Attention Developers and Publishers: Apple is Not Your Publicist

by Harry C. Marks   |   December 13th, 2013

Apple’s App Store is a boon for many developers and budding entrepreneurs. It offers individuals the ability to create something from nothing with a worldwide distribution channel that costs them $99 per year to use. Apple is the portal. It is not, however, where a developer’s marketing ends.

Daring Fireball’s John Gruber recently posted a link to a Tumblr blog called “Eff Your Review“, a website that highlights developers’ egregious demand for star ratings from the people who use their apps. Gruber has offered a tongue-in-cheek way for everyone to get what they want:

…I’d encourage Daring Fireball readers, whenever they encounter these “Please rate this app” prompts, to go ahead and take the time to do it — but to rate the app with just one star and to leave a review along the lines of, “One star for annoying me with a prompt to review the app.”

Eff Your Review’s tagline is “If I wanted to leave a review of your app I would have,” a passive aggressive dig at developers looking for feedback in what the blog’s operator(s) deem to be annoying and distracting. Except, both Gruber and Eff Your Review are shrugging off a big detriment to the App Store’s popularity: discovery.

Reviews are necessary for both developers and users. A highly rated app is more likely to both be found and downloaded by a customer. Low-rated apps get bumped down in the list. They’re ignored for better-rated ones in the same category. How does it help anyone if a fantastic app gets a one- or two-star rating simply because it deigned to ask for a quick review?

Of course, there’s always another side to an argument, as Ben Brooks states:

__Your__ app isn’t the only one nagging them to review. In fact, if it was just one app every once and a while nagging the users, then users would likely never care — but it’s not just one app every once and a while. Actually most apps, most of the time, are nagging thus creating a feeling of constantly being nagged.

Being asked by one app for a review is one thing, but when every app takes you out of the experience, it can seem maddening. Even worse is when an app you’ve already rated keeps nagging for another review and it doesn’t look like Apple is providing alternative means for developers to solicit the necessary feedback to keep their app ratings up, but does it have to?

Apple’s alleged lack of attention has also affected another area of the App Store: Newsstand visibility.

For those who may not be aware, Newsstand, Apple’s homescreen folder for iOS publications, can now be tucked inside another folder. Users rejoiced at the ability to hide an app they never used, but publishers, such as The Magazine‘s Glenn Fleishman, aren’t thrilled with the UX change. Fleishman was interviewed by Pando Daily’s Hamish McKenzie for an article about Newsstand and had this to say:

“I get email regularly from readers who say that they forget that issues come out.”

McKenzie continues:

Fleishman uses push notifications to remind readers when a new issue is available, but there’s a limit on how many such reminders you can send before you start getting on people’s nerves. He’s considering changing The Magazine to a weekly publication, even if it publishes the same number of stories as it currently does, just as a way to justify reaching out to readers on a more frequent basis.

So, users don’t like being nagged by push notifications on the availability of new issues. What about email blasts? Twitter, Facebook, and App.net announcements?

(Author’s note: I have contributed to The Magazine in the past.)

He believes Apple doesn’t think the Newsstand is as important as it once was, because the company hasn’t made enough changes to improve it. His view is supported by Marko Karppinen of digital publishing startup Richie, who has argued that it now makes more sense for publishers to prioritize a stand-alone app over a Newsstand app because, to paraphrase John Gruber, the Newsstand is now more than ever a place where apps go to be forgotten.

The job of marketing a publication is up to the publisher, not Apple. If Newsstand is where “apps go to be forgotten”, it is because publishers have let them become forgotten. It’s like saying Amazon is where Kindle books go to die, or Barnes & Noble should do a better job at promoting one particular magazine.

Marko Karppinen believed, like many early Newsstand publishers, readers would adjust to Apple’s decision:

The segregation of Newsstand apps into the Newsstand folder wasn’t ever a positive aspect of Newsstand, but we were optimistic and thought that perhaps readers would form new habits around it. As an industry, we decided to give it a go. Apart from some early successes, attributable to a first-mover advantage, that was a mistake.

What if obscurity isn’t the real issue here? What if constant reminders aren’t the true problem with subscriber loss? Perhaps Newsstand publications are losing subscribers because people just aren’t interested in the content.

The Magazine of 2012 is much different from The Magazine of today. As Federico Viticci of MacStories put it back when The Magazine first launched, “Marco Arment’s The Magazine falls exactly under this aspect of writing. It’s about people who love technology, delivered as a curated collection of articles from great writers.” Unfortunately, this model didn’t sit well with a portion of early subscribers. Here are some reviews plucked directly from the App Store:

__Won’t last…__

Love the clean look but for basically 8 articles a month, the Magazine won’t last. Marco said he’s gonna give it two months to see if it turns a profit. Might as well close up shop now.

Words are cheap and $2 a month for some tech pontificating isn’t worth the cost in my opinion.

– BB92647

> __This is a Blog not an App__

After reading several tech blogs hyping The Magazine, I thought I’d try it. Okay, it’s a collective blog in an app and not even a rich one – just text no images, no videos, no interactivity. While I’m plenty techy, maybe I’m just not geeky enough to understand why this is a) worth being an App rather than a web blog and b) why I would want to pay for this content

– DLwhite6

Over the last year, The Magazine‘s content has shifted away from primarily tech-focused pieces and delved into such topics as typewriter repair, bicycling in the Netherlands, and caffeine’s effect on runners. To call its content “eclectic” would be an understatement. When people subscribe to publications like Men’s Fitness and Forbes, they know what kind of articles to expect, but The Magazine isn’t targeting a specific niche anymore. They’re publishing interesting articles, but the topics vary so wildly the chance an average subscriber is going to read a few paragraphs to see if she enjoys a piece is slim. App Store obscurity may be the least of its worries.

What about other Newsstand entities that do cater to more niche-focused readers? Jamie Smyth, co-founder of TypeEngine, had this to say about Newsstand’s role in subscriber loss:

Ultimately the responsibility to retain subscribers is up to the publication. They need to produce content of a quality and on a schedule that resonates with their readers. There any number of things that can result in a publication to lose subscribers over time, but I don’t think the mechanics of using Newsstand is one of those factors.

Smyth points out that marketing efforts vary for publishers large and small, including simple tactics like posting links on blogs and social media, all the way to taking out ads on Facebook and topic-oriented websites. For example, “a dog magazine has purchased some ad space on a couple of dog web sites, and that seems to have helped.”

He also goes on to mention how important push notifications are to the marketing process, as “they bring the content to the user and remind them of the new adventures that are just a swipe away.” TypeEngine actually delivers two push notifications automatically to its apps.

One is an invisible one and wakes up the app and tells it to download the new issue in the background. We delay sending the visible one by a few minutes to give the app a chance to finish download the issue. That way, when the user sees the notification, the content is (should be) already there.

Publishers can also customize the notifications so they don’t say the same stock message every time. The result of these combined marketing and push notification efforts? “Some of our publications have done remarkably well…some people are making a living from selling TypeEngine Newsstand apps.”

This brings us back to the topic of review notifications from earlier. Smyth doesn’t think they’re a problem if they’re handled properly.

Regarding prompting the user for reviews, it’s a solved problem in my opinion. The publisher wants reviews, but they only want __good__ reviews. You can subtly guide the user to leave a review if they like the app, and send you an email if the user sees a problem. Guidelines: – If you decide to pop up the prompt to rate the app (which I don’t recommend) only do so once. __Ever__. – In the settings panel show an action something like “Love our app? Leave a review” and guide the user to rate the app.

He also suggests offering a way to email bugs and issues to the developer via an action in the settings panel. “The trick is to answer those emails or else those people will leave you a bad review.”

But in not recommending the modal prompt, this still leaves the problem open. How do developers solicit reviews from users without bothering them? In reality, they can’t. This is the Internet and its denizens want what they want the way they want it without any hindrance. To them, review reminders are the pop-up ads of the mobile era, a problem in need of a solution no one has yet to provide. Sure, we hate having to take the one second is requires to dismiss a dialog box, but in all the blog posts whining about this issue, no one has suggested any real ways in which developers can fix it.

In fact, more time was probably spent writing those pieces than it would’ve taken each writer to review five apps on their iPhones. Priorities shift when you feel you’ve been wronged, even over something as trivial to the user as a review request.

Not everyone has the reach of a John Gruber. Marco Arment’s forthcoming podcatching app may lack the features of its more mature brethren, but that won’t stop hundreds of people from downloading it day one. For those individuals, reviews may not be as necessary to their apps’ success as they are to lesser-known developers and we must remember that.

Until Apple modifies its App Store ranking algorithms, or until users wise up and leave the reviews developers need, nothing is going to change. I’d like to think we’ll all become benevolent customers and give the people who build the things we use what they need, but since we still complain every time a developer dares to charge two dollars for a software update, I’m not holding out much hope.

Independent developers and publishers most likely don’t have large marketing budgets. Aside from social media, blog posts, and the occasional reviews on high-traffic sites, they depend on user reviews for decent App Store placement and, in turn, financial stability.

Apple is not to blame for a magazine’s loss in subscribers. It’s not to blame for an app’s poor sales. It’s not up to Apple to promote one’s work. The onus is on us to give Apple a reason to do so.

Harry C. Marks

Harry Marks is a novelist and web columnist from New Jersey. He owns and operates CuriousRat.com and has written for various publications, including The Magazine, The Loop Magazine, and Macgasm.
  • Rene Stein

    Both Gruber and Eff your Reviews statements are indicative of their sense of tech superiority. This has been honed over many years. I am just that there are millions of iPhone users that don’t really know how to rate an app or normally wouldn’t even think about rating it. This pop up gives those people a chance to rate it. Repeatedly popping it up is annoying. It should only come up once.

  • Bill Smith

    What it comes down to is that the review system should be eliminated. Developers should do their best, hopefully get reviewed by well-known bloggers and magazines and try to advertise appropriately.

    The quality of the reviews posted increases when those posting are internally motivated.

    It’s the same as posting comments on Disqus. It’s difficult to get high quality comments, but if you regularly ask people to do so, you guarantee an increase in the noise level.

    BTW, great work on this article. Good tone, balance and structure. Hope to see more from you.

    • N

      You’re essentially asking for a return to the 20th Century. Notwithstanding all the problems with user reviews, I’d rather have them than cede all control to media companies — and I work at a media company that publishes product reviews.

      The one change I’d make is requiring people to post reviews under their actual first and last name just like a professional journalist. Apple can make this happen because it has this information.

      Amazon encourages such reviews but it still allows anonymous reviews, most of which are written by astroturfers. Ditto for Yelp and countless other sites. Real names is the only way to end this problem.

      • Bill Smith

        I was being somewhat facetious. I think it’s a shame that we can’t have completely open, public discussion. There will always be those who seek to use any means to tout “enlargement” or simply to slam a developer or content creator. There will always be those who seek to game the system, e.g. by having 1000 accounts registered so they can post positive comments about your product.

        Requiring names won’t help. You post as “N”, which is not your full, real name, but your comments are still quite meaningful.

        Reviews and comments are also useless when the person leaving them is inappropriately skilled or informed. If you don’t know how to use an app, but complain about it, your review may be correct, but dead wrong. Surely you know how easily Internet flame wars start.

        A review is meaningless without some degree of trust in the poster. That’s something larger media entities are good for. Mind you, that entity may be as small as Daring Fireball or a podcast you trust, or even someone who consistently posts good information on Twitter or Disqus.

        Yet, any ranking system that allows an unknown and unaccountable entity’s opinion to be averaged in, is useless. How much you trust a given party must always be considered.

        The savvy reader would give thought to certain business moves that have been made recently and how they might address this line of thought.

        I’m giving your app one star because you nagged me for a review. If it were free instead of an amount that would allow you to earn a living and support the product in the future, I would give you five stars. But it doesn’t have built-in artificial intelligence or print money, so I won’t give you more than two stars on general principle. If you spend three years to do a Puppy Dog With Brown Spots Linux version and open source it with a GPLv3 license, for free, I’d give you three stars. Until then, you sux0rs , I want my money back and this is a ripoff because it crashes all the time on my Hackintosh. — Anonymous

        Consider that many blogs have chosen to disallow on-site comments, which, for the most part, requires that a detractor create his own blog and grow a following before his comments would have any effect on the universe at all.

        • N

          Touche. I comment pseudonymously because I’m well known in my industry so I want to make sure people find our company’s site and as few other distractions as possible when they search for me. I write here for fun. If there was a way to tell Google not to index my comments, I’d write under my full name here. (Pseudonymous because I enter an email address at my company’s domain name plus I’m an Insider.)

          Anyway, Google doesn’t index the App Store so this issue would not exist there if Apple required real names or at least gave reviews under real names higher status.

  • Bill Smith

    Two more comments:

    1. EFFYR complains even about non-modal rate requests.
    2. It’s hilarious that EFFYR has a “+Follow” nag on their site. I could just as easily rant about how much I hate sites that nag me to Like or Follow them.

  • stefnagel

    If you can’t be bothered to read the reviews, then, yep it’s a problem. “It’s geat” is not a review.

  • http://www.yourmaclifeshow.com/ Shawn King

    “in all the blog posts whining about this issue, no one has suggested any real ways in which developers can fix it.”

    Not true. Many of us have. You just don’t happen to read/listen to those sources.

  • James King

    This is one instance in which usage statistics would probably be more beneficial, especially compared to reviews. How many people deleted the app, how long do people use the app, how many people make in-app purchases, etc. The best way to know if an app is providing value is knowing how and how much it is used.

  • http://www.thegraphicmac.com/ JimD

    Great article!

    I’m definitely in the “if I wanted to review your app, I would have” crowd. I regularly review apps, and I don’t recall ever leaving a “this app is great/crap” type of review. But begging and annoying me to take the time to write a useful review is a sure way to get me to ponder whether I should keep the app or delete it.

  • N

    Harry hit this article out of the park, especially with his spot-on criticism of The Magazine, which is so broad it makes The New Yorker seem focused.

    However, I have one correction regarding the history of The Magazine. It was marketed by Arment as a publication for geeks. However, even when Arment was the editor, The Magazine published articles that were not about technology.

    The Magazine suffered from launch because of its name, its marketing being out of sync with its content, and, well, its content.

    The Magazine got worse under Fleischmann. A Jeopardy champion in charge of a publication is not a good idea because most people don’t have broad interests.

    The Magazine could have succeeded wildly if it had focused on Apple. Yes, lots of Apple publications exist but they’re all so similar. And John Gruber rarely writes essays anymore. If The Magazine had provided 1 Gruber-style opinion essay, 1 buyer’s guide for an app or accessory category, 3 Apple-related cartoons, and 2-3 other articles every week, it could have gained some real traction. I also would have given it a name that would have passed muster in a trademark application.