(Note: This was written in 2012! Some of it is still applicable, but most of it should be taken with a grain of salt.)

In part two of my series on lessons we learned about selling on the iOS App Store, I’ll focus on our experience with review sites. Again, this is not an exhaustive list of all the stuff you need to know, but rather a collection of things that eluded us when we published our first couple of apps. Part 1 is here, in case you missed it. Part 3 is here.

Contact review sites before your app launches!

If you’re looking for reviews of your app or game, don’t wait until it’s out before you contact review sites. Major review sites receive a few hundred inquiries a week, and asking them to review an app that’s been out for weeks doesn’t turn the odds in your favor (case in point: we contacted review sites for our first game “Drifts” a couple of months after it launched and received zero coverage).

For a game, you ideally want to build up buzz over time, with sites picking up early trailers or gameplay videos months before the game is finished. But if that’s not an option – for instance, because your total development time is short, your game is too small to build up anticipation, or you’re working on an app with a novel idea that would be easy to clone – providing advance copies to review sites will provide the site with potentially more interesting news and your app with launch day coverage.

How to approach review sites would merit an article on its own, but if you’re asking a reviewer to take a look at an advance copy of your app, it’s a good idea to link them to screenshots and a trailer or gameplay video, so they can gauge whether your product is worth their time. I’d recommend researching press kits and putting a proper one together as well.

There are three ways of handing out advance copies:

The first way is creating an ad hoc build. For this, you would need the device ID of a reviewer’s iPhone or iPad. The procedure requires some back and forth and may be a little tedious, so don’t expect every reviewer to jump at the chance of doing it this way (although some sites do actively advertise that they’re willing to look at ad hoc builds). Also, with a regular developer account, you only get a total of 100 devices per year between which you can test all of your apps – these include your own devices, those of any clients you may be working for, and anybody else you give ad hoc builds to, so you might refrain from offering ad hoc builds willy-nilly.

The advantage of ad hoc builds is that they run natively on a reviewer’s device, and you can theoretically start handing them out as soon as you start development.

The second way is using a service such as TestFlight. You send your builds to the service (using their UDIDs), and they provide an interactive streaming video of the application to your reviewers. I’ve never used TestFlight, and I’d expect it to have the drawbacks that streaming video has, namely that it might not be responsive enough for a 60fps game; nevertheless, it’s probably the most hassle free way of giving a reviewer a glimpse of your application in its early stages. (C0rrection: I was wrong about TestFlight streaming videos to testers. They actually distribute your build)

The third way is to use promo codes. For each version of your app, Apple provides you with 50 promo codes which can be redeemed via iTunes. It’s not at all obvious, but you can use these codes as soon as your application has passed review, even if it’s not yet available in the App Store. If you set your release date way after Apple’s approval date, you can send out codes to review sites as soon as your app has been approved. This also works for free apps.
The advantage here is that from a reviewer’s perspective, this is the way review copies are usually handed out, so there is no extra hassle for them. The disadvantage is that you can only do this once your game is complete and ready to ship, and you’ll have to push your release date out accordingly.

Offer giveaways to review sites!

A lot of review sites do periodic giveaways of promo codes for their readers. If you have the codes to spare, offering a giveaway to a review site might be the way to sway them towards covering your game. And if they’ve already reviewed your game in the past, giveaways could help get your game repeat coverage.

Depending on the site, expect to give away somewhere between 2 and 10 codes. It’s a good idea to ask sites how many they’d usually want to give away – most answers you get will be towards the lower end of the spectrum. The 50 promo codes you get from Apple will be gone quickly, so if someone asks for more than 5 codes, compare their Alexa ranking to review sites of known size or research their Twitter or Facebook followings to make sure your codes are well spent.

Depending on your marketing budget (and the price of your app), there’s also the option of gifting yourself your app to produce additional promo codes, if you don’t want to turn anybody down. (Note the caveat mentioned in the update to part 1).

You can re-use unused review site promo codes!

Review sites are busy, and they get a lot of requests, so you want to make everything as easy for them as possible. Putting a promo code or two (we use two for major sites or sites that explicitly ask for it) in your e-mail will remove one barrier between a reviewer and your game.

On the other hand, a good portion of your potential reviewers won’t even use their codes, and 50 codes are gone quickly. Rather than let them go to waste, you can use this little trick to test which codes have not been used: http://davidbarnard.com/post/10980474471/testing-app-store-promo-codes

Two things to note:
First, I’ve heard reports of this method not being 100% accurate, so I wouldn’t give away codes that it marks as free to other reviewers or in giveaways that single out a winner. Instead, post them on internet forums or your facebook page or somewhere else where it doesn’t matter as much if one of the codes turns out to be already used after all!
Second, promo codes are valid for four weeks after you create them, and review sites often take some time before they get to your game. We’ve had a review site cover “Coign of Vantage” out of the blue, almost three weeks after we sent them their codes. Keep track of which codes you send to which review sites, and check for unused codes three weeks or so after they were created. We also make a point not to re-use codes we’ve sent to the biggest sites even after three weeks, just in case.

Don’t expect reviews to be your key to success

One thing that surprised me is how little review sites actually do in terms of sales boosts. “Coign of Vantage” was reviewed by a bunch of sites, some of them very big, and all of them saying good things about our game (never less than 4 out of 5 stars). We had an Italian iPhone site review the game, which had an Alexa ranking of 12000 and around 300 in Italy. During the next few days we sold one copy in Italy. A Chinese news site with a similar worldwide traffic rank and a 2500 ranking in China had an article about the game, which caused 0 Chinese sales on that day.

The same goes for some of the major US review sites (I’ve heard that TouchArcade is an exception to that, but alas, we have not been reviewed by it). Some of them provided minor boosts, but if you’re thinking that review sites by themselves will significantly contribute to your app’s sales, you will almost certainly be disappointed.

As with almost everything related to iOS marketing, I’ve come to think of review sites as multipliers that work in conjunction with everything else you do to promote your app. They help build links to your app. They get your screenshots and icon in front of consumers (which might just need multiple impressions before they give your app a try). They come up when potential users google your app’s name. They provide awesome quotes you can use in your marketing texts (which may sway potential buyers who never even saw the actual review). They probably increase the likelyhood that Apple picks your game for the new and noteworthy list. They help shape the perception of the few readers that buy your game, so they in turn may leave positive user reviews in the App Store. And articles on review sites increase the likelyhood that other review sites pick up your game or app.

Also, they can be great for bragging rights.

A portion of this applies to paid review sites. Quite a few of the sites you contact will write back and ask you to pay anywhere between 20 and 100 USD for a guaranteed “expedited” review. If you use these, you’re pretty much guaranteed to not break even on your investment, in terms of additional sales. They might however help get the ball rolling, if your app received no other coverage.

Pay for press release distribution

In addition to contacting review sites in advance, it pays off to do a proper press release on launch day and pay a distribution service to disseminate it. Not only will your release reach the inboxes of reporters at large blogs and magazines that you may not be able to hunt down on your own (and those reporters have specifically opted in to the press release service, whereas they may be less inclined to read your direct and unsolicited e-mails), but your release will also be picked up automatically by a lot of aggregator sites on the web, which will provide backlinks to your app. The SEO value of these alone probably exceeds the 20$ a service like prmac.com takes.

Again, how to write a good press release is way beyond the scope of this article. Research it! Spend some time looking for iOS specific advice on forums, and spend some time reading actual press releases of apps similar to yours (you’ll find them on press release sites).

One word of warning: prmac.com actually changed the text of our press release before sending it out, without consulting or even notifying us first. They removed some links to additional material and changed some of the wording in our first paragraph. The changes didn’t really affect the quality or value of the release, so we might go with them again, but if you consider that behavior inappropriate, I suggest you research other services.


One Response to Lessons learned on the App Store – part 2

  1. Tarryn says:

    Thanks for a great article, Philipp! Our Baby Development Activities app for iPad has just been approved by Apple and we’re starting the launch process. This is really helpful info. I’ll be sure to read part 1 and 2 as well!

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