How to Rocket Your App to the Top of the App Store Charts

Jul 24, 2017

Getting featured in the Apple App Store can be the ‘golden ticket’ that rockets your app up the charts. In this episode our host and Chief Content Officer Peggy Anne Salz catches up with Steve P. Young, founder of ASO and mobile growth consultancy Appmasters, to walk through the ways you can move the needle on your app’s ranking – even if you’re on a limited budget.


Peggy: Today it’s all about tips, tricks, and actionable advice around what you can do to get your app featured by Apple. And our guest is the one and only Steve P Young, from AppMasters, who has achieved this amazing benchmark, many times for client apps. And to tell you the truth Steve, I’ve known you for a while, and I’ve completely lost count of exactly how many times you have managed to rocket a client app into the Apple Appstore “Featured” spot. How many times is it, now?

Steve: I don’t know if it’s a good thing or bad thing [inaudible]. But it’s been twelve times in the last sixteen months, and then recently, at the time of this recording, three in the last two weeks, so things like that are working today.

Peggy: Wow, you’re on a roll in the last few weeks!

Steve: Yeah, it’s been, been a nice time.

Peggy: Well then, it’s great timing to do exactly what I wanted to do, because I’ve been watching you for a while Steve, and it’s all about that, you’ve done it, and we want to find out how we want our listeners to know about it, so first of all, AppMasters, just give me a high level view of the company, and then we’ll get into what you’re doing.

Steve: I was on a podcast, back in 2013, ended up building an audience, and then about seven months after, started broadcasting and leaving my startup job in San Francisco and been doing ad marketing consulting ever since. So we as a company, it’s primarily me and the people that helped me out, but we focused on ways [inaudible], that’s app store optimization, Apple features, influential marketing, and different growth hacks that we developed internally.

Peggy: So amongst those growth hacks, it’s all about getting featured in the Apple Appstore and you’ve written these. Thankfully, you’re a person who likes to share them, so they’re not all behind a paywall, necessarily. I just want to tie them all together, you know? Starting with when you really need to start making the noise, that you rise basically above the noise later. So it’s all about that pitch, when you do it, some people say, you know, when you have an idea for your app, others say soft launch, when do you pitch, what do you recommend?

Steve: I would say, a couple of different things. For games, it’s about three weeks before you brought the launch. Now, for games you want to act like a big guy, right? Big guys always get featured in the Appstore; great apps get featured. If you’re acting like a big guy, that means you soft launch, you have the metrics in place, and then when you go on to pitch, you give them three weeks before your official launch, when your worldwide, US probably, you say, ‘Look, these are some of the soft launch metrics, here’s what we’ve been able to achieve, here’s our retention, here’s what our monetization looks like.’ That’s what big guys would do, when they’re approaching Apple, and say, ‘Hey, this is all the stuff to line up.’

Steve: For non-games, you can go as early as three weeks again. What I always say is, you can do it after. For games, they usually feature new games, from what I have seen for Apple, it’s usually new games, so that’s why you wanna pitch early – three weeks. I say three weeks, because Apple really wants you to do it soon, but three gives you the flexibility, so then weave your pitch. Like, ‘Oh, this is not working, let me see if I can get aggressive’, which you and I will talk about later, or maybe I’ll try a different subject line. So then, you have another additional week to re-work your pitch.

Steve: For non-games, you can go later, sooner, post-launch, pre-launch, it doesn’t really matter as much, and then once it [inaudible], the one client that we got featured just recently, it was an accessibility app, so really nice. But what I saw was Apple had an accessibility feature, a banner, in the US homepage, because I’m constantly in the Appstore, and I clicked on that, and it said, ‘okay, here’s where we’re going to try to get you featured’, and that’s where we ended up getting him featured. It’s also timing, right? Like is there something that’s coming up that’s relevant to your app?

Steve: So, for the US, we have graduation, we have Father’s Day, we have the summer, we have weddings, anything that’s related to that particular seasonal thing, work with those opportunities and then pitch Apple a couple of months, or three weeks before that arises. Because you know Apple’s probably going to have a Father’s Day thing, so we got a client that I’m thinking about for Father’s Day and pitching using that angle for Apple.

Peggy: I think it makes perfect sense, because this is done editorially and they have to think about their angle and their sin as well. So holidays, those are great occasions to pin that to.

Steve: Absolutely, absolutely. And that’s the key thing, Peggy, is editorial, so that’s why you have to make sure you have a good pitch, and you’re reaching out to the right people at Apple.

Peggy: Okay, so, on that note, you have to make certain you have a good pitch. Before we get into some of your more interesting, sort of guerrilla tactics, I’ll call them that, Steve, the tools just to get you started, because there are some tools that you’re using, you’re writing about and sharing out there, that just sort of are the table stakes to get all of the spin gear.

Steve: Yeah, so one of my favorites, that there’s no other tool that you’ve used or remember is this one, it’s called ‘Banana Tag,’ and I love that tool, because it allows me to track email sends, so I use it for when I am working with clients and I’m emailing them. What you can see is, you click ‘track,’ and there’s a bunch of other tools out there, but banana tag is my favorite, and you can see if somebody’s opened your email or clicked on any of the links, and that allows me to see if this subject line is working, when I pitch Apple, or should I try a different subject line. And if it is working, then okay, what else can I tweak?

Steve: Now, I have the data. Let’s say Apple does open the email, I can then follow-up and be like, ‘hey Apple, I just want to follow-up, we’re about two weeks away from launch, we really would love for you to try to put us up for a feature. The other tool that I think of if they don’t open the email, I try a different subject line, and that’s what we did for one of our clients that got featured, we tried a different subject line, and we ended up getting the feature that way. So banana tag is the one tool that I really love to use.

Peggy: It’s really interesting about the subject line here, Steve. You’re making me think about all the research I’ve been reading about how emojis are really powerful in a subject line as well, I mean, what about the wording here, the spin, is it a cool emoji, is it just a bunch of really cool semi-clickbait wording, what works for you?

Steve: I have the template that I’m giving away for free in exchange for an email address, but what I’m giving away is, here’s the Apple pitch that we used for one of our apps that we pitched Apple and got it featured, and here’s the template I like to follow, so I’ll share some of those templates with you. But if you guys want that, maybe we can go with that, to the show notes. The template that I follow is, one, what’s the real purpose of the app? Get to it – what’s the hook, what’s the hook, what’s the hook? In a short, fifty character limit, what’s the hook of that? So that’s the one template.

Steve: The other one is the one I like to use from PR, too, it is Product A meets Product B. So, pick a couple of popular apps, like one of our clients was Farmville meets Candycrush, something like that, and go with that. The other things that I like to use are AI power, anything if you’re artificial intelligence powered machine/learning powered, AI power works so well. We got two of our apps featured using AI power. It’s amazing, and then social, too. Sometimes you just don’t need it, like maybe you’ve worked with a big influence, or maybe it’s like one of our clients was CBS and I think it was CBS and Star Trek launched a new app. That’s pretty simple, right? I don’t need to like, don’t bury the lead here. It was pretty simple, so try to lead with social proof too.

Peggy: And getting into social, I mean, some of this gets into sort of the relationships that you need to be building, and you have a pretty interesting approach to that, using some social channels, and I’d just like to run through some of these and talk about your experience, okay? So first of all, building relationships – what is it, you just decide who you’re going to choose, who you’re going to target, and just like read everything there is out there in social media about that person?

Steve: No, the web, you can do that, takes a lot of time.

Peggy: That’s what is amazing to me, because it’s either you’ve got a boat off the coast of some emerging market where they’re researching it for you, but something’s going on here, what is it?

Steve: Yeah, so one of my favorite ways to really get a report quick, I think what most people do is say ‘Hey, I know that you worked at Apple, blah blah blah…’, and they make the pitch, right? That’s boring, everybody does that. The way I like to do it is really look through.

Steve: So, LinkedIn, look at their profile, did they go to a similar college? Is there a different background? Do they speak another language? Sometimes, if I know that the speak another language, I’ll just lead with a hello, like ‘bonjour,’ instead of going straight into ‘Hello, name,’ so I’ll just go straight into it, and I’ll just say like subtlely that I know you speak French, all right? I’ll just go straight into that. The other ways I’ve done it is I looked at it in LinkedIn. Maybe I was like, a CNET reporter, I tweeted at him and said, ‘Hey, we both went to UC Davis’, and I did. I just did enough research, like five minute research Peggy, and made your pitch stand out so much more than everybody else.

Steve: And the last thing I’ll say is Instagram is my favorite cold email strategy. I go on Instagram, I look them up, start following them, and I look at really old pictures of theirs, because I want to show that, ‘Hey, I’ve been following you for a while’, right?  I just don’t want to look at the first few, I want to look at something else, and one of the Apple people that I pitched cold was an Appstore manager for games, and he met Tony Hawk, and this is one of his older photos, and you wouldn’t know, so my subject line to him was, ‘You met Tony Hawk?!’ and then you know, question mark, exclamation mark, emoji, and I said, ‘Hey, you know, Jordan, I noticed that you met Tony Hawk, that’s awesome!’ And I tell him I saw it on Instagram, and then I go into my pitch, ‘Hey, we’d love for you to consider this Apple, we’re launching a brand new game and we’d love for you to feature it and consider,’ and then, ‘if you’ve got any feedback for us, please let us know.’ We’re happy to take that in as well.

Peggy: Would you switch in the next topic, how do you know when to take it up a gear. You’re doing this, and you’re persistent, but maybe you’re still not getting those results. What do you do, then?

Steve: Then, I would say, if you want to get more aggressive, you can, right? I share this strategy where I’ll look for Appstore managers on LInkedIn and I’ll cold email them, and that’s how you find them, so each Apple representative is called an Appstore manager, and they generally have different categories, so you want to go out to region that they’re targeting, so if you’re in the US, find a US person. If you’re in Canada, find a Canadian person, and so forth.

Steve: But if you want to be a little bit more aggressive, you can actually connect with them on LinkedIn, or look at the groups that they’re a part of, and start talking about stuff. And so you can think about all the ways like where they might be, and start going out to them. And I think with Apple features, like I said before, it’s all about timing, too, where we, the three featured apps, they weren’t new apps, they’ve been launched for about a month ago, updated about a month ago, and it was just finding – seeing that accessibility is being featured right now, and approaching Apple.

Steve: Or, having something to bounce off of, meaning like hey, we were just featured on Product Hunt, now, we have an opportunity to follow up with Apple again. So when I say persistent, it’s just about timing, and then as you gear up, then reach out to Apple. I know right now, one of our clients has 3D touch features, and I know Apple has a 3D touch feature on the Apple Feature homepage, so that’s what we’re going to lead with too. When we find a different angle, and as you get more and more wins, don’t be afraid of following up with Apple and letting them know, here’s where we’re progressing to.

Peggy: That’s a good point. Understand what features they’re focused on at Apple, and then play that up as well, because there’s nothing they like better than apps using their features and looking very cool. That’s sort of a validation of the fact that they’re developing in the right direction as well, right?

Steve: Absolutely. I know one of the tools that I mentioned in the blog post was, going to [inaudible], looking at their developer guidelines – if there’s any new features, like last year was all about iMessage, and 2016’s all about iMessage, you can see that they’re heavily promoting iMessage apps. This year, it could be something’ else, Siri app, Siri integration, whatever it is, if you have that integration, don’t bury the lead, just lead with that! That would be in my subject line, that would be the first couple of things that I’d say, because Apple’s trying to push that from a hardware or technology perspective, but just don’t – just lead with it.

Peggy: Being featured in the Appstore, it’s not the golden ticket necessarily, we’ve seen apps that are featured and then later on they sort of just trickle down and trickle out and what is the real benefit? What is the benefit you’re telling your clients, why is this worth the bother?

Steve: It’s sort of like an academy award, right? It’s like [inaudible], it’s nice, I think one, it’s not the golden ticket, like, you get this burst – anybody that’s relying just on a feature, I’ve got a couple of clients, hey, this is “strategy,” this is the only way we’re going to get traction is through an Apple feature. I’ll think you’re crazy. I would say the benefit is social proof, the benefit is so that you can leverage your PR. The other benefit would be, you get a ton of downloads, for absolutely free, right?

Steve: Apple’s promoting it, that means a lot of page impression, that’s going to help your ASO, it’s going to help everything else you’re doing, and from one of our clients that was featured, he got a ton of sales out of it, too. So those are the benefits, right? But these are short lived. The long-term benefit – we had one client last year that was featured in February, he got featured twice again, and he didn’t even use us because we taught him how to do it. Now, he has that relationship with Apple, and that’s a long-term benefit. You can get multiple apps featured, because now you have a relationship with Apple, and once you get featured one, you’re more likely to get featured again, so those would be the benefits from it.

Steve: But in terms of like uplift and downloads, these are short-lived, maybe you’re going to get a spike, but then you’re going to fall down, and I can share buzz numbers if you want to hear those.

Peggy: Well yeah, I would like to hear some, because you know, it’s about a growth strategy, obviously it’s not in and of itself a growth hacking strategy, but is a component of one, so give me an idea of what we’re actually going to see, or what your clients see.

Steve: So, if you’re a non-game, you’re going to probably see anywhere probably from low five figures – so, ten to twenty thousand downloads. Sounds of impression, but that’s probably where you’re probably going to end up if you’re a non-game. In the new apps we love that type of thing. If you’re a game, you’re going to hit six figures, easily if you get worldwide featured. And so that’s the thing, that’s the uplift – some people really become. If you’re a game, and they rely on Apple feature, that’s probably become ROI positive, is through the Apple feature, because you’re getting six, you know, hundred thousand downloads, and now you’re finally making money through ads and everything else, because of that traction. So that’s the type of numbers you’re looking at.

Steve: Some people have been featured and they’re disappointed, but I’m like, what are you going to do? This is free, like, you know, you’re complaining about free downloads?

Peggy: Organic growth, you can’t knock it! Your business was paid, and you’re home free.

Steve: Exactly!

Peggy: And speaking of that, so, what about yourself, Steve? Over there at your company and what you’re doing, I mean you’re obviously nailing some featured spots for your clients, what would you suggest or what would you point out in growth hacking strategies other than what we’re talking about that you see as sort of being the opportunity or the low-hanging fruit for our listeners?

Steve: Two things that are really working today for us, I mean, we’ve seen growths from 50% increase in download all the way to 400%, and that’s ASO. You’re really looking at, in advance, things that I would share with you Peggy is, I probably use two different ASO tools. There are all these popular ASO tools. I try to use two, to compare the data, and then figure out which one – if both are telling me it’s low competition for this particular keyword, then that’s great. That’s how I’ve been able to increase sales for our clients consistently, is because we looked at a lot of data to figure out which keywords to really use and go after. So ASO, really valuable still to this day.

Steve: Number two is my favorite strategy that I’ve talked about a ton, called the pay to free strategy, where, for a paid app, you can make it free, if you get press for an app, advice, and drive tremendous amounts of downloads. For a free app, you just make one of your in-app purchases for free. So, we’ve done it for virtual goods, virtual characters, and it is just the most cost-effective way of driving downloads. For one of the clients we got featured, we actually did this for him. We drove 12,000. I want to compare, to see if different Apple feature drove as much because I almost want to be like, ‘Hey, you know, this pay to free, you drove more than the Apple feature, but we drove 12,000 downloads just from that alone, for games we’ve done’. We’ve done 100,000 a couple of times, but for games, generally we do anywhere from let’s say 6,000 to 20,000 for a game in a matter of a couple of days.