Grabbing app glory

Retailers and developers who've nabbed the high-profile Featured App or Best New App spots in Apple's App Store offer tips on how to appeal to Apple's tastemakers.

Bill Siwicki

How can a retailer know for sure that the app it's building will pass Apple Inc.'s approval process and be available for download in the App Store? How can a retailer gauge if its app is in line with what Apple likes to see, and thus earn Featured App or Best New App placement in the Apple App store? It's not like an e-retailer's leaders and information technology staff members can hop on a plane, fly out to Cupertino, Calif., knock on Apple's door and ask Apple's crack team of developers what they think of a design in development.

Well, actually, that's exactly what executives at e-retailer Threadless.com did. Twice.

Having access to Apple insiders is one of the perks of working with an outside developer with extensive app–building experience, in this case, Prolific Interactive, says Jake Nickell, founder and CEO at Threadless.com, an apparel, accessories and art e-retailer that offers an iPhone shopping app, with a second iPhone app focusing on custom-designed T-shirts on the way. Shoppers on mobile devices account for 28% of Threadless.com's traffic (64% of that mobile traffic stems from Apple devices) and 20% of its sales.

Threadless.com had a rough start with apps. It pulled the plug on its first iPhone app after just six months in 2012. All Nickell will say about that app is the e–retailer "was not proud of it." This time around, the merchant was especially sensitive to getting things right.

And it did. After making some design changes suggested by Apple in the Cupertino meetings, changes that brought the Threadless.com app more in line with the clean Apple iOS 7 aesthetic (such as killing tabs with graphics in favor of tabs with colors), not only did Apple speedily approve the app, it named it a Best New App in the Lifestyle category, where shopping apps reside.

The first week the app appeared in the App Store last month, Threadless.com promotions to its customers drove downloads. Apple elevated it to a Best New App slot in its second week, and that drove what Nickell describes as an "impressive" jump in downloads, new customers and positive user reviews during the two weeks it was featured as a Best New App. "We are still featured today and are still seeing the benefits of being one of the Best New Apps, and consequently are still in the midst of gathering data on results," he adds.

Having Apple honor an app with a Featured App or Best New App slot boosts downloads and credibility and attracts new customers to a brand; further, the high profile can boost positive user reviews, a key to survival in the App Store, retailers and developers say. But Apple only tells companies, via the Apple iOS Dev Center at Developer.Apple.com, what to do and what not to do to gain its approval to be included in the store. Apple does not tell companies how to stand out and gain a featured placement. In fact, it doesn't even tell businesses that do get featured why they were picked. (Nor would Apple comment for this story.)

But retailers and developers whose work has been rewarded with featured positions offer clues to other retailers seeking Apple's recognition, and the subsequent boosts the high profile brings. They stress that apps must function perfectly, and that apps should complement the style of Apple's iOS 7 mobile operating system design, which last year drastically altered the look and feel of computing on Apple's mobile devices. Having a unique business model or innovative mobile tool doesn't hurt, either.

Apps are increasingly important because consumers are moving much of their web activities from desktop computers to tablets and smartphones. In fact, fully one-third of visitors to the most heavily trafficked online retailers only visit the merchants on mobile devices, according to web and mobile measurement firm comScore Inc. What's more, 80% of the time mobile shoppers spend with top retailers occurs in an app, while only 20% occurs on a mobile web site, comScore says. Consumers increasingly are turning to apps over the web, on smartphones and tablets, and this trend may require more retailers to consider building apps, mobile experts say.

Discovery has always been key to apps. Consumers have to be able to find an app to use it, and that's assuming they even know an app exists. There are around 1 million apps in Apple's App Store, so when Apple likes an app enough to place it on the top of the heap in a Featured App slot, where it typically remains for a week or two, or near the top in a Best New Apps slot, which can last weeks or more, it can be a dream come true for the app maker.

"Apple tends to showcase high-functioning, well-designed apps, and we were excited to have been categorized in that way," says Nickell of Threadless.com. "Our app has been successful with Apple and consumers because we had a clear understanding of the end user's expectations and executed the design to meet those expectations. Partnering with the right development team also is imperative. Our partners at Prolific Interactive have had other successes in the App Store, and together we kept the end user in mind and stayed true to our brand [in] optimizing the experience for mobile."

Bond Gifts launched last year as a mobile-only retailer—it only sold via an iPhone app (it now has an e-commerce site). It has an unusual business model: It targets busy urban executives like salespeople who need to send a nice gift to colleagues, partners or clients. A key feature enables users to send a handwritten note on fancy stationary in a wax-sealed envelope from their phones. Shortly after Bond Gifts' debut in the App Store last year, Apple put the retail app in the Featured App position for a week. The app's different model and then mobile-only approach likely caught the eyes of Apple's tastemakers, says Sonny Caberwal, CEO and co-founder of Bond Gifts.

The result of that week in the spotlight was a tremendous increase in downloads, sales and positive user reviews, Caberwal says. "We experienced 20 times more downloads than previous weeks," he says. "Being picked by Apple is a great credibility booster."

Since being a Featured App, the Bond Gifts iPhone app was given special placement by Apple three more times, as a Best New App and in the Great For Giving and Great For Parents sections. Caberwal says each of these placements roughly doubled the number of downloads compared with times when the app was not in a featured position.

"If a retailer wants to be featured, it should create an app with some key point of differentiation or utilization of a new iOS feature, that's the key," he says. "And retailers should think through how they get app users to engage with push notifications. If users don't accept push notifications, it's much harder to reach out to them, so find creative, useful reasons for engagement." 40% of users of the Bond Gifts iPhone app have given their OK to receive push notifications, he adds. On average, 35% of users of retail apps authorize receiving push notifications, push notification marketing vendor Urban Airship says.

Apple has positioned a number of the apps created by mobile technology provider and app developer Prolific Interactive as Best New Apps. These include retail apps for popular apparel e-retailers ModCloth Inc., Rent the Runway and Threadless.com. In fact, all three are still in Best New App or subordinate featured positions today. Prolific says in its experience with featured apps, downloads and new customers increase fivefold compared with periods when an app is not in a featured position.

"Being well-versed in Apple's requirements when creating a native app is our first step to success," says Bobby Emamian, CEO and co–founder of Prolific Interactive. "Beyond that, we go into each project knowing what is at the heart of the brand, we're completely in tune with the expectations and needs of the end user. We also maintain a hard line on keeping mobile first as we guide brands through strategizing and designing an app. We've released apps with never-before-seen features. For example, the Rent The Runway app had features only available via app, not on the desktop."

These mobile-exclusive features that Emamian says likely caught Apple's eye include Shortlist, where users can create wish lists and sort and store items by occasion, and Style Quiz, where users creating a Shortlist are asked a series of questions (dress code, length of dress, style, color, size) so the app can filter Rent The Runway's entire inventory and only display options that meet the criteria.

"Another way to look at or categorize apps in the App Store is the Top Charts view, which highlights apps based on downloads and performance numbers," Emamian says. "Apps that are high-functioning, relevant and constantly being iterated on can be featured several times throughout their existence in these charts."

Another key to being selected by Apple for a featured spot is to ensure that an app is built "natively," says Jeremy Black, director of retail and hospitality at app developer Pivotal Labs, which helped build Facebook's mobile app. Black personally helped build mobile apps for Fanatics Inc., Karmaloop.com, Kay Jewelers, Shopzilla Inc. and Weight Watchers International Inc. Native is a term used by mobile developers that means an app is built specifically for a given platform, in this case Apple's iOS, using systems and tools specific to that platform.

"Write-once/run-anywhere and web views do not provide the best app user experience," Black says. He refers to app–building styles that incorporate HTML5, a web programming language with numerous tools that enable mobile sites or apps to run on any platform, so a developer can create one app that runs on various platforms (write-once/run-anywhere), or encase a mobile web site experience in an app wrapper (web views). "Apple is not going to feature you unless you build something targeted at the iOS platform, which provides users with the type of experience they expect to see on an iPhone or iPad, namely a great one."

While Apple doesn't reveal what it finds appealing in apps it places in featured positions, retailers and developers spotlighted by Apple say it's pretty clear that winning apps are built native to iOS, function without a single fault, match Apple's design aesthetic, and offer something unusual or unique. Retailers building or enhancing apps and seeking the big boosts in downloads, new customers and positive app reviews that come with being a Featured App or a Best New App can look to the apps that have been featured for inspiration on how to stand out in a very crowded field.




App tips from a master

Pivotal Labs helped build one of the most–used apps in existence, the Facebook app. Jeremy Black, director of retail and hospitality at Pivotal Labs, helped build it and a host of others, including mobile apps for Fanatics Inc. and Karmaloop.com. He offers the following tips for retailers dealing with app stores:

– Get the most out of an app's name. "Like any page name, an app name will affect searchability, so you may want to make it a somewhat descriptive name if your brand is not terribly strong. If you are Wal–Mart, consumers will search for Wal–Mart."

– Choose categories wisely. "If you just lump in with the Lifestyle category and you are a medium or small retailer without a big brand presence, you will be pushed to the bottom, which will make discovery through natural app store mechanisms difficult. So list in multiple categories. It doesn't cost a thing."

– Use App Store listing pages creatively. "Instead of a boring screen shot, a retailer might have a photo of a person using the app, then have a call–out: 'Look at product reviews in the aisle.'"

– Make vocal users happy. "With Mountain Equipment Co–op's app, there was a vocal user who wanted bar code scanning. When we put the new release of the app out with bar code scanning, we included the reviewer's name and said, 'Hope you're happy.' That got a lot of positive press, and he went to his Twitter and Facebook feeds and publicized the app. He was so happy people listened to him."


App Store, Apple, Bond Gifts, Featured App, Jeremy Black, m-commerce, mobile apps, mobile commerce, Pivotal Labs, Threadless.com