The allure of the App Store’s Top 10 downloaded chart, especially in large markets like the United States, is indisputable. Apps in the Top 10 downloaded chart gain incredible market momentum from the visibility the chart provides.
But for some developers — perhaps even most — the Top 10 chart is not only unrealistic but unnecessary: reaching the Top 10 can be an obsessive distraction that doesn’t fit beneficially into the realities of an app’s revenue or growth strategies. For many developers, the Top 10 chart exists as a white whale: reaching a position within the Top 10 is a destructive goal that will consume resources and marketing vision yet deliver no sustainable, material return on investment.
Three high profile apps recently achieved Top 10 downloaded positioning in cases that may ultimately prove to be Pyrrhic victories. The expense of ascending the Top 10 downloaded chart, unless justified by impressive retention and monetization metrics, can potentially be ruinous for a developer, given the exorbitant cost of marketing an app into the Top 10 and the damage to brand image that aggressive viral tactics can wreak.
The most egregious of these cases is Circle, the local social network that alerts users to activities in their vicinity. Circle — which has been live in the App Store since February 2012 — recently launched a new version that somewhat deceptively induced users into sending app invitations to their entire Facebook friends lists. The tactic worked: the new version launched on December 5th, and by December 8th, Circle was the #1 most downloaded iPhone app in the United States.
User blowback against Circle’s perceived subterfuge was swift and fiery, however: on December 12th, the CEO of the developer behind Circle, Hawthorne Labs, announced via a company blog post that an update would limit the number of friends any user could invite into the app to 3 in response to user feedback. That day, the app descended to the #8 position on the top downloaded chart, and it currently sits at position #110.
The benefits of Circle’s propagation strategy will almost certainly be outweighed by the immense damage its image has incurred in the past week. Spurned users and people that feel they were spammed by the app may not give it a second chance, even though the source of public grievance — the craftily camouflaged viral mechanic — has been eliminated. Hawthorne Labs’ zealousness in achieving a Top 10 downloaded rank clouded its judgment and potentially besmirched its reputation permanently. And given that Circle has never entered the Top 1,000 grossing list, this unfortunate episode seems to have reaped no financial rewards.
A second noteworthy example is MoviePop, a movie trivia game from FreshPlanet Inc., the developer behind SongPop. MoviePop was released to the US app store in mid-September 2013 but began its ascent up the Top Downloaded chart on November 13th through — presumably — a large-scale paid user acquisition campaign. The campaign worked: MoviePop reached the Top 10 the next day and peaked at chart position #4 on November 15th.
The app’s descent down the chart was nearly as swift, however: the app fell out of the Top 100 on November 28th and is currently in position #653. And although MoviePop, unlike Circle, did breach the Top 1,000 grossing chart — on which it peaked at position #357 and currently sits at position #1,201 — it almost certainly hasn’t recouped the money it spent chasing a Top 10 downloaded chart position.
The third example of an app that achieved and subsequently fell from a Top 10 downloaded position in an abbreviated time frame is Textfree Ex, a messaging and VoIP app developed by Pinger, Inc.
Textfree Ex was initially launched as a paid download on November 25th: its ascent on the Top Downloaded chart began when it reduced its price to $0 on November 27th. The app peaked on the Top Downloaded chart at position #3 on November 29th and subsequently experienced a dramatic fall — the app currently occupies position #430.
Textfree Ex most likely employed one of the countless “free daily app” services when it switched its pricing model from paid to free; these services promote apps that have recently become free through their own distribution apps and can usually drive enough downloads to at least breach a Top 20 downloaded position.
The problem with these services is one of adverse selection: users that go out of their way to discover apps that have abandoned an up-front payment requirement are probably unwilling to make in-app purchases. This notion seems to be borne out in Textfree Ex’s case, as it only managed to reach position #957 on the Top Grossing chart and now sits at position #1,204.
Three apps, three different promotion strategies: Circle with aggressive viral mechanics, MoviePop with an ostensibly large, short-term paid marketing campaign, and Textfree Ex with a “free daily app” distribution ploy. None of the apps achieved visible traction in the Top Grossing charts, nor did any manage to retain a Top 10 downloaded position for more than a few days.
The cruel nature of the app store economy, which is apparent in all three cases, is that reaching the Top 10 downloaded position is a seductive yet ultimately hollow goal. In June, Trademob revealed that a Top 10 position on the downloaded charts could be achieved in $96,000 worth of daily “burst marketing”: short-term, high-volume mobile advertising campaigns undertaken only for the purposes of rocketing up the downloaded chart. Such campaigns — and their attendant chart positions — can be a valuable and worthwhile element in an overall app launch strategy, but only if they’re executed against a backdrop of data that suggests they’ll ultimately prove profitable.
Performance marketing doesn’t relate to the achievement of chart position, it relates to the achievement of profits: a marketing campaign is profitable when users, in aggregate, are acquired for less than their ultimate value to the product. This is a fundamental marketing maxim of that pre-dates the existence of mobile apps. Chart positioning, while introducing a modern element of complexity to the customer acquisition dynamic, does not alter the critical reality of marketing: profit is attained when users are acquired for less than the revenue they produce.
For this reason, chart positioning is a tool, not an end unto itself. A “shark fin” growth curve — in which new user numbers jump and then fall precipitously — is a highly credible signal that marketing expenditure will realize a loss. Pursuing chart position in the hopes that an app’s fundamental metrics will change at scale is not strategic: it is faith-based marketing, and, as exemplified in the three cases above, it may not work.