How to sell your killer iPhone app

June 25, 2009: 9:03 AM ET

A guide to breaking big in Apple's very crowded market.

Keeven Kuate Konga, Tempe
What steps do I take in order to make a big jump in the iPhone application industry? I have found an app designer. I know the basics, but is there any other information other than what's given on Apple's Web site?

By Kathleen Ryan O'Connor
, contributor

Imagine being crowned the valedictorian of a class of 50,000. That's a bit of what's it's like to capture the #1 spot in Apple's iPhone app store -- only a lot more lucrative. A hot iPhone app is the Holy Grail of mobile software development.

For all the dings Apple takes for its dealings with outside developers, the price of admission into its iPhone app program is pretty straightforward: $99 for basic access to the software development kit (SDK). Apple ditched its wildly unpopular nondisclosure requirement back in October.

Once your application is ready for launch, the approval process generally moves fast. According to Simon Pope, an Apple spokesman, 98% of iPhone apps submitted to the store are reviewed in seven days, and 96% are approved.

Then comes the hard part: Getting noticed by legions of passionate iPhone users. Competitive pressure has driven the cost of most of Apple's almost 50,000 iPhone apps to $1.99 or less, according to, an independent site about iPhone apps with a good "marketing 101" section. That means volume is king. For your app to make money, customers must find it, like it, and above all, download it.

"It takes making a great game, but that's just one element of it," says Adam Sussman, vice president of worldwide publishing for EA Mobile, which created top app The Sims 3. The mobile version of the popular game zoomed to #1 within 18 hours of its release on June 2.

"And we did that at $9.99," Sussman says.

Jumping off a wildly popular and established brand helps enormously, but Sussman says marketing is a factor, no matter your size.

"The app store is so crowded," he says. "How do you drive discoverability? It's not the case that you just do a game and that's it." EA's strategy was to build excitement for The Sims 3 by releasing all its platform versions -- PC, Mac, iPhone and more -- on the same day across the world.

One way to get noticed on a shoestring budget is to try to have your app reviewed by some of the dozens of sites that have sprung up to chronicle All Things iPhone, like AppScout. The blog Online Marketing Rant has a handy list of relevant publications.

And while the unfortunate Baby Shaker app produced a lot of press, no expert thought silly or scandalous was the way to go. The best apps leverage unique iPhone features, like the device's accelerometer and touch screen. A rich and addictive user experience is the difference between being a one-hit wonder or creating something with staying power, Sussman says.

Also critical is knowing your audience, says Jonathan Sasse, senior vice president of marketing at Slacker Radio, a popular free online radio station that released its own iPhone app in January.

"We did our best to make sure the iPhone experience is close to the full Slacker experience, so you can go back and forth," he says. Slacker went for a rich-media feel, but developers need to be mindful to keep their mobile apps from growing too complicated.

Try not to get caught up in the frenzy to be #1, Sasse recommends. Concentrate on building a great experience.
Mark Bradshaw, director of development for Stratogon Entertainment Corp. in Plantation, Fla., knows what it's like to be in your shoes. Stratogon now concentrates heavily on the iPhone app market, and will have several apps ready to go live in the next month.

"We think it's about making a great game that's really quick and fun," he says. "People are going to be sitting at the bus stop -- it's something they get in and out of pretty quickly."

So how big a deal will it be if your apps break big?

"It's a huge deal," Bradshaw says, especially for those on tiny budgets.

A bestselling iPhone app can easily move 300,000 units in the first three months. At $1.99 per unit, that's almost $600,000. Apple takes a 30% cut, but when you're creating your product on a shoestring upfront investment, that's still a lot of upside. As Bradshaw puts it: grossing "half a million dollars isn't bad."

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