All Articles Marketing Digital Technology In selling apps, word-of-mouth is king

In selling apps, word-of-mouth is king

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Digital Technology

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This post is by Andy Grossman, a SmartBrief contributing editor covering telecommunications and technology.

There is no good reason for a grown man with parental responsibilities to spend an hour of his valuable time playing “Angry Birds.”  But dad takes some comfort in knowing he’s not alone. And though slightly above the core demographic for the typical mobile applications game player, there are still millions of us — er, them — who have “borrowed” their kids’ phones or tablets to hurl those stupid avians over and over.

“Angry Birds” and other viral apps have invaded most people’s homes in a similar fashion, according to a new MTV Networks survey released last week that suggests word-of-mouth is the major springboard of success for most mobile apps.  The researchers found 73% download apps after hearing them through other people, reviews and trial usage.  My daughter’s experience is typical:  She bought the paid version of “Angry Birds” after trying the freebie and then had to have the fully featured version.

Analysts support the MTV report’s findings about the viral nature of mobile apps, even beyond gaming, as well as the suggestion that their attrition rate — how quickly users abandon them — are often quite  high. MTV found 38% of users deleted apps related to television and films after just three weeks, although they got plenty of use while they were still around.

Research from Flurry Analytics backs up the fleeting nature of buzz. In a study of European usage in May, the research firm found that six months after downloading an app, the average user had accessed it only 36% of the time within the past seven days.

The MTV report may not be surprising in today’s disposable culture, but it does raise questions of how independent developers manage to receive their 15 minutes — or 30 minutes if they are lucky — of fame. Few app writers have the resources to launch multimedia marketing campaigns on their behalf.

“To a certain extent developers are a victim of their own success,” notes Windsor Holden, a London-based principal analyst for Juniper Research.  “With 500,000 apps in the App Store, how do you make your particular app stand out, particularly if you’re in a category such as games or multimedia entertainment?”

Popular apps have a common formula that “Angry Birds” follows, Holden suggested. “It’s got to be simple and intuitive for a great number of people to get into it,” he said.

Once apps start to get noticed via reviews, online chat boards and playgrounds, they often take on a life of their own. That’s because many users look to the listing of most popular or highly rated apps for guidance on what to download themselves.

“Based on our research, a lot of application discoveries are taking place through the app stores,” said Heather Way, a Plano, Texas-based research analyst at Parks Associates.

The mom-and-pop developers rely on marketing their apps through the market themselves, she said. “So they are in a sense a marketer just like Kraft when they have developed branded apps.”

Way pointed to “Words with Friends” as an app that went viral without the benefit of a branded multimedia campaign. Basically a mobile version of Scrabble developed by brothers Paul and David Bettner, the app took its first leap after a tweet from singer John Mayer in October 2009.  From there, word-of-mouth largely took over as friends invited each other to play the multi-player game.

Distimo Research’s May 2011 report on Google’s Android Market backs the importance of app market rankings in driving sales. Compared with Apple’s App Store, users had downloaded a far fewer breadth of Android apps. For example, five Android games had been bought worldwide by at least 250,000 people compared with 10 Apple games in the U.S. alone over the prior two months.

Distimo analysts pointed out that Google takes long-term usage much more into account in its rankings, meaning that its charts tend to flip much less often than those in the App Store.  Greater chart stability would mean fewer highlighted apps.