Why AdWords Ads Don't Work for iPad Apps
Feb 21, 2011 09:03

In late January 2011 I gave a talk (overview here) at PodCamp Halifax about my experiences in releasing and promoting my app: Remembary the Connected Diary for Your iPad

Over the years I've heard a lot about Google Adwords, and how it has revolutionized not just the world of advertising, but the whole way that the web works.

Now that I had a product of my own to promote, I decided to try it myself. I set up an Adwords account and started putting money into it to see if I could get more attention for Remembary.

A certain kind of business model has emerged recently, where the sale price of your product more than covers the cost of AdWords required to get a purchase. These apps can sustain themselves entirely through AdWords - and the more money they put in, the more money they make.

This doesn't work with iOS apps.

The Problem with AdWords and iPad Apps

You may have noticed there aren't many adwords ads for iPhone and iPad apps. Do any search on Google for 'iPad' or, say, 'iPad Diary' and often the only ad is from Apple - and it's for the entire app store.

This is because of simple return on investment: Good AdWords leads can cost $1 per click - and this dollar just gets someone to visit your site. Of course, a visit isn't enough: You want people to actually click on the "buy" button and purchase the app. Of the people who view your ad, only a few click on the link; of the people who visit your site, only a few click on the "Buy Now" button; of the people who click "Buy Now" only a few will actually make a purchase. This is known as conversion, and there's a whole art to it - and an industry of advisors and consultants you can pay to help you figure it out.

It turns out that the conversion math for most iOS apps is really easy: If your app is $2.99, you make $2.10 from Apple, which means that you had better convert half of your site visitors to get your money back. It turns out that a conversion rate of 50% is almost impossible - so the odds are lousy just to break even. If your app is 99 cents, even if you converted everyone you'd still be short.

Adwords especially didn't work out too well for Remembary. The main keywords that would apply to Remembary have popular other meanings: "Diary" can often mean a business planner - where you write down what you will do, rather than what you have already done, the opposite of Remembary; "Journal" of course often means "Newspaper", not to mention "Academic Journal". So those are crowded and expensive keywords.

It also turns out that you can't use the word "iPad" in the content of your ads, unless you're actually selling iPads or accessories. Apps don't count. So I tried "Tablet" - but that's not allowed either, unless you're a certified pharmacy.


Well, I eventually managed to get some decent AdWords ads put together, which even managed to communicate what Remembary was about without depending too much on the bad keywords ("Pad App" was the best I could come up with). I occasionally even got a supposedly decent Click-Through Rate of up to 2%.

The Leads Are Weak

I said above that good AdWords cost about a dollar. You can get lots of traffic at much cheaper rates, especially if you don't limit your market to North America and enable the "Display Network" that includes ads on other websites as well as on mobile devices. However, these leads were particularly weak, getting lots of traffic but very few conversions.

I could see the referrers that were directing people to my site, and they included domain squatter parking pages and "content farms" - my money wasn't just going to Google, it was being forwarded to these kinds of bottom-feeders!

I also, for some reason, got lots of clicks from India for people who were interested in information about "DAIRY" - even blocking that keyword didn't stop the clicks, and remember that I was paying for each one. Some people even managed to make it through the site to the "Contact Us" form and filled it out with requests for dairy farming information - without noticing that it had nothing to do with milk. I eventually just turned off all of India - a growing market of a billion people - because it just wasn't worth it.

The Big Push

Over the holiday season, I decided to see what would happen if I did a (comparatively) big AdWords push. I figured lots of people would be getting iPads under their trees at Christmas, and would be thinking about starting diaries in the New Year so I thought it would be a good time to put some more money into the online advertisements. Some client money had recently come in, so I could afford to experiment a bit.

It turns out I didn't see any connection between my AdWords spending and the sales of Remembary. In fact, on my biggest day of AdWords spending, I got almost 3000 visitors to the website - and sold exactly 0 copies of Remembary.

It turns out, leads from AdWords tend to be fairly weak. Soon after that big week, I read an article (that, funnily enough, I can't find right now) that noted that only 8% of surfers actually click on ads, and this 8% aren't high quality leads. I thought about it a bit: how often do I click on AdWords ads? Hardly ever. The last ad I can recall ever following through the entire conversion process was one for DODOCases, but that was through The Deck and not through AdWords.

This reminded me of a conversation I had at a party once with someone who worked for a home shopping TV network - and she mentioned that they make a lot of their money from shut-ins who don't comparison shop, not-very-smart people who can't see through simple promotional rhetoric, and well as OCD-sufferers who can't help themselves. Did I really want these kinds of people as my customers? Would these people even be interested in an internet-connected diary app? Not likely.

The best I can say about my AdWords adventure is that AdWords are great for bringing your site some audience. When you've just launched your website, it's common to feel disappointed that you're not getting a lot of traffic. To get over this, just give Google some cash and you're almost guaranteed to get at least some kind of traffic.

It also has to be said, of course, that AdWords is a great way to get your feet wet in advertising: you don't need a big up front budget, and the feedback on how your ads are doing is practically real-time.

Adwords: Marketing for Introverts

After I slowed down and eventually just stopped the AdWords spending, I came to a realization about AdWords: it's especially seductive for developer types, since it matches the programmer / engineer psyche really well.

AdWords presents you with a huge control panel with dozens or hundreds of settings, and gives you real-time feedback to a fraction-of-a-percent precision. Change a setting and you can find out within an hour what effect it had on your numbers. Make subtle changes to the wording of your ads and discover which version was 0.01% more effective. You can spend all of your time dealing with words and numbers and statistics and charts and trends - and never have to deal with other human beings, except in bulk as a set of numbers and percentages.

Instead of chatting up someone you saw with an iPad at a coffee shop, or emailing a review site, or doing a presentation, or writing a blog post, you can stay home and just fine-tune your ad wording and compare the fraction-of-a-percent change in the Click-Through-Rate.

Only a few days after giving this presentation about how little progress I was able to make with AdWords, Remembary got a lot of attention through a very nice review at AppAdvice.com - a review that came about from a blog comment and some follow-up email (I'll be covering this in detail soon). This wouldn't have ever happened if I had just focused on increasing my Adwords CTR or optimizing my conversion pipeline.

AdWords certainly have their place - but for most products they can only really be part of a sales process. This is especially so for most iOS apps.

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