Appmakers Try to Game a Crowded Market

Startups are spending bigger on testing and marketing
Photo Illustration by 731; Photos: Apple; FLPA/Alamy

The app market used to be a happy-go-lucky place. Startups, or a couple of guys in a dorm room, could fling their apps into the mobile stores of Apple and Google, and if they didn’t hit big, move on to the next idea. With more than a million apps on the market, and four out of five in the Apple Store receiving so little attention that they aren’t ranked on the download charts, the odds of success have gotten much longer. Even tiny companies go to great lengths to make sure their products are near perfect at launch, and they’re using all kind of gimmicks to break through the noise once their apps hit the market. “It’s become like the movie business,” says Michael Mace, a former Apple and Palm executive. “If the first weekend is good, you have a chance. If not, you’re toast.”

Mace now works at UserTesting, a Mountain View (Calif.) company that charges $49 to test apps on real people. Developers can watch a video of testers trying to navigate their app and pinpoint which aspects of the app are hard to use. “I was a little confused on the map screen,” says one guinea pig trying a retailer’s shopping app. “I would improve this by maybe making the icons a bit more clear.” The feedback mostly consists of comments like that—or swearing, which can also be instructive.

Companies test multiple versions before the app launches, with 5 to 10 people evaluating each. UserTesting has about 30,000 customers, and 3,000 people a week apply to become paid testers, earning $10 for 15 minutes of work. “There are 20 or 40 of us that look at this app every day and get so used to it that we miss its issues,” says Renato Iwersen, chief business officer at file-sharing app startup Cynny. “On the test video you see someone say, ‘Oh, this is horrible,’ and you fix it quickly.”

Prelaunch testing was just one piece of Cynny’s survival strategy when it unveiled its app in mid-September. The service lets people group together images, videos, and text with their friends on Facebook, WhatsApp, and similar sites under a single tag, such as “Camping 2014.” The tag’s creator can choose at any time—say, once family and friends have seen the camping photos—to make the collection private. While hopeful that the idea will catch on, the company’s executives are realistic about the market’s saturation. “People are burnt out,” says Iwersen. “They don’t want to hear about the next iteration on a social app. But you need to get attention and thousands upon thousands of downloads per day right away.”

Iwersen says appmakers, including Cynny, spend big money on mobile ad networks such as Facebook and InMobi trying to ensure they get a flood of downloads at launch. In essence, they’re trying to lure customers to make an app look popular. About five years ago, it took about 40¢ in marketing costs to get one person to download an app. Now it costs $2 to $50 per download, says Iwersen, depending on user demographics. Cynny and other app developers will spend days tuning ads in the field, changing the way they look and the people they target in a bid to find an audience. Cynny has also gone to extremes to keep costs down and give itself more time to tempt users. It’s building its own servers with smartphone chips instead of standard Intel chips to lower the price of the computers and its energy bills.

Bangkok developer HotNow is using old-fashioned sex appeal to hawk its food- and services-reviews app. (Think Yelp plus Foursquare, except you can filter reviews by who’s posting them, like reviews of “Food” by “Guys.”) The company has recruited some of the more popular product spokesmodels known in Thailand as “pretties” to use it. The idea is that people will see the pretties using the app in trendy bars and restaurants and download it themselves. “They saw HotNow as another platform to promote themselves,” HotNow’s chief executive officer, Nithinan Boonyawattanapisut, says of the Thai spokesmodels, several of whom have almost a million followers on Instagram.

HotNow, which has used focus groups and conducts its own tests with Thai college students, has about 50,000 users in Thailand and had hoped to launch in the U.S. in August, around the time college classes were starting. Boonyawattanapisut says the coders couldn’t solve a key technical problem in time, so she’s waiting more than six months for another opportunity stateside. “Spring break looks like the next window,” she says. “The U.S. is a valuable market, and we know you only have one chance there.”

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