How To Upsell Free Android Apps

How To Upsell Free Android Apps

There are many ways to make money from users in the Android ecosystem: subscriptions, recurring in app purchases, paid apps, advertisements… the list goes on. None are inherently better or worse than the others, and we all have to find our own way as devs. One of the gold standards touted by analyst firms, though, is the number of paid downloads your app boasts. If this is the rat race in which you find yourself, how do you go about gaining sales on a platform notorious for its tight-pursed users? The answer is usually to offer a free gateway to the more expensive app, and do everything in your power to upsell.

This article investigates the myriad of ways our fellow developers are attempting to do just that – convince the average Joe to upgrade (without turning him against you in the process). What does he see when presented with each “free trial” mechanic? What will draw him in, turn him away, or make him want to pay? What follows is a list of the tactics I’ve seen used to upsell Android apps over the years, and some thoughts on how to implement each to the greatest effect.

First, a few ground rules for free trials:

  1. Inconvenience, but don’t infuriate your users.
  2. Pick the length and feature set of your trial based on the complexity of your full app.
  3. Encourage exploration, and never break chains of engagement; these strings of use are the combo-moves that build enthusiasm and motivate sales.
  4. Focus on active incentives (“hey look, it’s a new feature to unlock!”)  with passive obstacles (ads and delays that don’t break the flow).

And the golden rule: above all, build a quality app!

Timed Trials

  • What It Is: Trial period of several hours to several weeks.
  • User Cost: Time and investment in learning the app
  • Potential Sticking Points: The user feels pressured to make a decision, and cost is at the forefront. If the app’s value isn’t great enough by the end of the trial, the sale is lost (possibly for good).

You make a valuable app, and you’re giving it away for free (for a week or two). Users should feel grateful that they’re getting something for nothing, right? Not so fast. Trials are a gamble – the time and investment that users spend checking things out is the price paid to hopefully discover a worthwhile app. If the trial’s end arrives and the app falls even a hair short of its stated value, then the gamble is a loss and the user has nothing tangible to show for the effort. To convert this same user in the future, you have to start again from scratch, but this time already has a losing track record.

This setup is harsh, but apps like live wallpaper generators, sound setting replacements, and (occasionally) music players are perfect candidates; each is readily understood at a glance. With the exploration phase out of the way early, users can spend the remainder of the trial convincing themselves that the purchase is worth the price. As long as you remember that it’s a one-shot gamble, low to medium complexity apps do well here.

Remove Features

  • User Cost: Loss of the feature.
  • Potential Sticking Points: Killing off too many features to make the app “free” can render it pointless, and drive customers to exit the trial early.

This tactic is ideal for selling someone on the idea of your complex app without overwhelming them with features up front.

Lite vs Pro:

Removing “pro” tools to make a “lite” version doesn’t change the first few days of learning the ropes, thus you can keep your app in front of potential customers for a long time. Brand image and perceived value grow stronger with age, so use this to your advantage. Lite apps work best when they encourage users to learn and grow into the more advanced (paid) features.

Full, but crippled: 

If you are confident that a sale can be made after a shorter impression, try leaving all features in tact, but crippling the end product. For example, Camera FV-5 is an app with many deep and varied features, but photographers only need a few minutes to poke around and check which ones are there and how they’re accessed before buying. Therefore, the trial includes the full app, but is limited to taking low-resolution pics.

The try-bef0re-you-buy mechanic is nothing new; Google Play has its own built-in return policy. However, A stand-alone app can be downloaded as many times as a user wants, making it a snap to check back for new features or compatibility. Further, the open “return” window eliminates the pressure of running tests before Google’s invisible clock winds down.

Add A Delay

  • What It Is: Small, artificial wait time(s) tacked on to app mechanics.
  • User Cost: Time
  • Potential Sticking Points: Excessive delays at the wrong moments aren’t worth the effort. Consider offering methods to by-pass the delay that trade one (non-monetary) cost for another.

Electronic Arts has developed a poor reputation for nickle-and-dimeing with micro transactions, but one of the more recent miss-steps came in the form of the free-to-play Dungeon Keeper game that asked users to wait hours, and sometimes days, to complete simple in-game tasks. The U.K. Advertising Standards Agency has since stricken the term “free” from all Dungeon Keeper advertising in the country, but the game serves as a potent example of delays gone wrong.

On the other hand, short delays can motivate without undue irritation, and can even be used in combination with other tactics. For example, Snap Camera HDR‘s trial is fully featured and free for life… but only if Airplane mode is enabled. A data connection results in a short delay of 10 seconds after opening the app, though there’s usually enough time to get a shot off before the notification appears. This doesn’t stop Snap Camera from being an excellent shooter, nor does it get in the way of the quick shots that users need. The delay is a subtle, and comes packaged as user choice: either wait or turn off data (with a third option of payment). Is the choice an illusion? Sure; they’re all inconvenient. The takeaway is that inconvenience does not equate to frustration. The customer relationship remains in-tact, and the upgrade impression hits its mark. Keeping the irritant small and offering ways out make all the difference.

Make Money From Small Customer Annoyances

Banner & Interstitial Ads

  • Popup adsWhat They Are: Advertisements served up in small strips at the top or bottom of the page, or between screens as a full-size insert.
  • User Cost: Screen space (banner), or time (interstitial)
  • Potential Sticking Points: Accidental clicks and poorly timed popups are jarring interruptions that turn productive energy into rage. Remember that every tap is an indication that your user wants something to happen, and the “something” is never an ad. Try limiting interstitials to the end of UX patterns, not the middle. Also, avoid button placement near banners to reduce false clicks, and pick advertising platforms offering speedy placement to cut down on perceived delay.

Banner ads and their interstitial counterparts trickle money into your account while keeping the ad-free “pro” version in the minds of all who see them. Keep an eye on how closely your provider can target to your audience, as tailoring ads both increases their click-through rate (your revenue), and decreases frustration by showing ads people want to see.

Because banners take up little space, are easily tuned out, and are familiar mechanics, consumers tend to prefer this concession to payment. User preference can not be undervalued. Well tolerated mechanics a the free version can make going pro feel like donating to help the author rather than paying to purchase a product. Some paid apps even capitalize on this sentiment by renaming from “Pro” to “Dev” or “Donation.”

Interstitial ads are viewed in similar light as banners, but with a higher “annoyance” factor. Disrupting workflows and demanding user input to close will do that.

Sponsored Interactions

  • What It Is: Embedded videos or surveys that pay you and your user.
  • User Cost: Time and interaction.
  • Potential Sticking Points: Workflow disruption, as with interstitial ads. Also, performing tasks like survey taking can feel like unpaid labor. Make sure to immediately compensate your users for their efforts.

Companies like VidCoin place video advertisements in apps, and reward both users and developers for each impression. These rewards remove the stigma of advertisements while still providing a consistent revenue stream.

Sell User Data

  • What It Is: Sell the aggregated, anonymized location data of your users through an affiliate program like Placed.
  • User Cost: Perception of privacy
  • Potential Sticking Points: “Discovering” that an app collects and sells location data too late can lead to feelings of violated trust. Be up front, and emphasize the privacy angle. Transparency is key.

Many consumers are more sensitive about their location history than about other personal metrics, so this approach can be tricky to implement. However, privacy concerns can be lessened by including a strong privacy policy, clearly indicating when data is being collected, and being up front with users about the partners you choose. As a precaution, consider several rounds of user feedback before implementing.

Include Nagware

  • What it is: Subtle reminders that the app can do more.
  • User Cost: Time
  • Potential Sticking Points: Excessive nagging with your hand outstretched for cash is a turn-off.

To avoid the feel of a sales-pitch ambush, place reminders and feature teases where your customers are most likely to go looking for something new, and use nag prompts to spur that quest rather than punish for not upgrading. Also, remember that mood matters. Opt for positive impressions where possible, and choose stress-free interaction points.

Counter Example (what to avoid):

MapMyFitness is a free workout tracking app with a monthly subscription add-on called the MVP package. After every workout, when exhaustion is at its height, a full-screen ad for MVP pops into view. Eyes dart around to find the “x,” but this is no ordinary ad; it’s a nag. No “close” to be found, only “back.” Fine. Take me out of here.

Are you sure you don’t want to upgrade to MVP? [Remind Later] [Continue]

Is that a “Close” button? No, it says Continue. Still no “x.” Pressing “back” is now pointless. Neither option is to “dismiss,” “go away,” or “leave me alone.” Fine. I’ll give in, if only so I can put this phone down and take a drink. “Yes, I love being hit up for cash when I’m most vulnerable. Do it again tomorrow, will you?”

Reminder set.

After a workout, athletes are tired and seeking praise, not cost. Frame upgrades as opportunities to be better rewarded, and do so as part of a string of other awards and feedback instead of as an unavoidable interstitial.

 Freemium Add-Ons

  • User Cost: Money
  • Potential Sticking Points: Being charged for small features, especially those given freely by other apps, leaves a bad taste in the mouth. In breaking an app into its components, you can unintentionally change its feel from a “trial” of something bigger and better, to a paltry app with a few paid extras.

The beauty of add-ons is their flexibility. Users aren’t forced to decide if the app as a whole is worth an exorbitant price; they can stick to the pieces they most want, and forgo the rest.

Try this model if the pieces you offer can stand on their own (like puzzle-game levels), or appeal to different types of people who would balk at what you would otherwise charge. Just make sure you don’t cannibalize sales of the whole for the sake of an add-on or two.

Final Thoughts

App complexity matters. The more features and settings you offer, the more time a user will need before deciding to purchase. Embrace this learning curve period.

  • Complex – Reddit clients and photo editors take several days to become second nature, so options that limit time are not advised. Try separating free and pro features, or package smaller pieces of content as add-ons.
  • Simple to medium complexity – If users will be convinced to purchase after only one use, restricting an essential end-stage mechanic like saving or sharing is an option. Otherwise, experiment with limited duration trials.

For all free or trial apps:

  • Ads, sponsored interactions, or data sale – Many of these are passive revenue generators and subtle upgrade incentives.
  • Add a delay at the start or end of meaningful tasks, but don’t get carried away. Try to include (non-monetary) ways to fast-track. Keep user engagement high.
  • Nagware and other reminders keep users thinking about upgrades, but

Don’t overdo it. You need a quality app in order to survive, so don’t compromise your vision with more cruft than you need. Annoyance and inconvenience are art forms, and a little bit goes a long way.

We’ve all experienced (or implemented) a few of these; do any stand out? What paid apps have you purchased, and why? Let’s start a conversation about how to responsibly upsell android apps!

About author

Chris Gilliam
Chris Gilliam

Chris Gilliam is a front-end web developer with a background in physics, but his passions lie with open ecosystems, Android, linked data, and the unfettered exchange of ideas. He dreams of a semantic future in which knowledge organically evolves within hives of creativity like the XDA forums, and works, tinkers, and writes to help make that future possible.