To Update, or Not Update Apps, That Is the Question

My strategy with L’Escapadou has always been to create few but great apps, and update them regularly so they are better and better, and stay among the best apps in their particular niche (educational apps for kids). As of today, updating my apps is still a priority, but from a business point of view it seems it’s not the best choice, and somehow it breaks my hearts because I love updating my apps.

I started as indie developer in 2010 when the iPad was released and I’ve got a lot of success (more about that in my previous blog posts since 2011). Up to now, I sold more than $2.3M of apps — so yes, I’m one of the happy few indie dev that is doing very well on the iOS App Store. But last year (2015) is the first year revenues were down (in $ and numbers of apps sold, not in Euros thanks to the fall of the Euro since the US is my main market !).

L’Escapadou iOS Revenues (including school revenues)

So what’s happened in 2015 ? Basically, I didn’t release a new app because I did only updates. In 2014, I also did only updates but the apps I released end of 2013, Writing Wizard and Cursive Writing Wizard, were (and still are) pretty successful and I did have nice features on the App Store.

Updates Takes Times

From 2010 until 2014, I released one app a year and each year I did between 3 to 5 major updates + some localizations. The issue I’ve got is simple, I’ve got too much apps to update, and I don’t have enough time to do updates and create new apps. A good update is taking me at least 2 months if you include marketing, videos, screenshots, localization, new resolutions to handle, etc.

I consider that I need at least 6–8 months to create a new app. I’m working on a new app since 2014 and I hope that I will released it this year, but it seems that my productivity is very low compared to the previous apps I created because I constantly stop its development to make… updates.

What is Good for your Users is (not) always good for your business

I consider that what is good for my users is good for my business. By respecting my users, I want to build trust and I believe that is the best marketing I can do. Word of mouth is powerful, and if people love your apps, they will recommend them. And if you release great free updates, people are happy.

So in 2014, I decided to mostly work on updates, and work on a new app and fun side projects when I’ve got the time (I also decided to work a little bit less after 4 years of hard work to have more family time). I thought I could stabilize sales and make my users happy (win-win situation). But 2015 revenues indicates that it is not good from a business point of view (and beginning of 2016 is even worse). Why ?

  1. Updates are free , of course, and all my apps are paid. So you don’t have new revenue from your update (but the plan was not to get more revenue but to stabilize them).
  2. Marketing: it’s hard to market an update even if you add killer features. People love talking about new apps, not just updated apps. All the reviews on blogs/sites of your app are of course not updated.
  3. App Store featuring: I did have a lot of App Store featuring and it definitively helped me a lot, but none of my last updates were featured. For example, I’ve added some new fonts for UK/Sweden/US in Writing Wizard and Cursive Writing Wizard (these are hand-made fonts that takes a lot of time to do and integrate) and a nice printable worksheet feature, but it seems that it is not enough to be featured. There are a lot of new great apps, and places are limited.
  4. You lose your precious App Store Ratings & Reviews. When releasing an update, the stars and the reviews are somehow disappearing behind the “others versions” tab. When listed your updated app has no more stars under its name, and people who don’t know the app are less inclined to check it in details. You may even have a worse rating after getting the 5 needed reviews for the update — for example I did an update last December, and this app has now a worse rating (4 stars, whereas it was 4.6 for the previous version) ! Note that I do apps for kids, and it’s difficult to get reviews for these kind of apps (you don’t throw a “please rate me” pop-up when it’s a kid that is using the app).
  5. My sides project (small apps) are fun to make but do not make money at all (the reality of the App Store!)

So doing only updates of successful paid app on the App Store is not the best way to stabilize your revenues — at least for me, each case is different of course. It’s somehow a pity, but that’s the reality (and I’m still doing very very well).

However, I’m still wondering what would have happened if I didn’t updated my apps and released a new app instead... I love to think that it would have created more short-term revenues, but that updates are better for long term revenues (but honestly I’m not so sure about that!)

It Seems to Work…in the School Market

Revenue from Schools

Schools love my apps and my revenue are better and better in this specific market which is now account 30% of my revenue. Why ?

  1. I believe teachers spread the news between them about good educational apps much more than parents. They are far more interested in educational apps than most parents. So when they found an app that they love, they talk about it.
  2. They notice updates because they use the app themselves, often on a daily basis (much more than parents)
  3. Perhaps that these days this market is growing faster than the parents market. I was also in this market early, and thus I got good visibility.

Possible Solutions : Subscription Model ? Updates as New App ? IAP ? Less updates ?

Subscription Model seems the perfect solution (we all want users that pay each month, no ?). I would bundle all my apps in one app and offer it for a few dollars per month. I would continue to update the apps and everybody would be happy. The main issue is that I’m really not motivated by doing this ;-) In addition, I would offer nothing new to my users and would lose a lot of times to create nothing new eventually. Also the design of my apps is not coherent, so it would mean a lot of redesign.

Some developers are successful in creating a new versions of their apps as a new app (eg Stack the States 2). I could really invest time in an update, add all the new stuff I want. The thing is that I think you need a really very successful app so it works. I don’t think if my app are good candidates for that.

(EDIT) However, I think I could sometimes “externalize” some new features in new apps. For example, when I wanted to add cursive fonts in Writing Wizard app, I created a new app and it was a very good decision. I could have done the same when I added two new activities in Word Wizard last year, but I felt that the app was really stronger with this new activities and decided to put them in the app. An in-between solution would be to create an external app with the new features and also put them in the existing app. The new app could be free (for cross-marketing and visibility) or much cheaper than the existing app.

Adding new features as in-app purchases (IAP) has some issues. I think people don’t really expect to pay for IAP in paid apps and schools cannot buy IAPs.

Less updates is of course a solution but honestly I love releasing updates and make my product better and better ! Anyhow, that’s my plan this year — I released some great updates since 6 months (a big one for Montessori Numbers is coming very soon) and I want to concentrate on my new app.

So…

So let’s go to work on this new app ! But I won’t stop doing updates because it would be silly to lose the reputation I’ve made so far, and stop being among the best apps in my category, but I may try to externalize new features for free to enhance the visibility of my brand, or create a new app when the new features are really strong. All apps must be updated if you don’t want to be distanced by the competition…and please your users.

(EDIT) PS: I didn’t talk about App Store optimization which requires updates to optimize your app and marketing materials (icon, screenshots,keywords). It’s a different story, but also a very important one especially if you don’t have a lot of visibility or a freemium app (thanks for the feedback Rocco!)

PPS: Google Play is really a different beast, but the idea of staying in the best in class apps thanks to update still applies. I’ve also have some apps on Android , thanks to my cousin who is doing the coding, and will talk about that later.