What do all the most popular apps have in common?

Apr 19, 2017

Developers dream about seeing their app hit the top of the most-downloaded charts and getting their cut of the $58bn global app market, but this is a lot more difficult than most people realise. Rovio’s Angry Birds is often described as an “overnight success”, but it took the Finnish developers 52 attempts to hit gold. So, what makes a popular app?

iOS App Store Top 5

1. Clash of Clans.
2. Facebook.
3. Instagram.
4. Temple Run.
5. Draw Something Classic.
If we take the iOS App Store top five most-downloaded apps as a sample, then first and most obvious similarity between them is that they are free. It is much easier to convince people to download and try out a new app or game if there is no upfront cost, and instead generate revenue either through advertising or in-app purchases where users can pay for extra tools, levels, or services within the app itself.
Aside from the cost, it is clear that to reach the top of the charts on both the App Store and Google Play, the app will need to be either a social network or a game. Productivity, exercise, learning, and other apps can be very popular and generate millions of downloads, but they never reach the scale of the top games and social networks.
Facebook is a behemoth with nearly 2bn users and photo-sharing network Instagram has grown to more than 700m users, so it is little surprise that they have both been constant fixtures in the app store charts for years. How to build a successful social network is a billion-dollar question that is beyond the scope of this article, but it is safe to assume that if you have hundreds of millions of users, then your app will make it to the top of the charts.
In contrast, games offer a real possibility for small companies to strike it rich without a ready-made userbase of millions or the huge infrastructure needs of social networks like Facebook or Twitter. In fact, according to researchers at App Annie as much as 75% of the revenues generated in the App Store and 90% of the revenues from Google Play come from games.
The chart above highlights three very different types of games, but all have found enormous success and have one thing in common – social gameplay.
Clash of Clans is a massively multi-player online game (MMO), where players build a community or “clan”, train troops, and attack other players to earn gold and steal resources to build their own towns. Clan members are encouraged towork together to plan raids and support each other by donating troops or giving advice, and it is these social bonds that keep the players returning day after day.
Draw Something Classic is a digital reimagining of the popular Pictionary board game, where one player is tasked with guessing what the other is trying to draw. The charades-style gameplay is simple enough for everyone to play and makes the game social by nature, which is pivotal to its success.
Temple Run is an “endless runner” game, where a single player collects coins while being chased by a monster through an Indiana Jones-inspired temple. The game mechanics are straightforward, with users able to turn left and right, and jump over or slide under obstacles. However, the key is that the game never ends, so the challenge is climb the leaderboard against other players –a different take on social gameplay and competition.
However, even if you have built the most perfect app with strong social gameplay, the market is so competitive that unless you have either a popular media franchise or a huge promotional budget behind you, then it will be extremely difficult to break into the top-ten or even top-100 charts.
Last year, Pokemon Go stormed into the charts as soon as it was released in part because of its clever game mechanics and use of augmented reality, but mostly because of the hugely popular Pokemon tie-in. It is possible that a similar game where users had to catch unknown creatures could have become popular, but by making those creatures Pokemonand challenging fans to “catch them all”, the odds of success were far higher.
Without a media franchise tie-in, companies turn to advertising to drive sales. Exactly how much they spend tends to be a closely-guarded secret, but here are three examples:

  • Clash of Clans developer Supercell spent nearly $60m on television ads in the US to promote the game in 2015, and now spends more than $1m per day on marketing and advertising.
  • Electronic Arts (EA) spent about $650m on sales and marketingin 2016.
  • Uber spent a whopping $197m million on marketing its ride-sharing app in just the first three months of 2016, according to financials leaked to the press last year.

If you want to know more about building a social element into your app, or have any other questions about app development, please contact us and one of our experts will get back to you as soon as possible.

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