There’s still room for apps: Three tips for independent developers

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Global app downloads are on the decline, even for the most popular in Apple’s App Store. Out of established apps in the U.S., only Uber and Snapchat saw download growth in recent months. So what gives? 

Reports show that 94% of the revenue generated through the App Store goes to the top 1% of publishers, turning the business into a winner-take-all type of system. Because of this, many appreneurs are asking, “Is a market that’s stopped climbing a market I should break into?” 

Because most people only want to use maybe 6 to 10 apps on a weekly basis, the app environment often feels dominated by major companies like Facebook and Google. 

But by taking a harder look at the app ecosystem, the future for appreneurs looks just as bright as it did when the first iPhone launched nine years ago. 

The power of app independence 

Once you break it down, most of the applications that succeed in the App Store are independent. In fact, almost all of the big-name apps you’ve loved over the past five years have been independent applications, setting themselves apart from the competition by offering something truly unique to their users. 

New apps are still steadily streaming into the scene — about 1,400 per day in iTunes alone. Research shows that many of today’s most popular games aren’t attracting new players — a phenomenon that could potentially diminish the monopolizing effect of blockbuster apps and give more developers a chance to make more money. 

Just in the past two months, the Prisma application has taken the world by storm by embracing the tried-and-true concept of photo filters. This photo manipulation app has more than 10.6 million installations on iOS and is second in hype only to Pokémon GO. 

What it did differently was add in a heavy dose of artificial intelligence coupled with a fine art approach rather than a more photographic one. Artificial intelligence analyzes a user’s pictures and creates a remarkably beautiful photograph that often looks like a classical painting — something that Instagram, its top competitor, simply can’t do. 

Making the right move requires your team to come up with something different and interesting. Across Facebook, Twitter, and more, Prisma photos are everywhere — all because a group of clever people got together and came up with something that was unique and then did the right initial marketing to get people’s attention. 

Prisma has already started tweaking its app by listening to user feedback. Users will notice that you now have the ability to save a photograph right to your photo’s camera roll from the filter selection screen, whereas just one week ago, you had to go through an arduous process of taps to make this happen. By responding directly to its users’ needs, Prisma is able to retain its core following while building a stronger base for new users. 

The app-making accordion 

Standing out, pulling people in, and marketing successfully have made apps like Instagram and Tinder so successful. Instagram actually started out as a check-in application like several others on the market and was more or less a failure. But the team realized what all successful app makers must: Kill your darlings to focus on what your users actually want. That initial version of Instagram was taken off the market, retooled, renamed, and rereleased as the photo-sharing app millions of users log in to every day. 

Tinder, on the other hand, started as a small independent app that took an old concept — finding a date — and used an exciting new UX method to draw in users. While “swipe left” is now as ingrained into our muscle memory as “pull down to refresh,” before Tinder, this wasn’t known to anyone. 

Tinder happened upon an interesting and, most importantly, addictive way of allowing users to look through hundreds of nearby potential love interests. Now, Tinder is the powerhouse, while big-name, established brands like OkCupid and Match.com are clamoring to play catch-up. 

Recreating the winning formula 

So how can appreneurs follow in the successful footsteps of these giants while still crafting a truly unique offering? Here are a few tips for getting started: 

1. Find the mold, then break it. Successful apps create value for their users by giving them something they can’t get anywhere else — but can still genuinely find use for. 

Bumble is an app that has gained a large following as the “feminist answer to online dating” by flipping a dating concept and placing the power in the hands of its female users. But just another “find girls in a bar by swiping through their profiles” app isn’t going to gain any traction because it’s been done and has failed far too many times before. 

2. Serve the underserved. When possible, cater to an underserved group within your audience segment. If there are interesting visuals or UX components that can make the application particularly interesting, find ways to make it the best it can be. Simply having a better way to use a tool can make all the difference in being chosen in the marketplace.

3. Direct your message to the right ears. When it comes time to market the app, use the information you’ve used to build it to this point for your own advantage. You’ve chosen a great audience, you’ve selected a great segment, and you have an interesting approach to the genre, so tell that to your potential market. Let your target market know why you stand out above all the rest (and make sure it’s backed up by your product).

Be sure to use concrete data to find and market to the right demographic. Spread your message, communicate constantly, and listen to what does and does not work. 

Despite the plateau of App Store downloads in recent years, new developers can still gain exposure and success within the app ecosystem. By finding your audience, knowing what it wants, and learning new and interesting ways to give it to them, entrepreneurs can create a successful app and marketing strategy to achieve some serious recurring growth. 

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