Promote an iOS app with a free initial release

My next iOS app GameTimer is getting closer to release and I’m thinking how to generate more interest for the app. One idea I’ve been considering is to do a free initial release. This blog post goes into some more details and pros and cons of this strategy. As I love to come up with new terms, maybe I should call it  “FIRST”, the Free Initial Release STrategy?

What do I mean by FIRST?

The idea behind “free initial release” is to promote an iOS app by making it available for free on the AppStore. This app is not intended to be free forever – monetization is through sales on the IOS AppStore. However, after releasing the app, it will be free for some time – maybe a few weeks, until switching to a paid app.


Here are a few of the Pros I see:

  • Limit the amount of (initial) development work
    The sooner you can release your software and get feedback, the less time and effort you waste developing features no one will use.
  • Get honest feedback from interested users
    For a relatively new iOS developer such as me (i.e. without a track record of good apps or a sizable number of influential followers), it is usually not easy to get feedback from users outside of the immediate friends and family category. A free app is going to be interesting to many more users – and you don’t even have to know them in order to “make” them test the app. One example of feedback is crash logs: You’ll have them, even after testing your app – so you should regularly check the iTunesConnect crash logs or include some crash reporting mechanism such as HockeyApp or Crashlytics. Even better is direct feedback to you as a developer, so make sure to include an easy way for user to leave feedback, such as sending an email or tweet directly from your app.
  • Generate (hopefully) positive reviews on the AppStore
    Users are a bit more generous with good reviews for a free app, and they are also less annoyed by being asked for a review. If your app has a few positive reviews (rather than the standard three or four 1-star-reviews) or even a good average rating, users will be much more likely to buy your app once you’ve switched to paid. In order to encourage ratings, your app should include some friendly way of “nagging” users for a rating and/or review.
  • Easier to create interest for your app
    Generally, you will be able to create more interest for a free app: Anyone remotely interested in the app will be able to give it a try. In order to hold these users’ interest, it is important to build a good first use experience. In fact, a good first use experience is probably much more important than having a long list of features that only a few users may need.


As usual, nothing comes for free and there are some disadvantages and risks using FIRST:

  • Miss sales to initial buyers
    With each new app, there seem to be a few users that buy that app (maybe just because it’s new). If the initial release is free, you miss out on these initial buyers.
  • After an embarrassing 1.0 version, nobody cares about a polished V1.5.
    I’m not exactly sure where this sentiment comes from (I read about it on the AppCubby blog). But it makes clear that even your version 1.0 has to be compelling enough to captivate the interest of your users. It also means that you can’t just push out an unfinished, crappy version of the app you want to sell – at the least the core of the app has to be “polished”. However, I see this as a bit of a reality check: If there is too much work involved, maybe your app idea is just not feasible.
  • Missing the right point to switch to paid
    If the idea of FIRST is to generate interest and then make money, there is the danger of missing the right time to switch. You want to do the switch when the interest for your app is sizable, but still increasing – a good point would be right before a link from a John Gruber or being featured on the AppStore. However if you miss that crest, you will again leave money on the table by not properly monetizing on the interest you’ve managed to generate. This means you have to actively monitor how interest is developing, and make sure to be able to change the price on a relatively short notice.
  • Interest in a free app is different to something people have to pay for
    One of the main points of “Lean Startup” is to build a “MVP” (Minimum Viable Product), but also to validate the concept by asking people to pay money for it. I think it was Jason Cohen who made it clear that people don’t like to say no and will give you all kinds of nice answers if you ask them if they like your idea. Asking for money cuts through that politeness layer. As the discussion around “freemium models” has show, generating interest into a free service does not guarantee financial success for a paid product. (However, I feel that this notion is helpful in “enterprise sales”, but doesn’t fully apply to the iOS AppStore – of course there is a difference between a free app and a 99¢ app, but you are still in “impulse buy” territory.)

It’s not a Beta Test

One thing should be clear: FIRST is not a beta test. First of all, Apple does not look to favorable on buggy apps that are submitted for release and has made it clear that the app has to be fully tested. As noted above, you want your users to have a great experience with your app (after all you want to generate interest in it), so you can’t afford to release a buggy or unpolished release. It is much better to cut features and deliver a “MVP”. When switching to paid, you should make sure to add some features in addition to removing some bugs that have occurred.

Switch to paid

The switch to a paid application can happen in a number of different ways:

  1. Just change the price (without submitting a new version)
    This is the quickest way to switch to a paid app (afaik it does not require approval from Apple). But with the changed guidelines concerning the app description (changes are only allowed with a new version), you shouldn’t refer to the app being free for a limited time in your description if you want to be able to use this option.
  2. Change the price while submitting a new version
    This is a more flexible option: You can refer to “free for a limited time” in your app description and you can also tout the new features when changing the price. (Your existing users probably won’t care.) However, a new version requires approval by Apple and takes at least a few days of review. In order to be able to react quickly, one idea is to submit a new version and hold it for developer release.
  3. Switch to “free + inApp purchase”
    Instead of making all users pay for your app, you can offer a free starter version and an inApp purchase to get to the new features. This option requires new coding to work properly with the inApp purchasing APIs. (I haven’t worked with that API yet, so I’m not sure how much effort that requires.) The other tricky question is what to do with your existing users. If the free version is very close to your existing version, it’s probably okay to keep them on the free tier, but if you are cutting functionality that would waste a lot of the goodwill you’ve generated.
  4. Switch to a completely new app
    This is probably the least desirable option: You have to leave all the “buzz” you’ve been able to generate behind. However, if the reaction to your 1.0 release was so bad that the app doesn’t really have a chance any more, this may be your only option if you still believe in your app idea. But you have to evaluate very honestly if your idea is still feasible – maybe it’s time to cut your losses.

Thoughts for GameTimer

I’ve put a lot of thought into what is the core idea of GameTimer, and I’m confident that I can deliver an MVP that is still engaging users. I’m pretty close to that for the iPhone version of my app, but have decided that having an iPad version would be a great bonus – so I’ll have to have a closer look whether to include that in my 1.0 release. My goal for GameTimer is to go beyond my current level of  “one sale per day”  – therefore I’m not too worried about missing a few initial sales but hope to generate more interest.

To sum up, I think that I’ll give “FIRST” a try when releasing GameTimer – but I’m very interested in your thoughts on this issue. You can leave a comment, send me an email or a tweet.


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