Big box retailers have been designed meticulously to allow shoppers to discover new brands. The marketing is subversive, as these new offerings sit interspersed--yet unavoidable--among existing preferences. The psychology of a store (as discussed in one of my favorite business books Nudge), marketing muscle, and brand extensions help expose users to new items. But what if a store existed that let in a limitless number of products, barely organized the aisles and provided limited floor staff to help answer questions? Users would be forced to follow the masses adhering to the age old adage that if everyone else is buying a product, it must be good. The anointed few would drive massive volume, while other items collected cobwebs as they quickly became antiquated.
Retailers have evolved to avoid such a scenario but app stores have not. Instead, some rely on a few curated sections to expose users to new content, but most users discover apps though the top apps list. And on its face this may seem like a compelling option, but in truth it creates a ceiling that only allows a few through while others wallow on the sidelines. And as app stores rocket past half a million apps available, relief does not appear in sight for the discoverability problem.
The numbers back up the fact that this is truly an issue. Strategy Analytics collects app data on a weekly basis for our AppTRAX database. Weekly collection means that during the three weeks from August 8 to August 28--three weeks of data collection--there have been thirty slots available in the top 10 Paid and free app lists in the US iPhone store. Thus the maximum number of apps that could appear is 30 and the minimum is 10.
A total of fifteen applications appeared in these thirty positions resulting in half the top ten remaining static over the last three weeks. In fact, five applications appeared each week. Want to guess what those applications were? Angry Birds, Angry Birds Rio, Cut the Rope: Experiments, Fruit Ninja and Tiny Wings. All excellent offerings--and games if you're paying attention--but their dominance shows there is not enough room for new offerings. For a platform that receives hundreds of app submissions each day it seems there should be a better way to expose new content. And while the top apps are dominated by a collection of once unknown developers who rose to prominence much earlier in the app life cycle, today with 500,000+ apps out there, the game has changed.
The next logical question, of course, is--what happens beyond the top ten. Expanding the top apps to the top 25 creates 75 spots for apps; however, the top 25 is even less fluid than the top 10 with 34 different apps appearing in the 75 possible slots.
Now, truth be told, free apps are even more competitive. Of the thirty slots, 25 different apps appeared over three weeks and 61 different apps appeared in the top 25.
But iPhone isn't the only game in town, right? What about Android or BlackBerry for that matter? Well, Android has always been more focused on free games, but free apps take on a very similar look to Apple's list of top paid apps for iPhone. Over three weeks, only 14 different free apps appeared in the top 10. Paid apps also appears very consolidated with just 14 apps appearing in the top spots. Essentially, Android suffers from the same discoverability issue that iPhone does.
BlackBerry App World, however, seems to be the most competitive. There were 25 different paid apps appearing in the 30 top spots over the last 3 weeks and 22 free apps appearing in the top 30 spots over the same time.
The table below looks at the entirety of 2011 for each of the platforms and shows how competitive each storefront is. The higher the percentage in the table the more competitive a list/storefront is.
As we move forward and new users buy devices running iOS or Android, they will be exposed to these apps that remain in the top 10 or the top 100 and continue to propel them forward, making it nearly impossible for first time apps (or just apps downloaded less frequently) to gain necessary critical mass. But app stores don't care, do they? They don't even make lots of money from apps, so developers are left holding the proverbial bag.
So, what can developers do? Fortunately there are several options:
1. Go work for Rovio, Zepto Lab or another big player. Closing up shop is certainly an option but much like gold miners who knew working their own claim--no matter the arduous nature of the task--could reap untold rewards, developers that think they can make a living from their apps will continue on.
2. Leverage platforms that enable social discovery. Even though at times it seems as if all platforms were created equally, the truth is that they are not. Leveraging social networks like OpenFeint could be a good way to get a new app exposed to a targeted audience of gamers. Some platforms are also more focused on social discovery than others. For example, the new BlackBerry Messenger 6 is wholly focused on integrating into apps and enabling BBM friends to discover new apps through their friend's preferences. RIM is committed to this idea, and for developers hoping to gain traction it could be an interesting option to improve discovery.
3. Find better ways to promote your apps. There are many ways to promote an app. Leveraging mobile ad networks such as Google's AdMob, Apple's iAD, or Millennial Media are all options. Promoting apps via incentivized downloads (even if Apple has clamped down on them) is a way to improve downloads, increase rankings and drive organic growth. Leveraging ad exchanges is another option. Another option I recently discovered comes from a company called Fiksu and takes advantage of various methods. Fiksu uses proprietary intelligence to promote apps through means that most readily allow it to climb the app store ranks, leading to organic growth and customer loyalty.
With innovative options like these, perhaps app stores will never need to improve app discovery.
Josh Martin is the director of Apps Research at Strategy Analytics.