Mobile

Six questions to ask before starting your global app empire

Ilja Laurs is the CEO of GetJar, an operator of independent mobile app stores. He submitted this column to VentureBeat.Let’s say your app has achieved a top-ten position on Apple’s App Store in the U.S. A nice problem to have — but where do you go from there? There’s a whole world of international possibilities for you to explore, but most developers don’t know where to start.

By the end of this year, we’ll see 5 billion mobile subscribers globally, of which 1.35 billion actively download apps and other mobile content, according to a recent study by Chetan Sharma Consulting. Only a small portion of those app users are in the U.S. So if you want to pass 100 million downloads — the new bar for a global app bestseller — you must go global.

Luckily, with app stores doing most of the work for you, going global with your app today is easier than ever before. It can even be easier than establishing an international website. But there are six critical questions you need to address to set yourself up for global success.

What’s my concept?

It doesn’t take an expert in overseas history and culture to identify whether the concept of your app is suitable for every country in the world. While innocent family games like Angry Birds are accepted and loved everywhere, many other app concepts are not. Gambling, adult or religious themes, and even medical apps are some ready examples of concepts that may not travel well. But there are many others, like sports apps, that may be uncontroversial but still won’t become big because of specific sports preferences in a region. Don’t expect a baseball app to become big in Russia or China, where this sport is nonexistent.

What’s my platform?

Platform is the next obvious decision after you’ve decided your concept has a good chance of becoming big globally or at least in a specific international market. While Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android are the natural choice for the U.S., where they’re battling it out for smartphone market share, other platforms dominate elsewhere. In China and India, two of the world’s biggest app markets, iOS is almost nonexistent, while Nokia’s Symbian is very big — Nokia has 70 percent of the Indian market. And it’s a moving target: RIM’s BlackBerry surprisingly beat iPhone in the UK last year. Your choices are obviously complicated by Nokia’s recently announced alliance with Microsoft, which will take time to roll out, during which time Nokia plans to sell more Symbian phones. Bottom line: Get accurate and recent market-share data before spending money to, say, translate your iPhone app into Chinese.

What’s the language?

Speaking of which: Translation is one of the biggest problems that you may face. One specific translation problem with apps is that you cannot simply extract text, submit it to an agency, and plug it back into an app.

First, most of your text is going to be standalone words, like “open”, “resume”, “shoot”, etc. Translating the words without the context gives terrible results. The only way to do it right is to show the translator every text in the real app and explain what it means. Yes, it might mean playing every level of a game with every possible scenario.

Second, most of the text in any good app is actually graphical. A designer picked the position, font, special effects and blending with the rest of the graphics. If that “Play” word in another language is longer or shorter than the original English word, then it may mean that the designer has to redesign the entire screen and related effects.

The good news is that a lot of international markets are actually very tolerant of English content. While countries like China, Germany, and France require localization, some other big markets, like India, Indonesia, Russia, and most smaller markets have adopted well to consuming English PC software and Internet websites, making it very easy to sell English apps. Releasing your app in those English-friendly international markets is a good first step in your world-domination strategy. Sure, you may feel like you’re engaging in cultural imperialism, but realistically, your potential customers in those countries would rather have your wares sooner in English than later in their native language.

What’s my business model?

Changing your business model for new markets may make little sense at first glance — why fix what’s not broken, right? But as you move overseas, you may have to revisit your assumptions.

For example, games are generally better monetized using a paid model. But in India, you might discover that the only way to bill is using premium text messages, since few consumers have credit cards. And carriers take 70 percent of the transaction. Suddenly selling ads or cross-selling other games starts to look more attractive.

Let’s take an example: Say you sell a game in the U.S. for $3. In the closed app stores like Apple’s App Store or Google’s Android Market, you earn $2.10 after paying 30 percent to the store’s operator. (With an open app store, you’ll pay even less.) Let’s say advertising, based on the time users spend with your game and the rate advertisers will pay, will bring in an average of $1 per user. Paid is the obvious choice.

However, if suddenly you had to pay a 70 percent revenue share, like what carriers charge in India, your paid model would only earn you $0.90, making ads that earn $1 per user a better choice.

This is the hard part: You’ll have to learn the payments landscape and run the numbers country by country.

What’s my distribution?

The app stores you’re already working with in the U.S. can help take your app global. They’re certainly less trouble. But you should look both at the app store’s performance in the specific market you’re looking at and at alternative distribution channels in that market. For example, if you’re looking at a country like China, none of the usual app stores will be of much help. In India and Russia, carriers still play a big role. Apple’s App Store runs predominantly on credit cards, so it’s not much help in countries where credit cards aren’t widely used or where the younger demographic you want doesn’t have access to them. Premium SMS or direct carrier billing are the way apps get sold in much of the world. And there are also distribution deals with handset manufacturers or carriers — they may not be as cool as modern app marketplaces, but they get your app in the hands of users in places where consumers are otherwise hard to reach.

The bottom line: Going global requires rethinking a lot of the assumptions you made when building an app for your home country. But if you want an app that sets records, you’ve got to be willing to change.

[Image via Youthedesigner.com]


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