Going to Extremes to Build App Store Buzz

Software developers are going to great lengths to get their wares noticed at the Apple (AAPL) App Store.

Brian Greenstone, CEO of Pangea Software, wanted some publicity for the games his company designs for use on the iPhone. So he hired Reverb Communications, a public relations agency, to get the word out. Reverb drafted press releases, provided marketing advice, and helped put Greenstone in touch with reporters who cover gaming. And in the section of the online storefront where users can append comments about an application, Reverb employees posted glowing reviews of Pangea games.

MobileCrunch, the blog that initially reported the reviews, accused Reverb of acting unscrupulously—an allegation Reverb denies. The reviewers acted of their own accord, using personal credit cards, says Doug Kennedy, Reverb's vice-president of business development. Greenstone says Pangea paid Reverb not for reviews, but for "legitimate public relations." On that score, he says, "they did a good job."

Whatever the ethics involved, the incident underscores the rising stakes—and increasing difficulty—of getting noticed at the App Store, an online bazaar where customers can choose from among more than 65,000 applications that let them play games, do work, and carry out all manner of tasks on the iPhone or iPod Touch. With some 8,500 new apps—or updated versions of existing ones—being added to the App Store each week, it's getting harder to stand out, much less make money. "The gold rush is clearly over," Greenstone says. "But there's still gold left in that land." Case in point: Pangea generated $100,000 from 10 App Store games in July, compared with $750,000 from only two games available in July 2008, just after the store opened.

"Differentiating Factor:" Marketing The crush to get noticed on the App Store has spawned a cottage industry for PR firms and marketing agencies eager to help software developers sell more apps.

One is Appular, founded in April by Brian Akaka. The New York-based firm, whose client list includes National Public Radio, brings apps to the attention of tech publications, blogs, and review sites—although it does not itself write user reviews. It also designs ad campaigns. "Now, the differentiating factor between a flop and success [in the App Store] is the marketing," Akaka says. A basic advertising and PR campaign for an iPhone app starts at $5,000 but can go as high as $50,000, he says.

Some developers advertise through AdMob, which places ads for new iPhone apps inside existing ones. Six months ago, iPhone app developers made up about 10% of advertisers promoting their apps through the ad network. Today they represent about one-third of the total, AdMob says.

For many apps, reviews are essential. According to AdMob, positive reviews are the second most important factor in getting an iPhone user to splurge on a paid app. (Free trials are the most effective means.) For 42% of iPhone users and 27% of iPod Touch owners, positive reviews were an important factor in deciding whether or not to buy a paid app, according to a July survey of 380 iPhone users and 347 iPod owners conducted by AdMob.

Advertising for Positive Reviews? Some developers ask family and friends to post positive reviews. Others post negative reviews of competitors' applications. John Friend, who created abc PocketPhonics, an app that teaches kids to write, says he was approached by an independent review site that offered to review his application for a $20 fee. He didn't accept and declines to name the site.

In a case Wired.com reported last year, the maker of Santa Live, an app for kids, appears to have solicited positive reviews through an ad on Amazon's (AMZN) Mechanical Turk, an online tool that farms out small tasks. Santa Live CEO Adam Majewski hung up the phone when contacted by BusinessWeek.com and didn't respond to a follow-up request for comment.

The prospect that some reviews may not be genuine has made some App Store shoppers skeptical of all reviews. "I implicitly do not trust them," says Ian Siparsky, a Denver resident. Siparsky relies on recommendations from friends. Some developers concur. "There's probably a lot of fraud that goes on," Greenstone says. "People are smart enough to know nowadays that reviews are bogus."

Evaluations of doubtful validity are hardly limited to the App Store. Over the years, questions have been raised over reviews left on a variety of Web sites, including retailers Amazon, eBay (EBAY), and Yelp, which specializes in reviews of restaurants and other local establishments.

App Store Reviews Jumble Versions Some sites offer tools designed to reduce the impact and occurrence of bogus comments. On eBay, for instance, sellers can reply to users' reviews; not so on the App Store. Developer Friend takes reviews left at the App Store and copies them onto his own site, AppsInMyPocket.com, to respond to users' concerns or comments that may be incorrect or misleading. Says another developer, Joe Stump, who sells a chess game in the App Store: "There's a wall between me and my customers and I hear them screaming and can't communicate with them."

Another beef with the App Store, developers say, is that its comments section lumps together reviews of different versions of an application, even in cases where a bug may already have been fixed in an update. Stump's chess game app, Chess Wars, has received its share of bad reviews (it's currently rated at two out of five stars); he hopes to fix all these problems in his next version but he's concerned that outdated bad reviews will haunt him.

Even though some App Store reviews contain curse words or hurl unsubstantiated insults, they can't be removed. That's not the case in rival app stores: In Android Market, where users can buy applications for mobile handsets such as the T-Mobile MyTouch 3G, user comments can be flagged as spam. Once a user's comment has been flagged multiple times, it is removed.

Meantime, the demand for good App Store buzz is flourishing. After the MobileCrunch blog was published, Reverb's Kennedy says, "We got inundated with calls from companies that want to work with us."

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