Surviving in the iPhone Wild Wild West. Marketing Part 01 : The bogus App Review site.
In a short series of three articles I am attempting to expose some of the more seedier practices which are going on to promote apps in the sub-culture which surrounds the App Store marketplace today. Part 03 is probably the most explosive. Every app developer, and user, should be aware of how they are potentially being manipulated. If Apple are not already aware of these things they should be, and they need to come down on them hard!
There is a Weekend Market in Bangkok called Chatuchak, where any number of vendors small and large hawk a variety of goods, ranging from semi-illegal pets & exotic fish to clothing and furniture, right up to fine arts and specialist foods. Most stalls are roughly the same size. Some peddle crap and some sell little nik-naks that you probably never knew you wanted, but once you find, wonder how you did without. The odd few traders have “made it” and have brighter newer signs, more space and much better “footfalls” past their door. Scattered amongst the traders and the stalls, both permanent and transient, are con men, pickpockets, thieves and the odd information booth. Overseeing it all is a rather overworked police office which has a shiny glass and metal air-conditioned base close to the entrance. It’s kind of like a medieval bizarre in some ways. In other ways it reminds me of The App Store.
When I setup shop with my first bright shiny new app in the iTunes App Store I was contacted on the first day by a number of web sites who promised to promote my “amazing and wonderful new product”. My initial reaction was one of pride. Of course my product was good. Who wouldn’t want to help me sell it? But about a nano-second later I had an uneasy feeling that this might end badly.
Dutifully I mailed out the requested promo codes to the smattering of new review sites which had gushed praise at me. At the back of my mind I thought that perhaps all this interest in “little ol’ me” was a bit strange. Thinking about it further though I considered that what was on offer, on the face of it, seemed fair. All I wanted after all was a fair and balanced review of my efforts which people could read. Good or bad, I could live with it and learn from it. What the sites would get in return is to grow their reputation, gain traffic, and make some money from adverts they can serve. Win win for all. None of us would necessarily make out like bandits. But this is the new frontier and the future was bright.
Here’s one of the first emails I got from a little outfit called “iPhone Roundup”. It pretty well sums up how a bunch of the review sites out there work…
I was going through the itunes app store releases and came across your game, XXXX, which looked very sweet BTW, and was wondering if you have any promo codes available for press coverage. I run a weekly podcast that features the best games available on the itunes appstore. Here’s a link to my youtube channel, XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX, if you want to check our show out. We offer our viewers an extremely high quality and well produced show that provides a service as well as entertains.
Anyway if you do have a code send it along with any other pertinent info. Also if you have any other games you’re promoting feel free to send a code to those as well.
On a side note we also offer sponsorships (very reasonable rates as we’re just starting to build a viewership), as well as video editing and production services for game trailers, etc. Yay!
Thanks so much,
Here’s the followup email I received from them:
Thanks for your generosity in providing our show with a promo code to your game. I wanted to send you a little information regarding show sponsorship, which is an excellent way to showcase your products, build a positive reputation and increase awareness for your company/brand.
Ok… Sounded interesting. Little alarm bell going off somewhere. Anyway, I thought I’d wait and see how the review panned out and then contact them back about some possible sponsorship afterwards. That seemed the best approach to me. If they panned me it might not be such a good idea to push forward with marketing at that point because I’d need to go and fix the things they didn’t like.
Fast forward a week and nothing had shown up on their web site. So I contacted them to ask what had happened, seeing as we seemed to be onto a sure thing as Nick loved our game so much… Basically they had decided not to review it because I had not opted for any paid advertising with them. So, in effect, I was out one of my limited number of review codes and had wasted a few minutes of my life chatting with them. As well as a few days of waiting to see what review I got from them and others… Had I contacted these guys and asked them to review my app I’d be a little less critical of the whole scam. But they contacted me. And they and others like them continue to do so, seemingly with the express aim of getting people to pay them for exposure. This is a growing problem in ‘App Store Marketing Land’. One that is not going away anytime soon, and that seems to be mutating in to all kinds of App Promotion scams.
Nick’s response to my gentle complaint about his business model was as follows.
You’re 100 percent right, when I first started sending out for promo codes I didn’t include enough information about our review policy and that was my mistake. I apologize for that.
I have rectified the problem with the emails that go out now but that doesn’t really help you at all. I basically just added a line that says ‘sending a promo code does not guarantee a review on the show but it does guarantee consideration.
Fair enough. But over the coming months I’ve received a few emails from Nick and his buddies. Some in response to new products, and some as follow ups. None actually contained this new line, and most were trying to sell consulting services for marketing, and more reviews or slots on their podcasts. They seem to send out a lot of these, and don’t even try to track who they are hitting with repeat emails.
So that was my first experience in the seedier side of iPhone App promotion.
When I agreed to start writing for Touch Reviews, despite already being overworked, it was because I liked the fact that they made me write a test review and a test news article for consideration. And most importantly their promise to me that they care about the reviews they write. Each is written by someone like me, then checked by our editing team. Sometimes articles, or reviews, are fired back for corrections, which we can collaborate on online via Google Docs. Ultimately the reviews are augmented with screen shots related to the app when the web team puts the review up. Sure we have adverts on the site, but everyone needs to eat, right? And at least those ads are relevant to the material on the site and aren’t paid for by publishers unless they specifically ask to advertise.
Being a developer too I agonise over the reviews I write, as I want to give my peers a fair break. I know the other review staff (who all come from different backgrounds) work just as hard, if not harder than me. I’ve received some promising apps with bugs which I’ve delayed the review for to give those developers a chance to get an update out. To me this seems a fair and reasonable way to work. Any web site should be able to provide quality content for it’s readers, and balance being fair to the people who are the reason for their existence : People who like using Apps, and people who like writing them. Writing reviews takes time and effort, as does writing this article. I am knee deep in coding and other jobs I need to do, and yet I do this with the best level of professionalism I can muster. Because that’s the least I would like others to do for me. Especially those who’s day to day job is *only* to write reviews!
Wired have done a similar article on this subject where they discuss another two outfits which follow a similar model to Nick and his buddies; The iPhone App Review & AppCraver.com.
Here’s one of The iPhone App Review’s standard emails: (I can confirm I’ve had emails similar to this too.)
I would be interested in writing a review and having it on our website (www.theiphoneappreview.com). We do charge a $25 fee for reviews (this is used to compensate our authors), so the decision is yours. If you want a review written, but have no promo codes left, I can purchase the app and add the price of the app into your invoice. Let me know either way. Thanks!
The iPhone App Review
At least Sarah is upfront about it, I guess!
From Wired’s article..
The iPhone App Review’s editor-in-chief Shaun Campbell said he was unaware that his site’s writers were requesting payment in exchange for reviews. He explained that the reviewers work autonomously, so he is unsure of how they’re paid by app creators. As of this writing, The iPhone App Review’s About section remains unchanged, stating that fees only apply to expedited app reviews.
Really? What do you actually do then Shuan? I can certainly call Shaun out on this. He’s a big fat liar. I, and other devs I know, have received requests for payment for reviews from his site on numerous occasions. And, as Wired suggest, they do effectively shun apps unless they get some kind of remuneration from the publisher.
Marshal Hernandez wrote about this on his blog over at Gamasutra too.
The only way to stop this practice is for you the readers to stop visiting these sites. Perhaps check their policy pages, although some are less honest than others. And for developers to stop sending them codes.
Wired’s article on this subject. [Wired.com]
If you want your app reviewed drop us a line here at Touch Reviews. We offer fair and balanced, peer reviewed reviews. And we don’t charge.
Surviving in the iPhone Wild Wild West. Marketing Part 02 : The bogus ‘Marketing Expert’.
Hi, I was just checking out your iPhone app in the App Store. Congrats, looks pretty good.
Happy with your sales so far?
I’ve been working with some app developers the last few months, and I’ve learned that there’s two aspects that you need to focus on to be really successful selling apps in iTunes. I’d be happy to share what I’ve learned if you’re interested. Just let me know and I’ll send you a quick overview.
Best of luck,
Sounds like a helpful guy doesn’t he?
Ed went on in his followup email about his ‘marketing service’ for iPhone apps. He even gave his ‘secrets’ away for ‘free’ in that email. Apparently we as developers need to focus on things like ‘traffic’ and ‘conversion’. That’s marketing ‘Pro’ talk for getting people to be aware of your app, and then getting them to buy it. Wow! This kind of stuff never occurred to me, I have to say! Where’s that ‘SarcMark’ thing when you need it?
Just in case any of you reading this are unsure about what Ed is talking about here’s his ‘free’ advice:
What you need to do first is work on the conversion aspect. You do this by optimizing everything that is on your app’s iTunes product page. Mostly, we’re talking about the description. In marketing speak, this is called “copy”.
You need highly persuasive copy that convinces the visitor to click the buy button (as opposed to clicking the back button and leaving).
Your app’s copy must be more than a standard “description” in order to be successful. Rather than focus on specific features of the app, you should try to describe how the app will benefit the user. Most non-games can use “benefits” rather than features and receive a strong boost in conversion. However, there’s another trick I like to use when writing copy for an iphone app…
Write the copy so that the user can actually “experience” themselves using the app. Put them in a mental state of mind where they can visualize themselves using the app. I know, easier said than done… but it is highly effective! This technique is awesome for game apps too!
The second aspect is traffic. How do you allow people to learn about your app and get them to your app’s iTunes product page? There are many methods, but the best method is a well crafted press release that is sent to a list of websites and blogs that often review iphone apps. I’ve been compiling a list of my own (296 quality sites so far).
It’s important that you don’t try to send a boiler-plate press release and expect results. You need to use some of the same techniques I talked about in regards to persuasive copy to get these site owners and bloggers to want to write about your app.
Hope that excerpt was helpful to you. I am not sure what I find most depressing. The fact that Ed thinks that people who are able and willing to write iPhone software (i.e. They can code and read manuals and web articles) would not have some basic idea of what they need to do to actually promote their ideas. Hmm.. Perhaps he does have a small point there! Or the fact that he thinks that if he states the patently obvious in a chatty email we’ll all happily throw money at him… Because that’s basically what he is after. His email ends with this…
If you want a big boost in sales, this is what you need to do.
Not everyone is skilled at writing persuasive marketing copy. I offer a fairly affordable service, and I can do it all for you. Check out the complete details here:
Website : xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx”
Oh, and there are followups too… This is where the high pressure sales tactics really start..
“BTW, if you decide to let me take on your project… don’t book me using the “Reserve” button on:
Website : xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
Instead, use this special link and I’ll knock off $100. I’ll honor that price until Tuesday evening.
Special Link : xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
Yep, Ed charges enough that he can actually afford to knock $100 off the price of his package. And it’s still expensive after that discount!
I do know of some people who have put out fairly decent apps, and have not yet even made $100 back from them. Perhaps those people don’t have the basic knowledge kindly detailed by Ed above in his followup email. In which case I’ve just given it to them.
Perhaps those people are exactly the kind of people that out of desperation may go for Ed’s scheme. But they shouldn’t. Because Ed is a bottom feeder, and he is looking for people who he can exploit. He has no secrets which are worth paying for. It’s that simple. Contact me here at Touch Reviews if you want some web links on marketing. I won’t charge you $100.
I did visit Ed’s web site. I couldn’t help myself! I wonder if any of you are familiar with the web sites which offer to make you a millionaire overnight from selling time share holidays? Yep, that’s exactly what Ed’s website is. Except the content is related to iPhone and iPod Touch App marketing. And his “secrets” are hidden behind a pay-wall – just like those time share holiday marketing scheme websites.
I don’t for a second think that any of you are dumb enough to fall for this kind of scam. This part of the series is kind of an expose to save you having to respond to Ed when he emails you. And you still get to have the fun of reading his ‘helpful’ and ‘amusing’ tripe!
Avoid these people like the plague. Any email from any person like this is simply looking to milk you for hard earned cash you can use much more effectively by buying some Google AdWords advertising, and reading any number of “iPhone Marketing 101″ articles available on a little thing call the internet.
Have you been contacted by Ed, or any of his ilk? Let us know….
It’s worth noting, in the form of a disclosure, that in December of last year Touch Reviews experimented with what we called ‘Expedited Reviews’ for less than two weeks. Our editor explains it better than I could here:
We were offering a new service ‘Expedited Reviews’ where the developer could pay $20 – $25 and request us to expedite their reviews. Now, we were very clear regarding the details of this service. By paying the developer would only get an ‘assured review’ but could not in any way influence the review or get a better rating. Every expedited review was disclosed.
In other words developers who paid $20 – $25 could jump the review queue and control the timing of their review. Useful for marketing purposes for them, and in some ways a necessity for us as review staff were overworked and unpaid at the time.
He goes on..
After a few days when I read these reports about Appcraver charging to provide expedited reviews and saying something like ‘no body wants to read a bad review’ (these are not the exact words) which implied that their reviews could be biased.
I was sensitive to the fact that if the review process needs to be kept transparent then we should not charge. If we charged and still gave [an] honest opinion people would just continue to be sceptical, so the service was pulled immediately.
As you can see it was a short term trial to see how it could help us and help developers with their own needs. But was in no way something that was required to have a review with us. Ironically we still get requests for these ‘expedited reviews’ today despite having stopped the practice.
Our editor goes on to explain that as site revenues increased through advertising and our own success we were able to move forward and distance ourselves from this questionable practice without looking back, even though our intention was very different from that which is being reported for other sites. Which begs the question: Why are these other sites, who rank very highly in searches, still doing it?
Surviving in the iPhone Wild Wild West. Marketing Part 03 : The Pyramid Scheme.
The next set of people I am going to talk about make the pond life we’ve been discussing in part one and two of this series look like harmless butterflies.
Recently I received this email out of the blue from a team of “developers” in Canada.
Congratulations on your recent success. We’re a fellow developer, located in Canada. We’ve been trying to think about how to consistently get onto the App Store Top 100 and Top 10-25 charts, and think we might have a good idea (with proven beta test). It basically depends on all us indie developers banding together to help each other get on the charts. As we band together, we can actually help each other land in the top slots upon every app release.
Ooo, fellow developers! These guys must be on the right track. However, the email’s style seemed eerily familiar to me. Not that I thought it came from our good buddy Nick, or Ed. But familiar in the general style of, “Hey how’s it going, great app!!”.
What the heck I thought, I’ll bite… It was an unusually quiet day in the office.. I had no bugs, no reviews to write, and no-one else needed my help!
I sent a non-committal email back expressing mild interest in what Mr. Potter had to say.
What I received was what I find possibly the most sinister and worrying development in App Store marketing to date. It was an open and frank discussion of a system designed to game the App Store and increase sales for a group of developers who agree to collude together to manipulate sales figures. Nothing more, nothing less. According to these guys they haven’t started this scheme yet. It goes live in May. But I am aware of schemes like this running now, that may or may not be affiliated with these same people. Or perhaps, more worryingly, other groups.
Somewhere down deep inside me (in a bad greedy part of my psyche) I even find the scheme appealing. I have to be honest. It’s something that has been done with singles sales back in the days of vinyl and “Top Ten” charts in the UK and the US. It’s not only morally wrong, it’s also against App Store policy and borderline illegal.
I’m not going to quote their email in full here as I think it’s irresponsible. But I do have it available for reputable sources who might have an interest. Apple? What I have to wonder though, is how many other companies are already doing this, and for how long has it been going on?
Basically it works like this: A developer colludes with these guys to have their app featured on their site just prior to their apps release date. As the release date approaches they will send out emails to their subscriber base, which I am reliably informed is 10,000+. This email asks these “subscribers” to purchase the app. In fact the wording in their emails to their subscribers is that they “need to buy the app on the day of release”. This is followed up by more emails, with another more pushy one on the day of release with links informing them now is the time to buy. I quote : “TODAY IS THE DAY…BUY THAT APP!!!”
As they put it to interested developers, this “will thrust your app into the iTunes top 10-25 (pending on competing apps from major developers), garnering additional sales from the usual apps-buyers that purchase apps according to the ‘Top 10-25 Paid Apps’ list provided by iTunes.” In other words they are manipulating the iTunes charts around launch day to get people, who think they are buying based on the genuine popularity of an app, to make purchases. This in turn feeds itself and increases sales further.
These guys justify this policy with reasons I do admit to having some sympathy with. I touched on it in an earlier article for Touch Reviews. The majority of new app launches that immediately go high in the charts on the App Store right now are regurgitated mobile versions of existing IP from large publishers. These large publishers have massive budgets, and can leverage existing IP to sell these apps which can best be described as lacklustre mobile adverts for their AAA titles. It’s hard to compete with. But it’s the way of the world. And cheating is not the way to beat them. Producing quality, innovative products, and marketing them well yourself virally, through reliable web sites, or through plain old advertising is.
But back to the scam! Sounds good doesn’t it? But it is market manipulation on a grand scale! What would happen if everyone did this? If this catches on this is what every publishers is going to have to do to stay ahead. In fact it’s already going on. So we have the potential, if not the beginnings already, of an App Store marketing arms race with nuclear overtones. And the only losers will be your average gamer, and honest developers.
But hang on a minute. Isn’t this just a bunch of developers banding together to promote their apps collectively via a web site? There’s nothing wrong with that right? And what do all the drones who buy your app get? Your wonderful app of course. Surely that’s enough? And surely it’s fair?
No. It’s much more sinister than that.
As a member of the service these users are well aware that they are going to get your app for free. Because it’s a rebate system you see. They send their proof of purchase to the web site once they’ve bought your app, and then they get their refund via PayPal or a mail check.
But where does that money come from? From the developer of course! You’re now perhaps starting to catch on….
What’s more the user is encouraged by follow up emails from this web site to leave a positive review for your app.
“Upon buying the app, we also encourage the user to leave an “uplifting comment/review” on your iTunes apps page, thus enhancing the ‘Customer Ratings / 5 Star Review’.”
So in effect it’s the “Get Your Friends To Buy Your App And Give It A Good Review” scam, but on a grand scale.
And why wouldn’t these “users” leave a good review? Not only did they just get a free app. One can see the appeal there. Even “crap stuff” that is free is still “free stuff”, right? And that’s cool! Plus it feels fun and naughty. Because they know, at least on some level, that they are in on a scam. The user even gets a reward for their purchase. Money back! Albeit their own money back via PayPal. But surely this has to put them in a good mood. Getting money, even if it’s just your own money back, is fun too! And surely they’ll want more free apps. They might eventually get a good game! So they are very likely to simply leave a good review to keep the gravy train rolling, and head off to get their next freebie…
Oh, yes, sorry, I got ahead of myself. What was that you said? The developer pays for the free app?
Yes. The developer puts an amount in bond with this service so the web service itself can administer the refunds (sorry “rebates”) on your behalf. Any unused funds are returned to the developer, apparently. Or perhaps rolled over for future *cough* promotions!
Let’s make no bones about this. This scheme is very heavily designed to be a “full refund” system, and not really a “rebate system”. And one has to ask oneself if anyone has actually gone the next step and offered payments over and above the sale price of their apps. Or at least thought about it. I know it occurred to me. In fact I’ve been told by a source that that does indeed go on.
Here is the schemes advice on “rebates” :
“We usually suggest that developers offer a full rebate for the app. We have learned that our users are more likely to download the apps that they know will yield a full rebate.”
Really? People will download something they know is free? Wow!
So there you have it. The “Perfect System”. And it’s coming to a website near you soon!
Something I do know is that Apple are not happy with anyone manipulating the App Store in anyway. And the scheme above is manipulation on a massive scale. I would expect anyone found to be involved to be removed from the App Store quicker than they could say “iTunes”. Be warned.
Apple simply don’t want people messing with their sales or having control over refunds or rebates, because it offers ways to manipulate the system… Let alone the other more serious implications.
Anecdotally my editor pointed this out to me : The developer of AirCoaster made an offer to his customers which is incredibly genuine, and shows faith in his own product. I don’t want to associate him in anyway with the scam detailed above, and simply include this information for reference to show how tightly Apple control the sales and refunds of apps. He offered his customers a refund via an iTunes promo code if they weren’t happy with his App. When Apple heard of it they refused to review an update to his app until he rescinded the offer. It’s something that I’ve been toying with for people to get free upgrades to an early version of one of my games which was released initially using the graphics libraries of the original iPhone and iPod, and will be re-released using updated graphics libraries but as a new product. I could see some people who bought it recently feeling cheated that they have a slightly less graphically impressive version on their newer devices. But under the current App Store policy I would not be able to do that either.
Imagine what Apple would think if I or the author of AirCoaster were paying people to buy our apps?
What’s your view on this system? Would you sign up for free apps?
If you are a developer would you be interested in using this service? (You can use a false name if you leave a comment!)