I made it free and they came… sort of.

I promised a follow-up to my post on the decision to make Planet Lettra free for a week last May and here it is. The very first day the app went free, it was downloaded 29,000 times through iTunes (app developers can track sales by “device”, eg. iPad, iPhone, “Desktop” which is to say iTunes or, more likely, an OSX app like Apple Configurator which schools use to handle administration of sets of Apple devices) and several hundred times to mobile devices. To say that I was excited when I saw this would be a huge understatement. Keep in mind that prior to the price drop, Lettra had been downloaded just a little over a thousand times. (As I write this, it’s about to hit the 2000 paid downloads mark.)  That excitement, it turns out, may have been somewhat misplaced.

By the end of the giveaway, the app had been downloaded almost 36,000 times, almost entirely to Desktop.  Here’s the breakdown by territory: 7 downloads in Canada, 34 in Asia Pacific, 7 in Europe and the rest was all in the U.S..  Let me reiterate that schools buy apps for their iPads almost entirely through the desktop.  The thought that many thousands of kids would get the chance to play with Planet Lettra in school pleased me a great deal and, if it were true, would have made the give-away very worthwhile.

What I Suspect Happened

So now if all those Desktop downloads made it onto iPads which were then found in the hands of playful young students, I would have expected at least a modest bump in sales after the giveaway as some of those same students asked their parents to get the app for their home iPad.  No such bump was observed.  “What gives?” I asked myself.

Here’s an interesting fact.  Once an app is acquired through the App Store, it can be downloaded again (ie. reinstalled) at any time.  So if a user gets an app for free and then immediately deletes it from their device (or never even installs it on the device if getting it in iTunes or Apple Configurator), that user can later reinstall the app for free even if it is no longer free.

If I were responsible for a school’s iPads, I would “keep my eyes open” for give-aways of any (possibly well reviewed) apps in the educational or educational game categories and grab them for all the relevant devices administered by me.  I’d then periodically inform the teachers of the apps available for installation at no cost on the school’s devices and see what they say.  Various sites and apps can push notifications to users/subscribers of app price drops according to filters set by the user (Free App Tracker is one). You can also set a watchlist in many of these apps, so a school could ask their admin to watch for price drops on any educational apps that, for example, have earned Chilren’s Technology Review Editor’s Choice award, as Planet Lettra did in 2016.

According to the 2012 Digest of Education Statistics, there are about 86,000 elementary schools in the United States.  A “classroom set” of iPads is about 25 devices, so 36,000 downloads would be enough for almost 1,500 classrooms.  At one classroom per school, that’s about 2% of the elementary schools in the US.  I can easily believe that this strategy is used by that many admins.  Like I said, I know I would.

Lasting Consequences

So the giveaway did not lead to the word-of-mouth explosion in sales I fantasized would happen.  Sadly, it may not even have given that many kids a chance to explore the app who would otherwise have never known about it.  What it did do is raise the question of whether breaking the 20,000 downloads mark was sufficient for me to have to make good on a promise I’d made to my family, to wit: I would take the family to Las Vegas for a vacation and there get the Planet Lettra app icon tattooed on my person if ever I managed to sell over 20,000 copies.  While all family members agreed that give the app away for free was not the same as selling it, most felt that the 20,000+ downloads should trigger some action related to the promise.  We settled on a tattoo done locally before the end of the year. Sorry Vegas, but I’ll call you after another 18,000 copies sell!