or even less ranks (eg Facebook, iAd)

d- they don’t want to, or even can’t (by lack of reach)

e- they sell CPI (cost per install) but without any guarantee of delivery

Actually the last words are critical: no “guarantee of delivery”.

You can go to Admob and ask to buy 100,000 clicks on a given date. It does not mean you will obtain them. Why? Because other advertisers will bid for the same user “attention” and the ad network is not even in the capacity of guaranteeing anything. It doesn’t mean networks don’t provide boost packages if you want to…but rarely that will be enough.

Most ad networks are designed first to provide a way to accelerate your growth: not to guarantee or (even less) game top ranks. Does that mean you can’t reach a top rank using ad networks? The answer is “Yes. You can buy ranks”, but they will not guarantee anything and most of the time their ad platform is not even designed for this. That’s why their reporting does not even report on “ranking”.

Actually if you want to reach a top rank you will need a combination of several ad networks at once. It requires a lot of manpower and coordination. In fact, many companies have a “growth team” whose job is only to put those complex plans together.

Now what about app discovery services? Some of them (like Appsfire) also run ads. Very few of them guarantee or even have the power to provide a “boost” to high ranks. App discovery services typically provide an additional layer to help users find apps in a different way (social discovery like Heyzap, age oriented like AppoLearning, editorial oriented like Appadvice, and so on).

Of course all of those solutions may have an impact in the rankings but they are not designed to replace them and they are not designed to systematically place apps in the top ranks, day after day, especially if you want to reach all the key geographies (USA, France, Germany) at once. They are designed first to provide healthy, continuous, targeted and incremental growth.

Let’s also remember that overall ads represent a tiny fraction of the global discovery (6% according to this report )

Does that mean paid advertising is a bad thing for apps? Does that mean reaching a high rank is bad? Of course not. Paid growth is fine. Why? Because mobile apps are a business first and not a charity activity. No developer can be blamed for trying to grow his baby by using paid advertising solutions.

Paid advertising is not evil. Certain practices are evil.

Our suggestion: Better standards for app discovery and promotion

png;base64584d0ccea480caa3By now things should be a little more clear. But is that enough? Can we, as an ecosystem, live in a world where app discovery has not managed to gain the full trust of all its parties (users and developers)?

Mobile advertising is still young and very much unregulated. Until recently you could still find ads that did not look like ads (see image to the right), or full screen ad formats you could not even close (meaning forcing you to “artificially” click on an ad).

Ad networks and App discovery services are still in search for a better tomorrow. Not just for performing better but also to become more tolerated, enjoyed by and useful to users.

Here are a few ideas or elementary principles on which a healthy app discovery and promotion industry can build upon. They are actually more common sense than anything else. Those principles concern both users and developers/publishers.

Transparency with the user

1. Disclose clearly to your users you are an ad network (iAd and Admob do that very clearly) or an app discovery with ads. In other words be transparent about whether you are a paid or unpaid discovery solution. This matters because users need to understand your primary motivation.

2. Separate clearly ads from content.

3. Disclose advertising when/where used. Promotion and discovery are different. Users need to know which is which.

4. Do not game “deals” (a deal is a real discount or bonus, not an artificial trick)

5. Make it easy to ignore or even remove ads (fat dismiss button, or in-app purchase option to remove ads)

6. Attribute what is yours and what is not: if a deal is not brought/negotiated by you, your users have the right to know it

7. Use creatives that are not misleading just to drive installs and maybe disappoint users. In the example below the banner seems to indicate the app is special “today”. When we clicked it was pointing to an app that has always been free.


Transparency with the developer/publisher

1. Have a consistent pricing policy for “paid discovery” and “unpaid discovery”

The developer community is small and talks a lot. Applying the same prices and rules to all customers is important. Of course a price grid can change over time when the size or the quality of the inventory evolves. But it is not right to make developer A pay X and developer B pay Y for the same service at the same period. Ad networks with a bidding system have this problem solved and of course their bidding mechanism works the same for all developers. By the same token, if your service is free to developers they should know it too.

2. Provide transparent reporting, with source of attribution

You need to know what you’re paying for. The only way is to have a method to fully attribute the success or the failure of a promotion. As a developer you have the right to ask for  transparent tracking so you know exactly, at a granular level, where your traffic is coming from.

This is just to make sure you will not pay for something you did not buy. Even if you didn’t pay for it, it will help you understand what works and what doesn’t. But also it will help you figure out if the network you’re using is using traffic sources you have not approved.

3. Do not force an app description modification

Your app is being promoted. Good for you. You do not have to promote the service who promotes you in the description of your app.

This practice is common when a developer decides to drop its price. It can be useful to remind the user that such a promotion actually takes place. But it should not be mandatory

Ad networks and discovery services should always make this optional.

4. Do not promise top ranks.

Apple (and probably Google soon) have made it clear: Do not work with networks who guarantee top spots or even a given number of downloads. They create distortion and friction in a market that needs to be fluid and organic. Facebook, iAd, Chartboost, Admob, Millennial…do not guarantee a top rank. If this is your goal, as a developer, then find your way to it and if you get your result, great! But remember this is not enough as Dan Porter (former CEO, OMGPoP)  recently pointed out.

Conclusion: What about the App stores?

We can’t speak for everyone, and each company is free to adopt any rule they want, including marketing agencies and consulting companies who advise app developers. We just think the bar needs to be raised and trust reinforced

This is a fast moving market. Maybe lawmakers will bring a different context, maybe industry organizations (like the IAB – the Internet Advertising Bureau or the MMA – Mobile Marketing Association) will look at it from a different angle. What we believe is that this market needs to be understood better and needs to be operated by high standards to grow and align with the interest of all parties.

At this moment it is not clear if Apple’s decisions concern all app discovery services or only a few of them (remember Appshopper is back? ) or whether it will also extend to ad networks as well (all eyes on Facebook). Future will tell. But one thing is certain: ad networks and app discovery services are sources of traffic that can be beneficial to users and the platform they live in. This works with music, this works with books, this works with movies. Users want and need trusted out-of-store sources to make decisions. There is no reason this cannot work with apps.

But on this, only the Platforms can decide.

Image: Thinkstock