In 2012 a staggering 328 million apps and games were downloaded on Christmas day, and in 2013 that number shot up another 11 percent. If those rates stay the same, close to 400 million apps could be downloaded on Christmas day this year, as at least 20 million new Android and iOS devices are expected to be activated on Christmas morning.
What this means for developers is that the morning of the 25th can be one of the most financially lucrative days of the year. You just have to make sure your apps are as appealing as possible to those in the holiday spirit. With that in mind we spoke to three best-selling iOS app developers to get their advice on simple things you can do to make your apps stand out during the holidays and maximize your Christmas-morning downloads.
One of the most frequently suggested bits of advice I get from developers is perhaps the simplest–and actually borrows from the 125-year-old traditions of department stores: People like to feel festive around the holidays, so dress your app icon and screenshots for the holidays.
“Screenshots are in some way digital equivalents of your store windows, and savvy shop owners have been holiday dressing their windows for years,” says Igor Pusenjak, CEO of Lima Sky, maker of Doodle Jump, one of the most downloaded games of all time with over a quarter of a billion downloads across all platforms. The game has also made it into the pop culture vernacular with mentions on hit sitcoms such as The Big Bang Theory and Parks and Recreation.
“I’m not saying you have to do what Barneys does every year, but when you see what crowds their windows bring you just might want to,” says Pusenjak. Doodle Jump was also one of the first games to use a custom holiday icon during the Christmas season, something Pusenjak still likes to do. “We’ve been doing it every year and while it’s getting less effective since everyone is now doing it, it’s still a fun way to add some sparkle to your app.”
Pusenjak’s advice is something that Future Games of London’s creative director Chris Dawson agrees with–as long as it makes sense for the app. Future Games of London makes the popular Hungry Shark series which has 150 million downloads to date.
“[Giving your app a Christmas icon is] a good idea if the app contains new Christmas-themed content [as Doodle Jump does],” says Dawson. “If not it’s a bit misleading. Certainly younger people would be drawn to the Christmas theme. The downside is that at least half the games in the charts will have Christmas icons, so it won’t help your app stand out much. Also, it’s probably not a good idea if your main sales territories do not celebrate Christmas.”
Still, Dawson says Christmas-themed screenshots are a boon if your app has Christmas content. “It’s a very good way to show off seasonal content if you have any. For Hungry Shark Evolution we’ve spent time making a whole new Christmas-themed level. The first screenshot will show off all of this.”
Earlier this year Apple introduced App Store bundles for the first time. App bundles allow developers to package their apps together and sell them at a discount that is less than the total price of buying each separately. The appeal is clear: Developers could potentially sell more of their apps and users get more apps for a lower price.
Many developer have suggested putting together limited-time holiday app bundles to entice users to pick up a collection of their apps at a reduced price instead of just one or two.
“If you have high-quality content, that could be an interesting thing to explore,” says Thomas Nielsen, CEO of osao games, maker of the critically acclaimed Chronology: Time Changes Everything game. Chronology is a new release compared to the likes of Doodle Jump and Hungry Shark, but it has already racked up over 1.2 million downloads.
The key, says Nielsen, is to hook potential customers with a familiar app. “People aren’t going to invest in a bunch of things they know nothing about, so make sure something about your bundle is a must-have.”
Future Games of London’s Dawson notes that if you do go down this route you may want to try it with your older games and apps and leave the newer ones out of the bundles, “as it could be perceived as devaluing newer products.”
Mini trailers for apps and games, another new feature in the App Store, can give potential customers a look inside the app. Just as ads on TV take a holiday slant around Thanksgiving, many developers say they are making their app and game trailers festive for the season.
“We have updated our app trailer to become all Christmasy,” says Future Games of London’s Dawson, noting that the holiday-themed trailer makes sense for Hungry Shark because it has specific Christmas-themed levels. If you make a calculator app, a holiday-themed trailer may not make as much sense, but then again, what do penguins have to do with selling household goods? Nothing. But a good holiday-themed ad works for the retail giant John Lewis nevertheless.
“But make sure you are ready to replace them as soon as the holidays are over,” warns Lima Sky’s Pusenjak, “because nothing gets as stale as holiday decorations after everyone opens their gifts.”
While the holiday app-download rush is all about acquiring new users, many developers say it can help with retention if you offer those users free or discounted in-app purchases. Now that they’ve downloaded your app or game, give them some reason to start exploring the additional features.
“In Hungry Shark Evolution we do regular sales of shop items, sometimes 50 percent off,” says Dawson. “This seems to work quite well for us, it keeps our users happy without harming our income. This year we are giving away a new level instead of discounts.”
“Make things free if it serves a good purpose,” adds osao game’s Nielsen. “Users won’t remember your gift, or thank you for it later. But a free IAP could be used to increase retention of your app, so more of your users will keep playing. If you have additional IAPs that you can monetize from, this could be a way to strengthen retention of existing users. But remember: The holiday season is going to be about attracting users to your app, and free IAP’s will very likely, on their own, not attract many users.”
After the presents have been opened and the stockings have been emptied, on Christmas day people generally retreat to their new devices to play apps and games and also share what they’ve gotten on social media. Being active on Twitter and Facebook on the 25th could help capture new users looking for apps and games to download on their new devices, say multiple developers I spoke with.
“Most downloads come from word of mouth for us, so helping to spread through social media is a good thing to do,” says Dawson. “Our Hungry Shark community page on Facebook has over a million likes, and we’ll be active on this page over Christmas giving tips for the new level and sharing funny, festive shark-related news. From our game users can share high scores, photos, and videos, which all help viral spread.”
Lima Sky’s Pusenjak agrees, but cautions developers to keep their expectations in check. “Yes [an active social media presence is important] but your mileage will vary depending on how truly original and interesting your app is. There is so much noise on feeds these days that even Kim’s derrière did not leave as big of an impression. #AlexfromTarget on the other hand…”
Despite all the above tricks that can help you capture holiday downloads, there’s one very important thing to remember that can help you acquire thousands of new users. That one thing is to understand why people are getting all these shiny new touch-screen devices: for the new features they offer.
In terms of the new iPad the newest feature is Touch ID, so apps that support that could have a better chance of grabbing Christmas-morning downloads from people that want to try out fingerprint recognition. For iPhones it’s the bigger screen and Apple Pay, so apps that are optimized for both stand to appeal more. Same goes for all the other new features of iOS 8 (widgets, Continuity, Extensions) and Android Lollipop.
“Each brand-new device under the Christmas tree is a new opportunity for app and game developers to acquire new users, as one of the first activities is going to be downloading great new stuff,” says osao games’s Nielsen. “Offering something that truly explores the capabilities of the top-selling devices this year is going to be the key to success. Make sure you figure out what people are putting under the Christmas tree, and do you best to target those particular devices with great quality content.”