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How To Make Your App Zoom To The Top Of The App Store

With more than 40,000 new apps released into the App Store each month, landing one of those coveted top spots is no accident.

Tiggly, a company that makes tablet learning games for preschoolers, has what every publisher wants: an app near the top of the App Store charts. The app, called Sesame Street Alphabet Kitchen, is an early-literacy tool that lets kids build words with Cookie Monster in the form of—what else?—cookies. It’s the product of a strategic partnership with Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization behind the popular kids’ show. Within one week of launch in late November, Alphabet Kitchen was the No. 1 iPad app in both the Kids and Education categories, and ranked fourth overall in the iPad App Store.

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“We were very excited about the ranking,” says Azadeh Jamalian, Tiggly’s cofounder and chief learning officer. And rightfully so. With more than 40,000 new apps released into the app store each month, landing one of those coveted top spots is no accident. For Tiggly, it was the result of a lot of hard work and strategizing.

The Soft Launch

Before releasing a new app into the world, smart publishers test the waters first with a soft launch to a small audience. “They see where the people are dropping off, not having fun, or don’t engage well in the first 30 minutes and leave the app, then they tweak it,” says Fabien-Pierre Nicolas, VP of marketing and communications at mobile app analytics company App Annie. This soft launch can last anywhere from one to six months. “You really want this early user experience to be the best user experience possible,” Nicolas says. “That takes time.”

Tiggly did a version of this with Alphabet Kitchen. The company has the benefit of owning other apps already in the App Store, which it can use for cross-promoting new products. “There’s a ‘more apps’ button to see other apps that are coming from Tiggly,” Jamalian says. “Before we launch an app, we come up with different icons for that app and see how popular each of those icons are, based on the number of clicks they get.”

A Killer Icon

According to App Annie, “just like a physical store’s sign or front window, your icon needs to explain your app’s core value and incentivize users to tap.” By looking at the app’s title and icon, users should be able to discern what they’ll get when they click.

For example, Tiggly knew it wanted Cookie Monster in the logo. The blue furry cookie fanatic is one of the show’s most popular muppets, and using his face was a quick and clear way to signal to parents that the app came with Sesame Street’s stamp of approval. “Today’s parents have grown up with Sesame Street characters themselves . . . which means parents want their kids to also play and learn with Sesame,” Jamalian says. They gave the character a chef’s hat to signal that kids would be baking with the character.

Offering Something New

Apple has an editorial team dedicated specifically to vetting new apps. These gatekeepers have high standards—both Apple and Google have entire booklets full of requirements new apps should meet if they want to be approved, or more importantly, promoted as a “featured” app. Only a handful of apps are “featured” each week, but the payoff can be enormous.

“The big banner features are so important,” says Nicolas. “That will get you over a million installs, and if I had to put a price tag on a million installs, it is $2 million in value. A lot of seed rounds that startups are raising are $1.5 million, so you’re talking about the equivalent of a large seed round from Apple or Google, handed to you.”

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One of the biggest qualities Apple looks for when considering which apps to feature is novelty. The app store has more than 80,000 education apps already, so Tiggly knew it had to offer something others didn’t.

“That comes with a lot of research, and knowing where the areas for improvement are,” Jamalian says. “What type of content is already saturated? That initial research you have to do on your own, and it helps with your relationship with Apple because they know you’re serious.”

Part of Tiggly’s mission is to create educational apps that have a physical play element to them, so what makes the Alphabet Kitchen app different is its compatibility with smart Tiggly toys—physical letters kids can stamp on the iPad screen like cookie cutters to make words. “We bring the best of physical play and digital together to create a new play experience for children that you can’t necessarily replicate with toys or apps alone,” Jamalian says.

Work The Awards Circuit

One effective way to get attention for a new app is by winning awards and getting excellent reviews, but you have to know which competitions to enter and what editors are looking for. “For example, there’s a Children’s Technology Review (CTR) Editor’s Choice Award, and one of the editors is a well-known guy in the app industry,” Jamalian says. “It’s important to know what type of design concentration he has in mind when evaluating your app.” Tiggly got a glowing review from the CTR, and has received two other notable awards since launching Alphabet Kitchen.

Time The Launch

According to Nicolas at App Annie, November and December are traditionally the worst months for releasing a new app into the marketplace. “Major advertisers and retailers, the big guys, spend a massive amount of money on mobile around Christmas and Thanksgiving, which prevents you from doing efficient acquisition,” says Nicolas. Newbies have a better shot in January, when lots of people are breaking in new phones and are more likely to be on the hunt for new apps to try.

Of course, this means Tiggly’s Alphabet Kitchen is a bit of an anomaly with its November success story, and no doubt Sesame Street’s reputation had a lot to do with that. “Sesame Workshop is legendary in children’s media and education,” Jamalian says. “[Parents] trust that the time their kids spend with Sesame is educational, playful, and full of laughter.”

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About the author

Jessica Hullinger is a London-based journalist who covers science, health, and innovation. She currently serves as a Senior Editor at TheWeek.com.

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