The secrets to making money with mobile apps

There are hundreds of thousands of iOS and Android apps for buyers, but most don't make a dime

A couple years ago, it was clear a Gold Rush mentality was brewing as the iPhone proved that people really, really wanted mobile apps. Lots of developers jumped in to claim their fortune, as did many students and regular folks lured by the promise of easy money through cookie-cutter apps created for them by forms-based websites. The Gold Rush fever has cooled, but not the desire for mobile apps, nor have the opportunities for real developers to make real money from mobile.

Forrester Research estimates that $17.5 billion worth of mobile apps will be sold this year across all platforms. Subtracting the cut that Apple, Google, and others get for placement in their app stores, that's at least $13 billion for developers to pocket. But how to ensure you get the biggest slice of the pie? Ilya Laurs, founder of the app store GetJar, believes he knows the answer to that key question, based on analyzing the sales and revenues of thousands of mobile apps.

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Laurs presented his analysis recently at the CIO Global Forum, an invitation-only, off-the-record thought leadership event for CIOs. And he's agreed to share it with you. Before I get into the details, note that the vast majority of apps analyzed are consumer apps, so sales through an enterprise app store, such as the one Apple provides for employee app distribution, may not fit these patterns. Also, Laurs could not analyze Apple App Store sales data, but believes from anecdotal evidence that the basic model for making money "generally holds true" for iOS apps as it is for apps on other platforms.

Laurs' analysis boils down to what he calls the user engagement model. In a nutshell, it means what you charge for an app should be based largely on how users engage with it.

For example, if people use your apps just a few times, an ad-supported model makes no sense, as you'll earn just pennies per user. Better to charge 99 cents or $3.99 or whatever up front. Even though sales at the paid price will be a fraction of the free, ad-supported version, the total revenues are likely to be larger.

Conversely, if the user engagement is expected to be high, such as for a news, sports scores, social feeds, or other information-stream-oriented app, the advertising model makes much more sense. You'll make more money from the many more impressions -- sales-speak for the ads actually presented to app users -- over the app's lifetime even at a few cents per impression than if you charged a one-time up-front fee. Just beware, Laurs notes, that it's often difficult to get paid by the ad networks.

Which begs the question: What about high-engagement apps that aren't about information streams, where ads would be a turnoff? I'm talking games such as Angry Birds Space and Draw Something. The secret there, Laurs says, is to combine a relatively low up-front price (perhaps 99 cents to $4.99) with app purchases for virtual goods (such as powers and hints in games) and additional functions (such as bookmarking of your favorite teams for a sports app or ad removal to convert a free trial app to a paid one). Another advantage of in-app purchases is that billing is usually easy, either through the app store's own system or through an established provider such as PayPal that users likely already have a relationship with.

Then there are highly useful apps that don't really support the notion of an in-app purchase or advertising. Those should cost more because they are more valuable. Examples in the iOS world are Quickoffice, iPhoto, Keynote, and GoodReader.

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