Two recent articles report very similar experiences regarding sales of two moderately successful iOS apps. Neither app was prominently featured by Apple, and both authors report that advertising and viral marketing had very little effect. In both cases, major review sites acted as gatekeepers and determined whatever success the apps had.
Drew Olbrich’s educational app The Fourth Dimension earned $13,945 in three months. Substantial sales spikes came exclusively from positive reporting on major websites such as The Verge and Cult of Mac, with a smaller sales spike later resulting from a price cut.
Congratulations, Your First Indie Game is a Flop describes Matej Jan’s Monkey Labour, a retro game that sold a few thousand copies. The biggest spike which nearly doubled previous sales came from a positive review on Touch Arcade, and most other sales spikes with the exception of one price cut also came from reviews. (On an unrelated note, Matej’s article also covers XNI, his XNA port for iOS.)
So it seems that the countless independent developers competing on the app store are at the mercy of a few popular websites. Drew Olbrich extrapolates his results:
The BuzzFeed review was read by 10,000 people, resulting in about 500 sales. Scaling this up, if I could pay $25,000 for a positive review that was guaranteed to be seen by 1,000,000 people, resulting in 50,000 sales, I would jump at this chance. The reviews have demonstrated to me that if people find out about The Fourth Dimension, they’ll buy it. Where do I plug in the money to make this happen?
Given the huge effect that good reviews can have on app sales, what do you want to bet that similar deals have already been offered and perhaps accepted?
By the way, many apps are less successful than these two. A recent VisionMobile survey claims that iOS apps generate an average revenue of $3,900 per month, compared to an average development cost of $27,463. That sounds decent enough… until you read that 41.5% of iOS apps make less than $500 per month, and it’s worse on other mobile platforms. Clearly, self-sustaining success is clustered around relatively few lucky winners.