09:35 PM
Eric Shoup
Eric Shoup

5 Tips For Building Subscription-Based Mobile Apps

Sometimes limits are the mother of innovation, as learned in the process of developing and improving its app within the strictures of app marketplaces.

20 Great Ideas To Steal In 2013
20 Great Ideas To Steal In 2013
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The mobile app for Apple's iOS and Google's Android are among the most successful in a marketplace crowded with more than 1.6 million competitors. I define "success" in this case by the app's sustained appearance on both "top apps" and, more importantly, "top grossing" lists. Our mobile app was among the first, and the few, approved by Apple for automatic renewal. To date, the Ancestry mobile app has been downloaded more than 9 million times.

Part of the appeal, of course, is the irresistible nature of discovering who you are by researching and sharing family history on the go. The rest is the result of hard-earned lessons in engineering and design developed by working with the Apple and Google mobile platforms, and with millions of users to determine which features people value in a mobile app and how to convert enthusiasm into subscribing and becoming part of the service -- all while living within the guidelines of the Google and Apple standards. Here are five tips that our mobile team has learned along the way:

1. Relax -- sometimes it's OK to give up control and play by the big boys' rules.

It's Apple's and Google's world. Mobile app developers just live in it. Apple and Google make the rules, and developers must be flexible because the rules likely won't mesh perfectly with your business model. For example, it's a fact of life in the App Store or the Play Store that Apple and Google control the customer relationship when in-app purchases are made. Developers have limited control over the conversion and churn process, and all auto-renewals and cancellations must run through the App Store or the Play Store. Additionally, they do not allow users to upgrade midsubscription.

[ Not so fast: Let some ideas simmer. Read Innovation Begs For A Crock-Pot, Not Blender. ]

Deal with these challenges by amping up idea generation. For example, in an ideal world, we'd be able to link mobile users back to our main mobile website from the app to allow people to upgrade to higher-end packages. A desktop user tracing her family's history in the United States using a U.S.-only subscription might buy a global upgrade to take the search back to the years before the family came to America. The problem is, linking back to one's website from an app is verboten in the Apple world. To work around this, we developed the concept of an in-app "single record purchase," which allows users to access a historical record from a higher-cost subscription tier without having to wait for their current subscriptions to end.

2. Plan up front how you'll handle reporting, because existing reports may not be specific enough.

Google and Apple provide rolled-up monthly data on new subscribers, renewals and cancellations. This is a good starting point, but it can be difficult to do the kind of pinpoint marketing business users want. To get to know your customer and measure the successes of a subscription-based mobile app, you need more information than Apple and Google provide. The payoff is that you can develop strong marketing tactics and truly understand the drivers behind conversion and cancellation rates.

Our mobile team found that a third-party analytics service, such as Omniture or Flurry, can provide additional visibility into how the app is performing. It's imperative to identify your conversion funnel and ensure that proper tracking is in place at each step of the funnel, which will allow for better identification of where users are dropping out and yield insights into how to optimize the flow. For example, our mobile app previously required users to register before trying out the app. But we've found that many users dropped out at the registration page without ever experiencing what we have to offer. As a result, we pushed back the registration wall to allow more users into the app, and the result was a significant increase in conversion.

3. Bulletproof your fulfillment process with multiple layers of redundancy.

The moment of fulfillment -- delivering the subscription customers just bought -- is a crucial point of contact between your brand and the marketplace. Google and Apple collect the customer's money and then signal us to deliver the subscription. If things break down at that point, it's trouble because we receive customer data only in aggregate form. Without visibility into who the customer is, we can't reach out to help if there's a problem with fulfillment.

Our mobile team developed a way to create multilevel redundancy, which caches data and creates an auditable trail back to the customer if anything goes wrong at the moment of fulfillment. For example, if our API were to go down during the fulfillment process, our system would automatically cache that transaction. Once the API is up and running again, the system would push that cached transaction through the fulfillment process.

4. Ensure that you can update your offers without updating your app.

One beauty of digital marketing through a website is real-time A/B testing and the ability to regularly tweak offers and pricing. With a native app, you don't have that flexibility. Changing in-app offers can require creating a new version of the app, since the new offers are usually hard-coded. Approval for new apps in the App Store takes about a week. So instead of flexible marketing in real time, you're looking at a seven-day lag.

Our solution was to avoid hard-coding any offers into the app by creating an embedded Web view that displays an HTML offer page from our servers that can test and change pricing and offers dynamically in real time. Users can't tell they're dealing with a Web page, and Apple and Google are fine with the constantly changing marketing, as long as we follow the rules and sell everything through iTunes or the Play Store.

5. Mobile-ize your monetization strategy by understanding the difference between mobile and desktop/notebook customers.

Companies' well-thought-out website monetization strategies may not translate fluidly to the mobile world. For example, one way we introduce potential users to in a low-commitment way is through a 14-day free trial. If customers decide to continue on after the trial, their subscription auto-renews. Neither Google nor Apple allows this kind of process. Users pay for the subscription up front, no free trials.

Similarly, patterns of use may differ markedly between a company's website and the mobile app. We noticed that website subscribers are "low frequency/high intensity," meaning they come to Ancestry once a day or a couple of times a week, but stay and use the site for long periods of time, whereas mobile customers are "high frequency/low intensity" -- they open the app often to make discoveries and reference information, and then move on.

To address the differences between website and app, we developed alternate ways for a prospective subscriber to preview the service and make purchases in a "bite-size" manner. In the app, unlike the website, we enable users to preview any historical documents from our collection of billions of digitized records with no commitment so they can get a taste of the discoveries they will make on In addition, we highlight the single-record purchase feature I mentioned earlier to address the needs of those kicking the tires, as well as the fast-moving app users. In this way, we're working within the rules set by Apple and Google but are still giving a type of free-trial experience, which is a monetization strategy that has seemed to work for us.

There are certainly frustrations living in a mobile app universe controlled by set guidelines and standards, but in the end, the experience is a plus: Apple's and Google's structures challenge our engineers and marketers to innovate within a known structure, which is great mental and imaginative discipline.

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