Dark Sky Journal

…things we learn, as we make and sell Dark Sky for iPhone & iPad.

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Kickstarting an iOS App, Part 1: Digital Rewards

Posted on by Jason LaPorte

Dark Sky for iPhone and iPad Kickstarter has become very big news on the Internet, and for good reason: the Internet is all about novel ideas, and Kickstarter has become one of the most visable means of funding those ideas that would otherwise never get off the ground. Our project, Dark Sky, was one of those ideas; and thanks to our (beloved, wonderful, attractive) Kickstarter backers, we were able to meet our funding goal and build our iOS app.

Of course, the story didn’t end when we met our goal, and we learned quite a bit along the way. Since so many other folks are looking to Kickstarter as a way to fund their own projects, we wanted to contribute some of the things we wished we knew when we started. In this first part of a series, we’ll be talking about the process of getting digital rewards out into the world.

All three of us came from the world of web development, and moving to app development is a bit of a change for us; the most obvious difference is that instead of being able to roll out changes and bugfixes whenever we want, we’re constrained to a release cycle — but that’s a story for a different day. The other major difference, and the one we’d like to talk about today, is in distribution: on the web, everything you make is immediately public to the world; on iOS, though, there was a process involved in getting our Kickstarter backers their rewards. We never really thought about this ahead of time, thinking — we assume, like many others — that we would just give each of our backers promotional codes. Unfortunately, that avenue just isn’t viable: Apple gives us 50 codes for each version of the app, and releasing an update takes (at least!) a week to go through approval. In order to get enough promo codes to give one to each of our backers, we would have to update the app once a week for six months — and that doesn’t even include using any codes to promote the app! Obviously, promo codes are simply infeasible for rewards.

The solution we settled on was Apple’s gifting mechanism: essentially, buying each of our backers their copy of the app. This isn’t quite as arduous as it sounds: everything is done right from within iTunes, and you are allowed to provide Apple a comma-separated list of email addresses to gift to, though there is a limit on the number of characters that can be submitted at once; we were able to send about fifty copies of the app in each batch. A couple hours later, each of our Kickstarter backers had an email with their copy of Dark Sky.

You can gift apps from within iTunes.

Well, almost. The process wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns; we encountered more than a couple problems with it.

  1. Apple places a limit on the number of gift purchases that can be made in a certain period of time. We aren’t sure what the exact parameters of this limit are, but after having made some 500 purchases of the app in an hour we were given an error telling us that we couldn’t make any further purchases for a while. After waiting an hour, we were able to finish making our purchases without issue.

  2. Strangely enough, our credit card company regards making a thousand purchases of the same product in a short period of time as illegitimate behavior, and as a result placed a hold on our credit card until we called them and straightened everything out.

  3. Apple takes a 30% cut of all App Store purchases, and while we were expecting overhead costs for the physical rewards we offered, we hadn’t counted on having to spend an additional $2,000 (that’s fully 5%!) of our gross Kickstarter funding on digital rewards. Obviously, these costs can be minimized by setting the initial app price very low and raising it as soon as we’d finished gifting it to our backers, but this seemed to us dishonest, and a poor way to begin our business relationship with Apple.

  4. After purchasing a gift for a particular email address, Apple sends that email address an email from “iTunes Store <do_not_reply@itunes.com>” with the subject “ —  sent you an iTunes Gift;” a large percentage of our backers never received these emails, whether due to them giving us incorrect email addresses, or losing the email in their spam folders. In fact, even backers who use Apple Mail would often end up with the email being marked as spam. We ended up spending quite a lot of time working with backers who never received their apps individually over email; in some cases, the lost emails were found in spam folders, but in other cases we needed to use promo codes or even buy additional copies of the app in order to resolve the situation, further adding to our overhead.

  5. When someone is gifted a copy of the app (or given a promo code), it seems that they are not able to leave a review in the App Store. While we can appreciate the reasoning behind this, it is unfortunate, since many apps live or die by their reviews and an initial burst of positive reviews would help to encourage sales, especially for a “premium” app like ours.

All in all, the process wasn’t especially painful and we’d go this route again, but we’d budget our time and money much more carefully: it’s difficult to spend several hours daily on responding to support emails when there are crucial bugs to fix in your brand new app, and it’s difficult to spend a few thousand dollars when you’re trying to get your fledgling company to take off.

© 2012 The Dark Sky Company, LLC