It’s every iOS app developer’s dream: getting their native app featured in the App Store. To have your work displayed front and center in Apple’s app marketplace requires the right combination of strategy, knowhow and, of course, a remarkable app. While it may not be easy, it’s definitely achievable, and what every app developer should aim for. After all, being featured can be the main source of your native app’s growth.
There are various positions where your app can be featured in the App Store. The big one is being featured right on the iTunes homepage for All Categories, but if your app is featured on the homepage of any specific category, you’ll get massive exposure just the same.
You need to know that the competition can get pretty intense: there are between 1000 and 2000 app submissions every day, with the wildest days seeing nearly 2,500 submissions. Talk about crazy! In this kind of melee, how can the average app developer hope to catch Apple’s attention and get his app featured?
We’re going to walk you through every single avenue available to get your native app the attention it deserves!
Tactic #1: Focus on Designing for the Mobile User Experience
As Steve Jobs said so famously when talking about the user experience and technology nearly two decades ago:
“You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work back toward the technology—not the other way around.”
It’s now 2016, and this advice is truer now than ever. As mobile continues to take center stage in design and technology, if you want to get an App Store feature for your native mobile app, you have to first focus on the user experience and design your app around that. It’s the only way you’re going to create an app that people will want to use, keep coming back to, and even fall in love with.
Take a cue from Apple’s own guidelines for designing for iOS. The three themes are:
- UI deference
All three elements focus on the user experience on native mobile apps, and by user experience we’re referring to what your users think and the emotions they feel as they’re using your app. Are they frustrated? Are they delighted? Are they finding navigating through your app and accomplishing the goals they set out to do easy or hard to do? All of these questions need to be answered in conjunction with Apple’s design guidelines!
For inspiration on how to design a killer user experience for your app, see our very insightful blog post titled “19 Insanely Beneficial Mobile Design Blogs That Every Mobile Designer Should Follow.”
Tactic #2: Make it Native!
While there used to be a debate about making native apps versus making hybrid (HTML-based) apps, the controversy is increasingly being settled in favor of native apps. The reality is that many hybrid apps fail to get featured in the App Store — and with good reason. They are problem-laden, as this ZDNet article makes perfectly clear.
Just because hybrid apps can be “used” on other platforms doesn’t mean that they have a decent user experience. In fact, they’re prone to crashing. Perhaps even more significantly, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is on record declaring that “the biggest mistake we’ve made as a company is betting on HTML5 over native.”
With these big strikes against hybrid, your best bet for getting featured on the App Store lies with designing a great native mobile app. After all, Forrester reports that customer satisfaction is greater with native than with hybrid. Why? Because of the superior user experience, of course!
For more on this, see our earlier “Hybrid Vs Native Mobile Apps—The Answer Is Clear” blog post.
Tactic #3: Concentrate on One or Two Major Use Cases
Perhaps nothing speaks to understanding the user experience in native mobile app design more than honing in on the app’s use cases. A use case is the main reason why a person would want to use your app. According to Y Media Lab’s CEO, Ashish Toshniwal, the number one secret to being featured is getting the use case right from the get go and keeping it to no more than one or two per app.
A use case should be clear right from the start: Any user should easily see what the app’s about within the first five to 10 seconds of downloading it! You don’t want to complicate your app or confuse your user, which is what you’ll do if you add too many use cases to an app.
App designers should absolutely have one or two use cases well-identified before they ever start app development in earnest, and should forego indulging in a long wish list of desired-but-impractical app features.
Tactic #4: Design a Stellar-Looking App Icon
Before you think that your native app’s icon doesn’t matter since it’s only a symbol, consider this. Founder of Tiny Hearts, Robleh Jama, whose apps have been featured at different times on the App Store, writes that:
“We’ve been featured a few times, and we heard directly from Apple that they notice good app icons.”
There you have it—straight from the horse’s mouth!
It shouldn’t be surprising that Apple is evaluating your app’s icon as a factor in deciding whether or not to feature your app. An icon provides very valuable clues to the quality of the app you just designed.
Here’s how to design that impression-making app icon that Apple will take notice of:
1) If your app icon is, for example, a unique color that makes it instantly pop when compared to all the other apps in its category, that’s an indicator of technical prowess and awareness in design. Make your app color and vibrancy stand out from those of your competitors.
2) Another issue is clarity: Your icon ought to automatically communicate what your app can do. Just look at Gmail’s simple, though straightforward, icon.
3) Finally, the icon should be an indicator of your app’s interface. If an icon can quickly and simply inform people of how they’ll use your app, that’ll score you extra points with Apple. Design your icon to give solid clues about how people will actually see it and use it on their devices.
Tactic #5: Create a High-Quality App
When you strip everything down to the bare basics, you can’t get featured by Apple if your app is subpar. So how do you create a high-quality app in the first place?
It definitely helps to have a very solid concept behind the app you create. Gearing your app to a specific niche audience is a solid strategy, as you want your app to make a meaningful connection to said audience. If your app can help solve a problem they’re experiencing or fill a need in their lives, then so much the better.
Being a designer or a creative entrepreneur with a hot idea is obviously not enough to make an app a hit. You need to have work on the back end of the app done by a superb developer. In both of the case studies presented here, the app’s creators came to Y Media Labs for development assistance, and we delivered for them.
To create a high-quality app, your solid idea must be backed by a top-notch development team.
Tactic #6: Try Cold Emailing
Some marketers swear that cold anything—cold calling, cold emailing, etc.—is obsolete in this day and age. After all, since the advent of the web, business relationships can develop conveniently and efficiently on social networks and the like. However, at least one app-marketing specialist completely disagrees with premise, as he successfully used the cold-emailing strategy to get one of his clients’ native apps featured in the App Store.
Steve Young succeeded in getting MiniGamr’s app — Are You in Over Your Head?— featured by Apple, an accomplishment which he writes about.
The process is comfortingly straightforward after you’ve already built a great app:
1) Find the proper contact person at Apple by using LinkedIn, then narrow down your search results to “App Store Manager”.
2) Use this amazingly beneficial tool, Chrome’s Email Hunter extension, to actually compel email addresses of your search targets to show up on their LinkedIn profiles, allowing you to easily email them.
3) Craft a persuasive, short email that consists of an explainer video, social proof for your app, an explanation of its new iOS features (if any), and a request for feedback.
4) Complete Apple’s forms: If you’ve succeeded you’ll receive a form from the App Store manager in response to your cold email, which you should fill out ASAP and email back.
After this, it’s simply a waiting game since you won’t actually hear back from Apple to verify that your app will be featured. Simply check the App Store on Thursdays (when they update their featured apps) to see if you made the cut. Be sure to check not only the homepage, but alsothe pages of different categories.
Tactic #7: Get Featured on Popular Industry Websites
Surprise, surprise: Apple’s app people are following and reading top industry tech websites. This is where social proof comes into the picture, because the more your app or company is featured on these top-notch websites, the more your credibility as a hot commodity will increase in the eyes of people with pull at Apple.
Think of it in terms of getting press coverage to support your bid to be featured in the App Store. It’s all about consistency: If Apple notices that your app is already getting a fair amount of press, they’re much more likely to be convinced that it’s something that they should feature, too.
Try this strategy:
1) Search for a list of the most popular blogs about Apple
2) Navigate the sites you’re interested in to find the contact info for the editors
3) Craft a compelling, well-written pitch that persuades the editors to mention your app in a related story Position yourself as an expert, which provides value to a site’s published story.
4) Alternately, you could hire a PR, link-building or marketing agency with good connections to successfully get your app mentioned in a specific news story that would appear on an Apple site.
If Apple believes that your app is already generating some buzz, they’re more apt to want to jump on the bandwagon!
Tactic #8: Get Familiar With Apple’s Own Calendar and Schedule of Events
This is key. When Apple features apps, it does so because there’s also a tie-in to something broader and bigger that’s happening in pop culture and the world. In other words, it’s usually not a coincidence that certain apps are featured at certain points in the year.
For instance, during tax season it’s a good bet that apps focusing on doing taxes efficiently will be pushed in the App Store. During huge pop-culture events like the Oscars, entertainment and celebrity-gossip apps are likely to be featured more.
As Readdle’s Denys Zhadanov puts it:
“App Store editorial team has its own calendar of holidays, events and seasons, so they feature the apps accordingly. If it’s September – most likely Apple will push their “Back to School campaign” featuring apps for students (to-dos, writing, PDF readers, note-takers, etc).”
So when you get in touch with Apple and pitch to them, be mindful of the time of year when you’re making your request.
Tactic #9: Make Your App Exclusive to iOS
Even though Android is outselling the iPhone by about five to one, there are many native apps that either come out exclusively for iOS or come out on iOS long before they’re available on Android. What’s going on? You’d think that the higher number of Android users would make it more appealing for app designers and developers to focus on Android apps. But that’s exactly where the confusion lies.
By making your app exclusive to iOS and flat out ignoring Android, you stand to gain a lot of benefits:
- More profits
- Fewer compatibility issues
- Cheaper production costs
- Having to deal with far fewer piracy concerns
- Bigger community of developers supporting the Apple platform
Tactic #10: Keep Your Customer Ratings Above 4.5
One of the most vital criteria that your users rely on when deciding to download your app is the customer ratings. It’s simple: If they see a high rating—say, above 4.5—then they’re more likely to download it. By contrast, a lower rating will have a discouraging effect on them wanting to download your app.
Keep in mind that Apple’s also thinking from the profit-motive standpoint. They want to feature higher-rated apps because those are the ones that do best.
This begs the question: How do you keep your customers happy so that they rate your app highly?
The answer takes us back where we started, to the user experience that we’ve been stressing from the very beginning. It is very important to your app’s success and to being featured.
To keep your ratings high, do the following:
1) In-app customer service – Make it super-easy for your users to contact you from directly inside the app. You shouldn’t be sending them elsewhere for customer service. When you make getting support efficient, you reduce the instances where your customers go to the App Store to vent their frustrations with one- or two-star reviews.
2) Perform beta testing prior to release – This is where you get feedback from a small sampling of your intended audience. When you know what your audience likes and dislikes about your app before the official launch, you can make the necessary changes and cut down on negative reviews.
3) Prompt your users – Assuming you’ve created an excellent app that provides a great user experience, your users should be more than happy to leave a high rating for your app. How do you get them to do so? Simply prompt them by using tools like Appirater, a piece of code that presents dialog boxes to your users, reminding them to rate your app.
4) Run Contests to Incentivize Users – You can always try the direct approach by incentivizing your users to review your app. One of the best ways — which won’t run afoul of Apple’s standards — is to hold a contest. Popular iOS-app forums like Touch Arcade have a regularly-updated section where app developers routinely announce contests for iTunes gift cards with the way to enter being an app review.
Tactic #11: Submit Your App Right After Its Release to Product Hunt and Other Influential Websites
You want your app to get as much attention as possible when you release it, and the best way to do this is by submitting it—without paying to do so—to an influential website. One of the best options is Product Hunt, a site that Tech Crunch calls “the social news site of tech products read by influential people.” Since Apple’s engineers and employees have great influence in the tech world, you can be sure their people are following Product Hunt closely to stay on top of the hottest releases!
While there are many sites out there that will cover your new app’s release, not all do it without asking for money in exchange. Paid reviews naturally diminish the credibility of your app coverage. The following sites are influential, and don’t ask for money for app coverage— they only ask for high-quality apps. These sites get a lot of app-review requests, so competition is fierce but it’s still worth a shot:
1) AppAdvice – This popular site gets so many coverage requests that it won’t guarantee you app coverage. You can help your chances of getting covered by including the following: your company name and history, your app’s release date, the app name, iTunes link, app description, app promo code, app-development portfolio, contact email, the app’s unique selling proposition, and future app plans.
2) App Store Apps – The submission process is a bit easier for this site. All you need to do is provide your promo code when you contact the site.
3) App Chatter – If this site decides to cover your app with a written review, you also have a chance of being featured on its podcast! Simply provide the site with your name, email address, app name, app type, iTunes URL, download code and website URL.
Tactic #12: Use a Feature or Product Just Released by Apple
To get on Apple’s radar just in time for your app launch, you should try to ingratiate yourself with the company by using one of its newest features or products. For example, you could design an app specifically to take advantage of the features of the company’s new Apple Watch. Designing an app for this exclusivity won’t just get you noticed by Apple, but also demonstrates the practical utility of how a new Apple product works. Double the points!
Now, you can pitch to Apple by doing the following:
1) Ensure that you also have all of the details for your app feature/coverage (such as contact details) specified in iTunes Connect before you send off your email to Apple.
2) Make sure you’re sending your pitch to the right email addresses! According to Venture Beat, the Apple marketing team takes emails from app developers at both firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
3) Now you’re ready to hit the send button and simply wait for a positive outcome. Good luck!
Tactic #13: Prepare for the Best (if You Get a Positive Reply From Apple)
You know that old saying, “Prepare for the worst, but hope for the best?” You have to be ready to respond to the outcome if Apple agrees to feature your app. They’ll give you an alert letting you know that it intends to do so, but you need to do more than just be appreciative and bask in the glow of your success.
If you don’t have your next move planned, chaos is likely to ensue and you won’t be able to make the most of this great marketing opportunity. So what do you need to do?
If an Apple representative gets in touch with you, you need to have all the details ready to give them the info they’re looking for. Do the following:
1) Provide Apple with promo art to make your feature stand out (You do have promo art all ready to go, right?)
2) Give them screen shots of your app in action so that users can see how your app functions and decide whether they want to download it
3) Show them your app icon. As mentioned above, icons are one of the biggest factors in getting your app featured in the first place.
4) Present them with a detailed and interesting description of your app that will entice users to download it.
The key takeaway here is that getting featured is only half the story. If you’re going to get featured, you need to present your app in the most attractive and persuasive way possible. Remember that you’re still competing against a plethora of other apps, so marketing your app well when it’s featured is strategically important.
Tactic #14: Tell a Story as the Basis of Your Pitch
Human beings love stories, including the folks at Apple who are deciding whether or not to feature your app. Storytelling is so deeply ingrained in the human experience that we’re programmed to empathize with a story’s characters as soon as we hear one! Why not use a story to successfully sell your app to Apple as part of your pitch to get it featured?
Your basic story follows the usual pattern of Freytag’s Pyramid: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution.
Set up your story for Apple this way:
1) Tell Apple why you wanted to make the app and reveal the passion that went into it
2) Explain the journey you went through as you developed your app
3) Tell them about any struggles you’ve experienced – maybe it was lack of funding, team members quitting, etc.
4) Show what you did to overcome these challenges
5) Communicate to them that getting featured in the App Store is the reward for all that hard work
When you use storytelling in your pitch to Apple, you’re persuading them to put themselves in your shoes and really feel what your company went through to develop the app. It’s a strategy that creates a resonance with whoever’s making the decision to feature your app.
Let’s check out two helpful case studies. In both instances, Y Media Labs was heavily involved in developing standout apps that ended up being featured on the App Store.
A Case Study in Determination: Montessorium
Montessorium, an educational app company dedicated to making the Montessori method more accessible, is one of Y Media Labs’ clients. Its native apps have been featured in the App Store and even in Apple commercials. Its apps, as a result, have been downloaded approximately 1 million times!
Montessorium did several things right to be featured by Apple.
They made sure to:
- Pick the right partner
- Create an app in their area of expertise
- Design for their audience
- Use tech to optimize the user experience
- Constantly embrace new technology
- Stay true to their guiding principle
Montessorium’s Featured Apps
The first Montessorium native app that took off was Intro to Letters, a teaching app based on the Montessori method that helps kids to learn how to read, write and trace, as well as to record letter sounds, phonograms and names. It’s available on the App Store. It wasn’t just featured on the App Store, but in an Apple iPad commercial entitled “iPad is Electric” as well as in an Apple billboard campaign. Now that’s how to make an app truly successful!
Continuing the company’s run of successful native apps was Intro to Math, another teaching app for both the iPad and iPhone that was once again based on the Montessori method – this time it focused on the method that helps kids to read, understand and write numbers from zero to nine. It’s available on the App Store and Google Play. As was the case with Intro to Letters, this app was also featured in an Apple commercial: this one was called “We Believe.”
In our next example, Y Media Labs helped another company to develop an app that was featured in the App Store.
A Case Study of Big Vision: Nom Nom Paleo
Nom Nom Paleo is an award-winning and highly trafficked food blog from Michelle Tam, a Paleo Diet advocate and bestselling cookbook author. She started her blog in 2010, and a few years later it had grown so big and popular that she decided she wanted to create her very own cookbook app based around her Paleo Diet recipes.
She contacted Y Media Labs, where CTO Sumit Mehra had ironically never even heard of Paleo anything. When Michelle got in touch with him “out of the blue,” Y Media Labs went ahead with the app development, seeing great potential in Michelle’s idea.
Talk about ambition — you truly need vision to go from having a popular food blog, seeing the potential for an app based on an oft-misunderstood diet, and then turning it into a rousing success! But that’s what Michelle and Y Media Labs did with the Nom Nom Paleo app, available on the App Store for both the iPad and iPhone.
No matter how great your native app is by itself, it doesn’t guarantee you an App Store feature. Getting to your end goal of being featured really depends on a step-by-step process that relies on numerous tactics.
Getting Featured Means Using Different Strategies Together
By now, you should have clear insight on what it takes to increase your chances of being featured in the App Store. Note that no single strategy or approach guarantees success, and in fact, none of these methods individually or together guarantees 100% success.
Still, if your company has already invested passion, commitment, drive, time and money into making a tremendous app, then you should go for broke to get it featured in the App Store. Be sure to use as many of these strategies as you can to increase your chances.
Though you clearly won’t be getting an email from Steve Jobs anymore—as Y Media Labs’ CEO once did, encouraging him to keep doing what he was doing — the next best thing is to keep persevering your way to success.
Most apps don’t get featured, so don’t despair if the long shot doesn’t deliver. Remember that when you implement all of these approaches to get featured, you’re doing justice to your hard work, and that’s what really counts in the end.
There you have it! That’s how you can get featured in the App Store. Do you have any better suggestions or tactics? If you do, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.