Climbing the App Store Charts is Easy. Making Money is Another Story.

So now that I’ve written about the harsh reality of making mobile games for the App Store, I’m going to take things a step further and try to dissect what works and what doesn’t when it comes to marketing your game for success in the App Store, based on my own observations and data collection.

My first order of business is to take a look at the mysterious Free App A Day (FAAD) service.

Before I begin, I need to make it clear that I am in no way promoting the use of this service. When I searched for info on whether this type of service actually works, there wasn’t much out there. My goal is to provide an objective look at what effect Free App A Day has on actual numbers so you can make an informed decision.

There are lots of services out there that claim to be able to get your app to the top of the App Store charts. Recently, some of these have been in the headlines due to the possibly unscrupulous methods by which the results are achieved. FAAD is a similar service, but it has largely escaped negative publicity and continues to be used by large publishers (Zynga, EA, Glu, Disney) as well as many indie game developers to market their games.

FAAD has pretty much been around since the early days of the App Store, so they purport to have tens of thousands of users who will download your app when it is featured by them, thereby shooting you up the App Store charts.

In terms of “Free App” promotion services, FAAD is not the only one out there. In fact, there is a Free App Alliance which links to a handful of these, and all seem to have varying degrees of success. However, none seem to be able to get your app to a higher chart position than FAAD.

The question every developer who has considered FAAD wants answered is: does it work?

In order to answer this question, I wanted to take a long hard look at the numbers and leave as little room for subjectivity as possible. Here is the methodology I used:

  • Looked back on FAAD to find the free apps of the day over the past 2 months. In total, the results include 51 games featured on FAAD.
  • I didn’t go further back than 2 months because things change so frequently on the App Store the past 2 months are probably a good indication of where things sit right now. Also, I didn’t want the holiday season to skew the results.
  • I used AppAnnie to get app rankings over time. I chose AppAnnie because I’ve found it to be pretty reliable, and it’s easy to use. I also compared rankings for some games with AppFigures and found them to be pretty close, so I’m pretty confident with these numbers.
  • I only tracked chart positions for iPhone in the US. I think this provides a decent snapshot, but keep that in mind if this is not your primary target market.
  • Within this subset, I tracked positions in both the Games category as well as the Overall category. Since I focused solely on games for this study, this was appropriate. I ignored games subcategories as these vary wildly in terms of number of downloads vs. chart position in each subcategory.
  • In addition to tracking chart positions before and after the FAAD promotion, I tracked things like how many times a game appeared as an Apple feature (Hot or New & Noteworthy), whether games were always free or went from paid to free for the promotion, and whether the game was able to crack the Top Grossing charts after the promotion.

Needless to say, the results were very interesting. Let’s take a look…

Effect on Games Category Chart Position

Looking at the games category first, here is where the games stood BEFORE their FAAD promotions:

  • 11 launched with FAAD
  • 17 were ranked outside of the top 1000
  • 20 were ranked between 250 – 1000
  • 3 were ranked inside the top 250

All in all, not too many surprises here, with the exception perhaps that 3 were already ranked higher than 250.

Figure 1 shows where games charted following FAAD. I took the highest chart position the game hit within 3 days of the FAAD promo. Generally, all games leveled off or started to decline after that amount of time.

Figure 1.


So from this, we can observe:

  • less than 10% didn’t make it into the top 100 games,
  • the most common top chart position landed somewhere between 30 and 40,
  • 4 games made it into the top 10

Based on these results, it’s clear FAAD worked in pretty much ALL cases.

Effect on Overall Chart Position

A bump in the games category is great, but the overall charts are where I’d hope to see big gains, as this is where a game gets access to a huge number of eyeballs.

Prior to FAAD, games lined up like this:

  • 11 launched with FAAD
  • 32 were ranked lower than 1000
  • 9 were ranked inside the top 1000 and most of those were ranked between 500 and 1000

Figure 2 shows overall chart position following FAAD.

Figure 2.

As you can see, all but 5 of the games made it into the top 250 overall free apps in the App Store, and 30 of them broke into the top 100. Not shown in the chart, 3 games made it into the top 10. Of ALL free apps. In the ENTIRE App Store.

Based on numbers given by Distimo back in December, roughly 25,000 downloads in a day will get you into the US top 50 Overall Free Charts, and about 80,000 will get you into the top 10. Huge numbers.

Looks pretty convincing so far doesn’t it?

Days Before a Fall

It’s one thing to get to the top of the charts, but it’s another to maintain it. Being sticky is the difference between Temple Run, and just about every other game that’s used FAAD.

Let’s be clear. FAAD makes it their job to get you near the top of the charts, but does nothing to keep you there. Nonetheless, it was interesting to see how much staying power games had following FAAD.

These results were a bit more subjective in that I had to look at the chart movement between days and decide when it looked like an app had started to tail downward. In most cases, it was pretty clear. In others, the downward slide was more subtle.

The results are shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3.

As you can see, over half of the games started tailing downward significantly within 5 days of the promo. That’s a pretty small window to make your money back (no, FAAD is NOT a free service – more on that to follow), much less earn some money on top of that.

So it looks like even though the games got a lot of downloads, most of them weren’t able to make their game stick.

You probably noticed from Figure 3 that there is one game that maintained chart rank far longer than the others. That was a game called Ski on Neon. Whether that was a result of using other services or getting good word of mouth is tough to determine. Some may say that a lot of it’s success is actually a result of the success of Tiny Wings, since the game bears a striking resemblance to that hit game. I’ll stay away from discussions of cloning in this post. Nevertheless, that game stuck and it has held on for 50 days (and continues to hold a high chart position at the time of this writing).

The results show that the window is short, and you really need to have a game that can find an audience during that time.

Effect on Game Revenue

So this is probably the section of the article you’ve been waiting for. Getting good chart position is great, but for a free app, if you can’t use that to monetize, you may as well not waste your time with the service.

During the early days of FAAD, the approach seemed to be to change the pricing of your app to free for a few days, then go back to paid. The hope was that the people who downloaded the app for free would generate enough exposure to increase sales of the paid app after the promotion. It appears to have been successful as many have reported revenue after going back to paid was higher than before the promo. However, sales inevitably returned to pre-FAAD levels over time.

Nowadays, it’s pretty clear that in order to make FAAD effective, you need to use a freemium model for your game. Continue giving away the game for free after the promotion, and charge for In-App Purchases. All discussions of ethics of the freemium model aside, let’s look at the numbers.

So how did our pool of games do with regards to revenue? This is difficult to say for many reasons:

  • The only way to even estimate revenue for free games is to use chart position on the Top Grossing charts.
  • Revenue for any given chart position changes over time.
  • Revenue for any given chart position changes depending on the day of the week.
  • App revenue and chart position isn’t something that’s openly discussed
  • The revenue vs chart position is an exponential curve, not linear

So all I can do is present chart positions on the Top Grossing charts, and talk about those. Figure 4 shows the results. If anyone wants to share revenue numbers based on experience, I’d love to hear it in the comments.

Figure 4.

The chart positions on the Overall Top Grossing chart in the App Store were pretty varied. Here are some highlights:

  • Only 25 of the 51 games broke into the top 1000 top grossing.
  • For those that did break into the top 1000, they were all over the map.
  • Of the 7 games that made it into the coveted top 100 top grossing, 6 of those were games from large publishers, specifically, Glu Mobile (2), Zynga (2), Disney (1) and Gree (1). So it’s likely these games had a LOT of additional marketing dollars behind them.
  • The highest position held by any of the games in our test pool was 13. This was held by Zynga’s Dream Heights. Ironically, the date that Dream Heights held the #13 spot on top grossing, NimbleBit’s Tiny Tower held spot #14.

Based on some numbers shared by other developers on Twitter, I estimate it takes roughly $350-400/day in revenue (before Apple’s cut) to break into the Top Grossing 1000 on the US iPhone chart. Again, that varies widely even during the course of a week, as some have reported that over the weekend, revenue generally doubles, but doesn’t affect chart position much. Again, I stress, this is a *rough* estimate.

A HUGE thanks to @millsustwo, @sethsandler and @rykos for being willing to share sales numbers. If you’re a mobile app developer go ahead and do yourself a big favor and FOLLOW them now.

Other Interesting Tidbits

I also tracked the number of locations where the games were featured by Apple (New & Noteworthy and Hot) both before and after the promotion. Here are my findings:

  • In most cases, FAAD had little effect on the number of locations in the App Store where the game was featured
  • In nearly all cases (except for newly launched games), the games were already being featured in some locations of the App Store in various countries. So it’s clear that developers/publishers did other leg work besides using FAAD.
  • This is an important observation because if there was a consistent increase in Apple features, that could have had an indirect impact on chart positions.

Of the 51 games, 33 were NOT free games prior to FAAD. An additional 10 were brand new. So only 8 were free before their stint on FAAD. In my mind, this holds some significance, as there are several sites and apps that track apps/games that go from free to paid, which results in additional eyes getting news of these apps. This could result in FAAD potentially being more effective as those games that went paid to free could have received more downloads from these sources.

There was one game that stuck out from the others. In fact, after looking at the numbers, I questioned why it used FAAD at all. It was a game called Zombie Jombie. At the time it undertook the FAAD promo, it was already sitting at #6 on the OVERALL chart. FAAD bumped it up to a high position of #5. It also hit on the Top Grossing chart all the way up to #28, which is huge. My guess is that it had previously used another chart boosting service, and perhaps it worked better than anticipated, to a point where FAAD had virtually no effect on chart position.

The Cost of It All

So this all sounds pretty good right? It appears that whatever FAAD is doing, the result is a dramatic number of downloads resulting in an equally dramatic rise in the charts.

Here’s the rub.

Results like these don’t come cheap. Word on the streets is that the charge for this service can range between $4k and $20k(!) and is booked up weeks in advance.

If you look at the revenue numbers we discussed above, if you get all the way up to #1000 on the Top Grossing chart, you would need to stay there for around 3 weeks just to break even (after Apple takes it’s cut), and it’s clear from the data that the odds of doing this aren’t in your favor. Of course, the higher you go, the number of days you need to stay there decreases exponentially. Also, I realize that these numbers don’t take into account iPad sales, as well as sales in other countries, so you need to factor that into the big picture.

So the question becomes whether the pay off will more than offset the up front cost. For large publishers that already have brand awareness and staying power, this is a great jumping off point. For the majority of others, it seems that profitability using this service is an uphill battle.

Any personal experiences? Would love to hear from you in the comments.

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4 Responses to “Climbing the App Store Charts is Easy. Making Money is Another Story.”

  1. Shawn May 12, 2012 at 11:51 pm # Reply

    Wow, nice research! A couple points that I think throw your analysis off.
    1. Top Grossing is certainly higher than 300-400, the Lite version of my app has been making >400/day for a while, and I’ve never ever shown up in Top 1000 Grossing. Also, revenues tend to grow exponentially as you rise, so if #1000 is making $500/day, #900 is probably making more like $2500.

    2. iPad sales are like 60% of iPhone, so that is a massive revenue stream that’s ignored.

    Anyways, I decided to take the FAAD plunge last week, and it goes live next week. I’m chronicling it on my blog:
    http://esdot.ca/site/2012/free-app-a-day-chronicles-part-1

  2. Shawn May 12, 2012 at 11:54 pm # Reply

    Oh, and it seems that FAAD is $3500, but they offer a $500 discount for “first time” customers. I don’t know how much that quote changes from customer to customer, but they quoted me the same price for both a Game and a Photo App, so it doesn’t seem to vary for genre.

    Kinda excited to see how this turns out actually, they don’t do very many Apps, usually just games, so I hope it wasn’t a mistake…

  3. Shawn May 13, 2012 at 10:29 am # Reply

    Actually, just reading the article you linked to on Whale Trail, you can figure out pretty well what the Top 1000 is making.

    Or at least, a good correlation between rank in the iPhone Top Grossing (US), and total net income (WW).

    Compare this:
    http://www.appannie.com/app/ios/whale-trail/ranking/history/#view=grossing-ranks&start_date=2011-10-20&end_date=2012-05-12

    To This:
    http://paper.li/philterdesign/1322282276

    If the app makes $.70/download, then it made about $8000/day at it’s peak, which was about #117 Top Grossing in US.

    Falling down to 400th, they made around $2500/day.

    When they fall out of the top 1000 they are making around $1000/day or so.

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