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App Store David vs. Goliath Story

The ASO lessons I’ve learned moving my app to the top against the big guys.


coloring pen icon

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In 2013 my wife made a comment that, “there should be an app that mimics my adult coloring books”. She was right! I took to understanding what the patterns should look like (Angie Grace had the best books) and how the app should work.

There were some nicely functioning applications but none of them were made for adults. I contacted a developer and set out to have this app made. I worked with a designer to make the patterns, an image guy to make the splash screen and icon, and even a video guy to make a demo video. I spent more money than I intended but I was sure to see it through.

After tweaking it until my wife and I felt it was perfected, I submitted it in February 2014. After around 10 days, it was rejected because I used the term “adult coloring” in my keywords, which is now allowed. I made the changes and resubmitted. Nearly 10 more days later it was released to the public for what I was sure to be my million dollar product (I didn’t really think, so I just wanted to break even).

I had never done this before so I had no idea what to expect. Would I get any downloads or a thousand downloads? Well it turns out that I got 251 that first day. I was so excited. I started to estimate how many downloads I would get in a year. If my math was right, I was looking at around 100,000. The next night I couldn’t sleep. I was so eager to wake up and see my app on top of the charts. Well…It didn’t work that way. There were around 160 downloads. The number kept dwindling then remained constant and hovering around 20 downloads a day.

iTunes Connect sales graph

iTunes Connect sales graph

My app was free but had a banner ad. So, I had a duplicate version made without ads,  I also added IAP (in app purchases) items in the free version. Thing stayed constant and I lost interest.

Fast forward two years later. I hadn’t done much with the apps. I’ve had a Facebook page, a website and some loyal fans. Adult coloring is all the rage. I now have nearly 20,000 downloads and have earned a couple thousand dollars. But I still have not broke even.

However, I have a new found interest to bring my little apps back to life. I’ve done quite a bit of learning about ASO and about the competition. I learned that for some reason the big players, some that claim to have 25 million downloads worldwide, don’t have to play by the rules.

Company X rewards users extra patterns if they give them a five star review. Apple clearly states that: If you attempt to cheat the system (for example, by trying to trick the review process, steal data from users, copy another developer’s work, or manipulate the ratings) your Apps will be removed from the store and you will be expelled from the developer program.”

Company Y has a preview video and screenshots that are definitely not screenshots. I got rejected for just showing the edge of an iPad screen.

Company Z pays to have positive articles written by writers on major news outlets. I can’t afford to have this done.

I have submitted my apps to ALL of the app review sites and never heard a word. You should do this too, with a brief description, links to promo video and promo codes. Just because I didn’t get a response doesn’t mean you won’t. These big players have huge budgets; I’m a one man show. I need to come up with better strategies. One thing I noticed is that all of the top sellers were not real coloring. These apps are touch and auto-fill. How can they have an audience when they are missing the mark? Also, all of these apps came out in mid 2015 when they all hopped on the bandwagon. I will bond with the “real” colorers of the world.  Graph comparing coloring books to coloring app downloads

Flood marketing is a legitimate and very successful way to get your app noticed. Apple rewards apps with a buzz. So you need to create social media outlets, join groups, have a website and spread the word of your app. Company X updates their app profile every day on Google Play and every few days on iTunes to keep them relevant and to help create more buzz. That’s what I’m doing by writing this article :). Make sure to have links on your website and all of your social media. Create a web of “your stuff”. The bigger it grows the better chance you have to get noticed.

Here is what I did and also what I learned:

I have five apps. They are all coloring apps and are fundamentally the same. One is a premium version ($5.99) that includes everything. One is $0.99 and charges to get additional patterns and colors. Two other apps are only 12 patterns, one free with extra colors for a fee and one that includes everything for $2.99. I also have a completely free app that has only 4 patterns but it helps get my name out there.  I will release the free version this weekend. When new apps are released they show up as “new”, upgrades do not. When they are “new” they get more attention and that is what I am hoping for.

Since I have five apps, I am going to release them in stages. Two version updates on Thursday, two updates on Friday and the new release on Saturday. I chose to release them at 1:00am Pacific Time so they will have full days of visibility in the US (sorry HI). Because I have five apps I am taking advantage of using multiple categories to list them on the app store. This way if someone is by category there is a better chance that my app will be found.

Additionally, since I have five apps, I am able to use 500 characters for keywords (Apple). I have done a lot of research and feel that I have found some gems. Keywords that are highly searched but with low competition. I am not duplicating the keywords, but I am grouping them. For example all of the words with “coloring”, “art”, and “painting” go to one of the apps and all of the words with “relax”, “unwind”,  and “anti stress” go to another.

When looking for keywords, do an app store search for what your app does. Take note of what pops up in the auto-search. For example, if I enter “Adult Coloring”, “Adult Coloring Book Free” pops up. Make sure you use these keywords together on one of your apps.

Do not use plurals in your keywords. The plurals will be found regardless. If you use “color”, do not use “colors”.

One more thing I noticed was to take advantage of as many localizations as possible. Don’t think that if you use words other than your main group of keywords, that it will help your case. If someone searches for coloring in Australia and you don’t have that in that localization, no lucky. If you use Google Translate your translated keywords are spaced. Make sure to remove all spaces and use all 100 spaces. Another thing is when you translate into many of the asian languages there is room for more keywords, so USE THEM!

Speaking of localizations, I think there are better ways to add them, but, I’m a one man show and I found that it is easier to start with just your primary language, add and save all of your screenshots and preview videos and THEN add the other languages. If needed, delete all of the languages, add your images and videos, then add the languages back when upgrading versions. Since I have five apps, when editing or adding descriptions, keywords, and new version items, I keep five tabs open and copy and paste quite a bit. Save your changes. I usually eat lunch or go for a walk when saving. This usually takes 15-20 minutes before I close the browser because the page seems to be frozen. I wait 10-15 more minutes to log back in and the changes are usually successful.

graph showing the popularity boom of coloring apps in 2015

Screenshots matter. Do portrait shots. If you present a landscape image you get half, HALF the advertisement space of a portrait. Do a video. I got rejected for showing the device my app was used on and not just screenshots even though big boys are allowed to.

It is best to use an app name that has keywords in it. This frees up more keyword space so don’t use any of your app name in your keywords. Also, INCLUDE a tag line. It will make your app more visible AND sneaks keywords into your list. If you are new and do not have a business name, select one that uses keywords. This is another way to sneak more KWs in.

Ratings matter even though they probably shouldn’t. Ratings can be bought and bribed (see above). Be sure to add a pop-up to remind your users, “If you are enjoying this app, please rate it at the App Store”. However, don’t remind them too soon or too often or you will rub them the wrong way.

Lastly, you need to have a good app that looks polished and doesn’t crash. You may be thinking that my apps are probably crap. I know that everybody loves their own baby, me too, but I have heard many good things about my app and not just from my mom. I allowed my developer account to go un-renewed one month ago. When I did this I heard from some of my users that said, “Coloring Advanced is the best App out there. Please bring it back”.

ASO results graph

Thursdays results

iTunes graph showing Fridays results

Wish me luck this weekend, I hope the same for you.