American Marketer


Brands should pay attention to the app discovery economy

July 15, 2013

Vanessa Horwell is chief visibility officer of ThinkInk


By Vanessa Horwell

As a communications professional who has lived and breathed everything that is mobile for nearly a decade, I have seen my fair share of wireless innovations. Every new spinoff, it seems, has served as a measure of the mobile industry’s health as marketers and developers claim “this is the must-have product, platform, app, customer engagement tool” and so on.

For instance, there would be no smartphone shell case or screen protector industries were it not for the need to shield our precious mobile devices. Sales of accessories such as wireless keyboards, credit card readers and wearable fitness trackers offer similar inferred data.

But I have also witnessed technology’s progress surpass original needs.

The auto industry and its ancillary industries is a good example of the technological fad phenomenon. Remember those clunky car phones? Signal antenna boosters? Citizens’ band radios, eight-track players and cassettes?

While some of these are not totally extinct – a Google search for CB radios returns 58.5 million hits – you cannot, for instance, use the number of CB radios shipped as an indirect measure of U.S. car sales anymore.

Whether fad-based or foundational, evolving industries suffer such growing pains: markets flood with similar products all claiming superiority. The result: consumers feel overwhelmed and under-informed – even app developers struggle to stand out from the crowd.

Today’s app economy, saturated with more than two million applications across multiple platforms and billions of downloads, finds itself at exactly this juncture.

Assuming the app economy has passed the litmus test for its own long-term viability, which I believe it has, then it is reasonable to conclude that the nascent app discovery economy, also known as “app store optimization” (ASO), is not some fleeting flash-in-the-pan craze such as CBs, but rather a vital parallel industry that is really just getting started.

Undiscovered apps are powerhouse of potential
Like any industry offshoot, the app discovery economy is helping bring order to chaos.

With recreational time limited and the hassle of deep-dive research frustrating, consumers, no matter what products they are in the market for, continue to rely on word-of-mouth, friends and family to inform their purchase decisions. And if they do not, they rely heavily on “pre-packaged research” that tends to stratify top products without focusing on sub-segmented needs.

In other words, the perfect fit for one consumer might not be so for another.

In the digital realm, Apple’s Top 10 and most downloaded app categories are emblematic of this shortcoming, as is the fact that 50 percent of iPhone users report that speaking with friends and family is their first app-discovery tool, while 19 percent rely on reviews from social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, according to Forrester's European Technographics® Consumer Technology Online Survey.

The same study found that an average of 61 percent of users – iOS and Android alike – resorted to app store “general browsing,” a time-consuming process similar to, and just as inefficient as, Web browsing.

For all the download choices available across several app markets such as Apple’s App Store, Android’s Google Play and Microsoft’s Windows Store, it is becoming increasingly difficult for consumers to select the apps that best fit their mobile and lifestyle needs.

Underscoring the challenge, only one-tenth of 1 percent of apps account for 50 percent of all downloads. And of the 650,000-plus iOS apps, more than 400,000 have never been downloaded.

Of course, the app discovery economy is not without its challenges.

Apple’s recent decision to kick app discovery pioneer AppGratis out of the App Store amid fears the company’s business model would unduly influence organic app download rankings and user popularity does not help the industry’s outward public perception.

Without proper messaging and standardization, app discovery developers could quickly be stereotyped as “digital car salesmen” – parasitic entities opportunistically making a buck off confused-as-ever consumers.

End to era of app apoplexy?
But none of this diminishes the very real need for app developers to find new and innovative ways to stand out from rampant app competition and resist the search algorithm control that app stores have on discovery rankings.

Consumers, too, require a more efficient way to discover the thousands of quality apps that never get noticed.

Considering that word-of-mouth and family and friends remain such popular vehicles for app discovery, digitalizing these channels via social media is also a logical next step.

Equally inventive might be the development of app-discovery software that autonomously reviews consumers’ already-downloaded apps to gauge future interest, making only the most relevant recommendations accordingly.

Forecast to be a $27 billion economy in 2013, the app market has in just a few short years, grown to become the software industry equivalent of the smartphone itself. And, as with the software- and hardware-propelled personal computer industry in its nascent stages, the app-discovery industry is poised for similar growth.

MY VIEW is that the app-discovery economy will help developers and consumers sharpen their app aptitude ending the era of app apoplexy, the stress and tedium that goes with it and, for many, the Fear of Missing Out.

Technological fads come and go. App discovery, however, is different and should be taken seriously. I will be paying very close attention to how much revenue this infant economy is already netting and what the future might look like.

Vanessa Horwell is chief visibility officer of ThinkInk, Miami Beach, FL. Reach her at