It's almost a given that once you have a mobile app created, you have to get it listed in Apple's Apps Store or Google Play in order for it to do well at all. These stores—and others directly associated with apps created for a specific mobile operating system—have a built-in customer base and offer marketing and exposure opportunities that can be difficult for an app owner to find otherwise. However, a lot of folks balk at the thought of having to pay 30% off the top of an app's profit in order to keep it listed in an apps store. Though the majority of the apps we create are designed so they can be listed in apps stores, we're still often asked, “Is there any way around it? Can I market an app without having to use the big stores?”
We kinda dread answering this question, because the answer carries a lot of caveats. The short answer is: Yes, you can market apps outside the big boys' apps stores. The long answer follows below—and we strongly recommend you give this information a good look before deciding to strike it out on your own.
With that said, there are three basic ways you can market an app outside an apps store:
Enterprise. Enterprise applications are those used by companies and their employees. Developers work directly with companies and tailor the apps to their specifications and needs. Since these apps are created strictly for one company—and are not meant for public consumption—there's no need to go through the apps stores.
Third-Party Licensees. This is where you take your app and customize a licensing agreement with someone who's not a representative of a major apps store. They then take your app and market it to their customer base, either through direct marketing to specific people or through a web site of their own; the latter is sometimes referred to as a “pirate” apps store, even though what they're doing is strictly legal.
On Your Own. You remove the middleman of a third-party licensee, and do all the app marketing yourself. This is done through means like web sites, social media, email marketing, networking, and so forth. These elements are also present when marketing any app, including those listed in a major apps store; the difference here is there's a lot more work involved, since all the marketing rests on your shoulders.
What are the advantages of bypassing the apps stores? Well, we've already touched on the big one: you save and pocket the 30% Apple, Google and others skim off the top when you list with them. You're also saved the app approval process that accompanies apps store listings—a process that has criteria that can be vague, and one that can also take a long time. On your own, once your app's ready to go, you can hit the ground running.
As Unbounce noted in an article on this subject, “...if you want to make major dough, you need to be sitting at the top of the App Store charts.” The top percentage at the top of the apps store listings bring in the majority of the revenue, in other words. Skipping the apps stores gives you the freedom—if you play your cards right—of being a bigger fish in a smaller pond.
The financial benefits and freedom are certainly tempting; we wouldn't fault anyone for wanting to consider taking this app marketing route. However, we'd also feel remiss if we didn't point out some of the risks inherent in doing so.
We don't intend to sound like a commercial for the major apps stores here, but Apple, Google and the rest (as they say on Gilligan's Island) do offer quite a few perks for your 30%. When you sign on with them as a developer, the licensing agreement is written out for you in fairly clear language; this is a hassle in legalese you'll have to contend with if you don't go with them. The bandwidth for your listings in the big apps stores is free to developers once your app is approved, whereas this would be an added expense if you go solo. The apps stores also offer performance metrics tracking; this is something you'd have to figure out on your own otherwise. To top it off—and this is the Big Kahuna here—the big boys offer a huge potential audience for your app, for free. It would take a lot of legwork and commitment to drum up those kinds of numbers on your own.
If you go with a third-party licensee, be careful. Do your research and find out their professional reputation beforehand, of course, and ask them questions that will give you the details you need before placing the majority of your marketing strategy in their hands. Most third-party app marketers also know about the 30% off-the-top taken by the big apps stores, and in many cases their fees can match or exceed that amount in the long run. And that's not to mention all the legal contracts and agreements will be your responsibility.
When you place an app in a major apps store, you're still gonna want to do extra marketing to draw attention to your app; it just makes good business sense, and will help bolster profitability. If, however, you decide to go at it on your own, plan to set aside a big chunk of time, creativity, effort and money for your marketing strategy. Because if you don't do it, no one will—and customers won't embrace an app they haven't heard of. When you total all this up—well, in some cases that 30% actually starts to look good.
Finally, Apple, Google and the other big guys have infused into their mobile devices coding that won't allow applications outside their apps stores to run on them—it's to their benefit, of course; they want that 30% from what they consider legitimate apps. Sometimes you're lucky, and the app will run just fine; many other times it won't. As a result, jailbreaking or rooting is often needed to force the device to accept and run the “outsider” app. While this isn't strictly illegal, it voids the warranty on the device and can create functionality and security issues; in a worst-case scenario, the smartphone or tablet could stop working altogether.
So, you see, while our short answer is “yes,” there are a lot of ifs, buts, extra work and risks involved if you want to bypass the big apps stores when marketing your app. While it's true fortune favors the bold, sometimes you're better off going with a time-tested sure thing. For another developer's perspective on this topic, we recommend this article by Matt Gemmell.
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