In the first in our ‘Dr Digital’ series, Jonathan Waywell of plays agony uncle to frustrated publishers
You know your business, you know your market, your books around this topic sell well, and you are entrepreneurial and creative. Of course you are—this is the IPG!
But your app has tanked. It has sold fewer copies in a year than you hoped it would be selling per week by now. You’ve had the sympathy: “Apps don’t sell—it’s the same for everyone.” You’ve heard the sniping: “Your app is terrible—you couldn’t give it away!”
Your heart went into it. And your cash. Talking about it makes you emotional; the subject has become taboo. You have all but given it up as spilt milk. But here you are to ask that question one more time: “Why is my app not selling?”
You’ve given us a question, so in the spirit of Christmas we’re giving you 12 in return. Feel free to re-wrap them as presents for your colleagues and developers.
Q1 Have you downloaded it yourself?
When you last launched a book you cared about this much, you dragged your family around Ottakar’s on a Saturday to check it was on the shelves. You picked it up and flicked through it with pride, for the 100th time.
Try translating this behaviour into digital. Put yourself inside the head of a consumer who is interested in your topic. Visit an app store, find your app and read the description and reviews. Pay for it, install it, run it and use it for real. Set aside an hour and make notes as you go.
Did you hesitate at any points? Where did you encounter problems? Here are a few typical reactions.
• ‘It took me ages to find it!’ In that case, were the words in the title what the mind of a consumer would expect?
• ‘The description of this version just says ‘Bug fixes’.’ So tell the developers what it should say.
• ‘I don’t want to pay £5.99 for my own app!’ Well, you can always refund yourself afterwards. Or get a free code from your developers. If you truly feel that £6 is a big deal given how much you already spent, perhaps you should review the pricing (see below).
• ‘It doesn’t work on my phone / tablet.’ See audience technologies, below.
• ‘I don’t have an iPad or an iTunes account and don’t understand digital!’ It’s time to get some help. It is important to have access to your own app. Are you representative of your audience? Maybe they need help, too. See below.
• ‘I can’t find a feature I expected.’ Are the key features properly described in the blurb? Are they signposted within the app and from your website?
Q2 Have you read the reviews?
Assess them. Are they fair? Can you fix them? Often it’s all about expectations, and whether your app has exceeded them or fallen below them. Check that the overview in the app store is addressing the right audience.
Or maybe there are no reviews. In which case, you might ask yourself if you should write your own. Probably not—they tend to stick out. But find some people who like your app and encourage them to write a review. Add a ‘Please review’ prompt at a point in the interaction at which you know the app is being used properly.
Q3 Does your app work on the technologies used by your audience?
Of course, you have already asked this of your developers. But perhaps your brain heard ‘I owe Essex’ when it should have heard ‘iOS 6’. So ask them again. Make them explain things in a language you understand.
With your traditional business head firmly on, work with your developers to figure out whether your audience is biased towards Apple or Google, smartphone or tablet, latest or oldest, online or offline, fast or slow, big or small, constant or ad hoc. Explain your audience as clearly as you can. Most people assume that apps are pitched at ‘wealthy teenagers in the USA’ unless they hear otherwise. ‘Professionals in the finance sector’, ‘fashion students at UK colleges’, ‘leisure yachtsmen’, ‘women at home on maternity leave whose family income exceeds £70k’, ‘people who love home crafts and DIY’—these are all nice categorisations that can suggest a bias towards certain types of device.
Q4 How is it categorised?
Bad news. Your app is classified under Books. Because that’s where your developer put it, and because you are a publisher. But your app provides interactivity, games, quizzes, animations and tools! So check out the categories of other apps in your domain. You’ll find them under Lifestyle, Entertainment, Photo & Video, Games and more. Decide where yours belongs and put it there.
Q5 Does your app have a website?
Every app deserves its own page or pages on your website. Some merit their own domain. Use the descriptive information from the app store on the web pages—it helps search engines discover it and encourages people to follow the link.
Ask your developers for the right links to use, and link to all formats of the app. Use the right logos. Point users of the app back to your website for further information; this also helps to cross-sell your books. Publish some app excerpts on your website—images, instructions, user feedback or a short video showing somebody using the key features. This will help discovery and influence purchase decisions.
If updating your website takes six months, use Facebook, WordPress, YouTube instead. Avoid doubling your app development cost for the sake of some informal text, pictures and video.
Q6 Who is using your app?
Your app may have tanked but it did sell some copies. So find the buyers. Provide an email address in the app for people to get in touch with feedback and requests. Go to the conventions where your niche enthusiasts hang out—if it’s relevant to sell your books there, it’s relevant to mention your app there. Ask around. Put a notice on your trade stand asking for feedback on the app. (This doubles as marketing.)
Talk to users. Read their emails. Reply. Ask them how they’re getting on, and what they like and don’t like.
Have you found someone happy? There are 100 more out there, so focus on marketing. Have you not? Assume nobody will be, and focus on fixing problems.
No budget for marketing because you spent it all on development? That’s normal for your first app. (Plan better next time.) Meanwhile, there are things people do for marketing that can fit with day-to-day work. See below.
Q7 Where can people find your app?
Bad news: nobody finds apps in the app stores.
Unless they have time to browse and dig around, in which case they are unlikely to be earning the kind of money that makes them your target customers. This is like leafing through the tables of books under the bridge outside the Royal Festival Hall.
Or perhaps they happen to spot your app in the ‘Latest apps’ list. This is like spotting a book on the ‘New this month’ shelf. Right place, right time—if you’re lucky.
But in reality, people find your app from outside the app stores, via links and specific directions. This is like marketing books, and all the same principles apply—word of mouth, cross-selling, reviews, top-ten lists. Here are some things to try.
• Link to the app from your website. Write about it properly on your website too; see above.
• Put links to your app in the new editions of books in the same domain. If you can’t coordinate the publishing cycles, point book readers towards the topic page of your website and update it.
• Get niche communities to adopt your app. Link to them from the app in exchange.
• Submit the app for review by specialist bloggers and magazines. This will help to get it in those top-ten apps lists. Ask your developers for codes that will allow your reviewers to download the app for free.
• Help people work it out. Write a one-page summary to help smartphone novices get their hands on it without biting their nails.
• Use social media. Include ‘Share’ and ‘Tweet’ links at success points within the app, and wherever the app is described.
• Slap Creative Commons licences on your digital marketing materials. Do so especially with pictures, and package them for easy distribution so that your law-abiding fans can propagate your app with their own websites, and with impunity.
Q8 Is it in the US app store?
You negotiated rights to sell the related books worldwide; you negotiated rights to use images from the books in related digital products; you pushed the books into the US through distributors. But is your app actually available to buy in the US?
Maybe your developers only ticked the GB app store box. Ask them. The more they know about publishing and rights, the more likely it is that they played safe.
Q9 Do you understand your developers?
You like them, sure. They are nice people—keen, clever and cute (OK, OK). Most speak English. Some have non-tech hobbies. One even reads printed books. But when they talk, it sounds like a sci-fi recipe book. Blackberries, apples, Android KitKats, ice-cream sandwiches, human interface guidelines and the rest.
Don't be the paranoid android. You are not alone. Press pause in the conversations. Get them to explain in your language. Be proud to be ignorant; you have other skills. Get them used to your language, your perspective. Create a dictionary of terms explained in your language.
Perhaps your developers try to charge you when you start asking questions. Tell them the truth. You want to do more apps, but you can only justify it if you can figure out why this one is failing to sell and come up with ways of doing better. Ask for a project review, to include all the team. Pick brains.
Next time, ask for domain advice to be included in the project as a condition of doing business. Then you don’t need to feel guilty when you ask ignorant—but very important—questions later on.
Q10 What say the data?
You know how many copies of your books are sold or returned, albeit six months too late. You know what pages are popular on your website. (And if you don’t, that's a Dr Digital question for another day.)
But what do you know about take-up and usage of your app? Ask your developers to send you information about downloads, purchases, usage frequency, popular sections, options chosen and links followed. Then ask them to explain how the data can help you answer the questions that matter.
Q11 Is the app good value for money?
Pricing. Hmmm. Tricky. Whether on books or apps, the same rules apply. It’s just that with apps there are fewer benchmarks. So anything goes as long as your audience has the money and you can demonstrate the value.
Look at the competition. Are there apps that sound like they do the same as yours? Are they all free or 99p? If so, focus on differentiation.
Think about expectations. Is there a related book that is popular with your target audience? How is that priced? Can you describe the app as a companion to it? Or is it actually a substitute?
Cheaper is not necessarily the answer. If your book is £15 and your closely-related app adds interactivity, would pricing the app at 99p make the book look over-priced? Some publishers charge more than £20 for an app. Per year, on annual subscription, and selling well, to a target audience defined by the books they already buy.
If you have books in the same domain, your app will sell to the same audience—but only if they know about it. Focus on marketing.
Getting your app to make money is a different question to demonstrating its value for money. That’s one for another day.
Q12 What are you going to do about it?
Depending on the state of your budgets, the above questions may be for Christmas Past, Present or Future.
You could pay a consultant to tell you what to do. But maybe you should find where the gaps are and put your money into plugging a few of them. Go double the sales of your app. It won’t put you back into the black but it will put you back in control.
Now for a reality check. If you have read this far without experiencing a Christmas Future epiphany, then the chances are that this app is, indeed, spilt milk.
But before declaring yourself lactose intolerant and going dairy free (‘No. More. Apps.’), take a final moment to reflect. Remember: you know your business, your audience and your domain, and you are entrepreneurial and creative. Can you think of a way to get your next app from A to B without spilling your cash and spilling your heart? If so, let us know!
Merry Christmas from Dr Digital.
Jonathan Waywell is head of technical consulting at , which has worked with many IPG members and other publishers. For more about its work, visit the Propagator website and follow it on Twitter.