Mobile Advertising versus App Store Promotion: a tale of woes and wins

As an independent developer, I ‘ve had my fair amount of successes and failures – examples of the former are TVPyx (Symbian, Windows Phone, Web) and TubeBusBike (Symbian).

Having developed apps on iOS, Android, WP, Symbian, Bada and Web – my experiences of all stores  has been mixed. As an independent developer it is increasingly difficult to get noticed in the sea of apps that are available on the various stores. I have had a fair amount of trial and error experiences with both advertising and merchandising across those stores. I ‘m here to share my experiences with both.

 There are a number of techniques available to developers that can be used to promote your app and increase downloads. Some of these you will need to pay for, some of which are just down to hard work and slick execution. Of course there is always an element of luck and right place right time usually built upon previous failures, think Rovio. I am going to concentrate on two methods of promotion.

 Advertising  and cross promotion – The method of promoting an app either through paid in-app advertising i.e. in someone else’s app/website or cross promotion through apps developed by the same publisher.

 App store promotion – The practice of promoting an app via app stores. Merchandisers (app store owner staffers) select apps by country/region to appear as featured or promoted apps on the store. Various ‘slots’ have different success rates where ‘featured’ is usually the Holy Grail in terms of maximizing eyeballs and downloads.


Advertising using one of the mobile ad networks like Admob or an ad exchange like Inneractive is a paid-for activity i.e. you would pay for a campaign of ad impressions to promote your application in the usual advertising model. While someone like Admob may be excellent in a market like the Germany, they may lack in a specific region like Vietnam. This is where an ad exchange comes in. If you have a truly global application or specific regional needs that no one ad network can provide the required local content, an ad exchange barters on your behalf with local inventory and then serves the ad that gives you the most return.

Not all ad mechanisms are created equal, so you should take care whilst selecting one. While the fill rate may be excellent compared to a single network, the downside is that you may not be getting premium content that would be served by a truly local provider i.e. lower CPM. So while a fixed ad network can provide targeted delivery in terms of locale, an ad exchange can level the playing field especially in those maybe hard to reach areas of the globe. You need to understand your market and choose accordingly.

My personal experience of using paid-for app promotion was very disappointing. For £1000 one of my apps was involved in a campaign that consisted of a carousel with 4 ads shown in succession. The campaign as a whole  garnered 260,000 impressions. My ad was the 4th on the carousel meaning that it would be the 4th ad served once the app the ad was in was invoked. Quite far down the pecking order. From this campaign there were 82 clicks of which it is unclear whether any of these actually resulted in any downloads. No spike, no step change, just noise. The ad was targeted at UK mainly but a few other countries were involved. So quite a high customer acquisition rate!

Anecdotal evidence suggests that in some markets, advertising in apps might even have an adverse effect on downloads, as they use data which comes at a cost to the user.

App Store Promotion

Being a ‘featured’ app on any store will dramatically increase downloads. Naturally being featured in a store is likely the result of one of the following; it’s a great app, it’s a great experience, great PR, a relationship with a journalist on a national newspaper, major marketing budget, lots of hard work and maybe a bit of luck to name a few.

To get noticed by a store owner – especially an OEM – you need to consider what they as the builder of the devices are currently trying to push. For Nokia it may be imaging or mapping i.e. you are more likely to be promoted if you are harnessing one of the strengths of the business, what makes them unique. For Samsung it may be an app that integrates with their TV solutions. Segmentation considerations also work e.g. apps for a demographic that are being targeted by a particular device or devices. Building a relationship with an app store owner is a means to get promoted but this is likely to be the result of an app that meets the needs of a campaign or some quid quo pro between the developer and the likely OEM. A strong relationship or understanding of needs is required regardless of approach. I am privileged enough to have been involved a number of OEM programmes and have some close relationships with a number of OEM’s and platform providers so this approach has very much worked for me.

There are a number different areas on a store where you can be promoted; featured, staff picks etc. Some OEM’s have mini stores that usually link to their platform stores like Windows Marketplace or Play. This gives the OEM the ability to merchandise their partner apps without seeking the permission of the platform owner. Nokia has the App Highlights app shipped with all their phones, other OEM’s have their own offering.

My experience of being featured on Windows Marketplace was great for downloads as I suspect being featured would be on other stores. App Highlights worked well until Nokia changed the app due to having to try to promote more apps themselves. This meant my app started to get lost in the sheer number of apps being promoted. The latter being the inherent problem of managing app promotion on store.

Below is a graph of my own experience of being featured on Windows Marketplace and being promoted through App Highlights. There is no halo effect, as soon as the promotion stops the graph returns to the usual run rate. The implication is that you have to continue to promote and market the app to get downloads. As you can see the experience is far more positive than paid-for app advertising. Being featured represented a 1000% increase (800 downloads/day) in downloads whilst being included in App Highlights represented a 200% (160 downloads/day) increase in downloads.

Continuous promotion is crucial

There are other spikes on the graph that are not either Featured or App Highlights. The honest answer is I don’t know what caused them. I only know that my app was featured or highlighted because a) someone told me or b) I happened to know the right people. The other spikes could have been caused by promotion on other parts of the store that I was unaware of or a blog picked up on the app etc. It is usually the case that the developer is not told that their app is being promoted which seems a shame for the developer and the store owner not to be able to capitalize on the promotion.


To get downloads, you need to continuously promote and market your app. I experienced no halo effect, as soon as the promotion stops the graph returns to the usual run rate. For me, getting featured and highlighted was a far more effective solution than paid-for advertising. The key is to build close relationships with multiple OEM’s and platform providers and use it to deeply understand their marketing needs.


Does Cross-Promotion Work?

The concept of app developers banding together and promoting one another’s apps in order to increase awareness and download numbers for all concerned makes a lot of sense. Beyond developers promoting their own apps, or a couple of friendly developers getting together and agreeing a deal between themselves, it can get difficult to decide what’s fair with the wide variation in active user bases and engagement across apps. This suggests there’s a clear place for independent brokers to step in and create a market, which a large number have done. Some solutions offer direct trade in promotions between apps but most are simply app-specific advertising networks, charging developers to advertise and paying them for displaying ads. They key difference with pure ad networks is that ads are tracked right through to subsequent install (and sometimes app open) before any payment is made, rather than just a click on the ad.

When viewed as just another form of advertising, with a cost-per-action model, in theory this should work out fairly well for developers. User acquisition costs are predictable for advertisers and those displaying ads have reasonably good targeting built-in before any extra targeting logic used by the cross-promotion network – everyone viewing the ad has a smartphone and downloads apps on it! How does the theory work out in practice?

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More users, more revenue

On average developers using cross-promotion networks (CPNs) have larger user bases and make more revenue than those not using such networks. Restricting our analysis to those developers interested in making money, able to report their revenue to us and earning less than $50k per app per month (the handful earning more than this will be discussed later): the average number of active users for the most popular app of those using CPNs was 181,800 vs. 76,600 for those not using CPNs. For the same groups, the average revenues were $3457 vs. $2487 per app per month respectively. As with most things related to the apps market, averages can be deceiving – 56% of developers using CPNs earn less than $500 per app per month. So while cross-promotion clearly works, the better question is who does it work for?

Higher CPI, more users & revenue

We asked developers using CPNs what their typical cost-per-install (CPI) was, without differentiating between usage of the networks as an advertiser, publisher of ads or both. Given this lack of differentiation it’s interesting to note that there’s a strong correlation between CPI and revenues, as shown in the graph below.

It’s also interesting to note that when you include the very highest earners, only $0 install costs and those above $1 are affected. Presumably very successful developers can and do effectively use some of these third party tools to cross-promote their own apps. Whilst it’s extremely likely that only those developers earning high ARPU (and thus almost certain higher than average revenues too) can afford to buy users at >$1.00 per install, it’s not at all obvious that those earning a higher CPI would be earning more revenue in total. Indeed with pure ad networks the reverse is almost true – high earners often have very low eCPM. This suggests two possible explanations, either there is a “high value” end of the market for cross-promotion where successful apps both advertise and publish ads, or only advertisers are making good money and the CPNs are taking a large cut.

High value customers, high value promotions?

Within our survey data there’s a clue that such a high value sub-market exists within cross-promotion networks. We asked developers about their reasons for selecting the networks they use; of all the reasons given, only two were correlated with significantly above average earnings for the sector. Both “Revenue share”, a publisher concern, and “Targeting options”, an advertiser feature, were correlated with more than 2.5 times the sector average revenue. A lot of the very low revenue apps using cross-promotion appear to be primarily targeting a low-income demographic (teenagers) who are unable to buy paid apps or in-app purchases directly and are therefore willing to earn them by either watching ads, downloading other apps or performing actions within them. It’s logical that these apps don’t generate a lot of revenue for publishers or advertisers. On the other hand, apps targeting more affluent users who do pay real cash for their app usage will be attractive cross-promotion partners for developers of other similar apps.

This really just comes down to basic business sense – if you want to make a decent amount of money, build things for people that have it to spend. It’s possible to make up for very low ARPUs with volume but it will require lots of apps and lots more work. Whichever route you decide to take it appears that cross-promotion is a viable monetisation option. If you’re aiming at low-ARPU users it may be that cross-promotion networks are your only advertising option but you’ll also need to find other marketing channels to get enough scale.

[doritos_report location=’DE13 Article – Does Cross-Promotion Work?’]


TapJoy (53%) leads in cross-promotion networks, Flurry and Chartboost are chasing

Building a great app is not enough – to get lots of users, those users have to be aware that you exist. As app stores focus on top apps, which amount to less than 1% of all available apps, discovery has become a major problem for app makers. One solution is to band together in a cross-promotion network: “advertise” apps within other apps, making it easier for users to discover similar apps to the one they are already using.

Numerous models of cross-promotion exist

Cross-promotion networks (CPN) are used by developers both as a means for promoting their apps and monetising apps. When used for promotion purposes, there are numerous models out there, some being free, based on traffic exchange between apps, enabling developers to run low cost or free promotions. However, several CPNs operate on a cost-per-install basis, with developers paying for each user acquired. A special case of cross-promotion is incentivised installs, a practice that Apple has been trying to restrict on App Store.

Used by 7% of developers overall, usage of cross-promotion services is not very high and does not vary significantly by platform. Usage is higher among developers that develop games (13% of all games developers) and higher than average among developers working on comms & social networking apps (9%), entertainment apps (10%) and music & video apps (10%). These app categories are mainly addressing young consumers with limited purchasing power; using CPNs and incentivised downloads in particular, allows easy access to this target audience, which would otherwise not be able to acquire such apps. Developers who use CPNs tend to use one network (59%), but 18% use more than three networks. Overall, developers using CPNs will use 1.7 CPNs on average.

CPN usage increases with the number of apps developed, rising to 15% among developers who work on more than 16 apps per year. CPNs provide opportunities to cross-promote across one’s own apps, allowing developers to leverage the popularity of the most popular apps to drive usage of less popular or new apps. For developers working on several apps it usually makes sense to cross-promote across their app portfolio.


Tapjoy leads, with Flurry and Chartboost following behind

TapJoy is leading in the cross-promotion space, used by 53% of developers that use CPNs. Flurry AppCircle and Chartboost, follow at some distance and are competing for second spot (20% and 18%), while there are numerous other providers who have over 5% market share.

The most important selection criterion for cross-platform tools is the number of users reached (36% of developers using cross promotion networks) but it is only marginally higher than cross-platform availability (35%) and ease of integration (34%). Obviously, depending on how developers use these tools, the decision criteria may vary. For those developers who use CPN for promotion purposes, cost is important. We found that, on average, the typical CPI (cost-per-install) was $0.60 among iOS and Android developers, with no notable difference between these platforms. When used as a revenue source, the revenue potential becomes important, as indicated by 25% of developers using CPNs. About a fifth of developers rely on recommendations for selecting a CPN.

[doritos_report location=’DE13 Article – Cross-promo networks’]

Which cross-promotion networks are other developers using?

[toggle title=”Important things to know about this interactive graph”]

  • All the filters in the graph refer to survey questions in which respondents could select multiple answers. This means that there is no direct link between the filter and the use of the tool. For example, filtering on “Android” means that the respondents develop Android apps. It doesn’t imply that they use the tools for their Android apps specifically, or even that the tool supports the Android platform. Use filters as a guideline only.
  • Keep an eye on the sample size. If the sample size is low, the graph doesn’t offer strong conclusions about the popularity of different tools. Use your good judgment when making decisions.[/toggle]

    Find the best cross-promotion tool for you!

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Business Platforms

The Darker Side of App Store Optimization

As long as there are algorithms impacting revenues there will be people trying to game them. In the world of mobile apps there are two sorts of algorithm that can be routes to success, chart rankings and search rankings. Chart rankings are very simple and typically just use some time-weighted download volume. Search rankings are much more complex, involving keywords, reviews and other social or similarity-based data as well as downloads. Developers can use a range of tactics to improve their ranking in these algorithms, some of them much more legitimate than others.

There’s no such thing as a bad download

Whilst there are very good practices for optimising search ranking, such as using tools that monitor competitors and analyse their keyword usage to suggest improvements to your own, the single most effective way to improve all rankings is to increase downloads. For paid apps, all downloads generate revenue, whether the app gets used or not – temporarily reducing the price or making the app free is an effective technique for boosting downloads, which boosts rankings and subsequent revenue when the price is returned to normal. For apps that are free anyway, it can similarly be worth spending some of the revenue earned through advertising or in-app purchases to increase downloads. On one level this is obvious, it’s worth spending money to market the app and try to reach new users. However, the winner takes all nature of app store discovery at present makes it worthwhile for some developers to chase downloads purely to enhance their rankings. Even users who will never open the app are worth attracting if they can be acquired for a low enough cost.

Paid placement

There are lots of advertising options available that drive users to your app in the store. The vast majority of them are pay-per-click and thus cannot be used cost effectively to inflate downloads of an app that doesn’t generate significant revenue per user anyway. Most of these are clearly advertising products, others look like app discovery tools to end users. Hooked is a good example of an app that blurs the line between discovery and advertising. They have a popular social discovery app for Android games where developers can pay to generate installs. For developers this is a very logical option because they have a fixed cost for installs which they can compare against average revenue per user. On the other hand, users may believe they’re getting a recommendation when in reality they are seeing an advert. It’s the same argument that surrounded paid placement for search results in the days before Google launched AdWords.

Cross Promotion

Another way to reach users is through similar apps. Apps promoting one another is a great way to reach a common user base. There are several cross-promotion networks with a variety of business models. Ironically the one with the name most suggestive of ranking manipulation, Chartboost, is at the most ethical end; they provide completely free technology for developers to organize their own cross-promotions and also a marketplace to connect developers where they take a cut of the transactions. At the same time, the most popular cross-promotion network (according to our latest survey), Tapjoy, plays much closer to the lines of acceptable conduct. One (and in fairness it should be emphasised only one of several) of Tapjoy’s services is incentivised downloads, a practice that Apple have repeatedly cracked down on – they pay users (in virtual rewards such as in-game currency) to download apps which have paid for that service (in cash). Clearly a large fraction of people who will download other apps to earn a bit of virtual currency are those unable or unwilling to pay for the same. These users almost by definition are unlikely to monetize, so the only obvious reason to seek them out is to increase rankings in order to be discovered by other paying users that would be more expensive to reach directly.


At the extreme end of ranking manipulation, with no pretence of being anything else, is Shaubang. This manipulation is primarily practiced on Apple’s App Store, made possible by the fact that a credit card is not required for an iTunes account in China. Companies with millions of accounts make use of extremely cheap local labour to pay people to download and review apps. These services often guarantee to boost an app to a desired category ranking for a fixed fee. This practice is heavily frowned upon by store owners but also extremely hard to police, since it involves real users (sometimes bot-assisted for efficiency) with real accounts.

Where’s the harm?

Users are mostly getting what they want out of these deals and so are the developers involved. Store owners have higher download stats to boast about. Even at the extreme end we have job creation in China. The main people losing out are the developers not taking advantage of these strategies. However, if ranking manipulation becomes the norm rather than a fringe behaviour then two problems become very serious. First, the top ranked apps are simply the ones that paid the most to be there, rather than the best ones – this makes discovery of genuinely great apps harder and reduces the overall perception of app quality. Second, a feedback cycle further concentrates revenue at the top of rankings – only those who pay to be at the top can afford sufficient manipulation to stay there and the rankings will begin to stagnate. App store owners need to ensure their markets are as honest and fair as possible, or users and honest developers will suffer in the long run.