Apple’s top grossing lists – and what they tell publishers

by John Einar Sandvand on June 13, 2011 · 5 comments

Media companies hope to build solid revenue streams by betting on user payment on mobile platforms. But a look at Apple’s top grossing lists for iPhone and iPad sends a warning signal.

Few media apps find their way to the top grossing list in App Store

I was involved in launching a paid recipe app for iPhone in the Norwegian market at couple of weeks ago -and that made me follow closely the top grossing lists for iPhone and iPad.

Apple provides three different top charts for apps: Top free apps, Top paid apps and Top grossing. While the first two rank how many apps are downloaded, the third ranks how much money the apps bring in at any time. The top apps on this list may not necessarily be the ones downloaded the most, but they still succeed in bringing in money for the developers.

What types of apps dominate the top grossing list?

To find out I went through the top 25 grossing lists for both iPhone and iPad in the Norwegian market as they were ranked in the evening on Sunday, June 12th. All apps were assigned to one of four categories:

  • Usefulness. Apps that primarily help people perform a specific task
  • Entertainment. Primarily games.
  • Media/content. Apps that primarily are designed for consumption of news or other types of media content.
  • Social. Apps that primarily are built on people connecting to each other

Top grossing iPhone apps

Not a single app on the top 25 grossing list for iPhone apps was a media app. In fact you would not find a media app among the next 25 apps on the list either.

Two of the 25 apps were categorized as “social”.

However, the two dominating categories were “Entertainment” (13 apps) and “Usefulness” (10 apps).

I noted another interesting aspect: Only one of the ten most grossing iPhone apps were priced “normally”.  That was the Hipstamatic app priced at NOK 11 (USD 2). All the rest at the top 10 carried either an extremely high price tag (4 navigation apps priced at USD 75 and above) or were free (games apps that made money on in-app purchases).

Almost all the rest of the top 25 list followed the same pattern: Either they were userpaid apps helping people achieve a specific task, like finding the owner of a car or creating music, or they were free or almost-free games apps.

Conclusion so far: To succeed in bringing in money on iPhone apps you should either try to be extremely useful or succeed in creating compelling entertainment for your users.

Here is the top grossing list for iPhone apps:

[table id=2 /]



Top grossing iPad apps

The top grossing list for iPad apps in the Norwegian shows a slightly different pattern, yet more or less the same conclusions can be drawn.

12 of the top 25 grossing apps are within the “Usefulness” category, while 11 belong to “Entertainment”. Also for iPad we see some highly priced navigation apps quite high on the list. In the “Entertainment” category the main difference from the iPhone market was that only very few of the top grossing apps were free.

Two apps in the “Media/content” category made it to the top 25 grossing list.

The first was already in the third place on the list:  ”Lillesøster”, a children’s book specially designed for the iPad format and with a price tag of 5 USD.

On ninth place was Aftenposten, the news app from Norway’s largest newspaper. (Disclaimer: I work for Media Norge, the owner company of Aftenposten).

Aftenposten’s news app is free to download and could also be used for free for the first weeks after it was launched on March 31st. This has led about 40.000 people to download the app. However, since June 7th Aftenposten has required users to pay. Access is available only as a subscription and can be bought both from within App Store and from Aftenposten’s web site. There are also bundled products which include the iPad subscription. These can only be bought from Aftenposten’s web site.

It is obviously too early to say how Aftenposten’s iPad app will rank on the top grossing list in the long term. The ranking is also complicated by the fact that parts of Aftenposten’s income on the app is not reflected in App Store’s grossing list.

Conclusion for iPad: To succeed in bringing in money on iPad apps your chances seem to be much higher if you bet on meeting people’s need for usefulness or entertainment. But looking further down the top grossing list media/content apps seem to do much better on iPad than on iPhone.

Here is the top grossing list for iPad apps:

[table id=3 /]



What does this mean for media companies?

Is it hopeless to charge for media content on iPhone and iPad?  Of course not. But the top grossing lists give some clear hints to what in particular drive people to pay on these new platforms. Publishers are smart to study this to see if some of the elements can be introduced in news apps as well. For instance: How do you use your media product to help people achieve their goals? What can you do to make it really useful in people’s life? Is there any way to gamify the news experience – or to use in-app purchases creatively?

The Apple’s top grossing lists for Norway will, however, not give the full picture of how media apps will do when it comes to user payment:

  • Few media companies have so far tried user payment extensively. Aftenposten is the first major news company in Norway to put its iPad app behind a paywall.
  • Many media companies have so far kept most or all of their user paid revenues out of App Store. Typically the users will pay for the product at the media company’s web site – and then get access for free on iPad by entering login information. As we all know, Apple is now tightening the rules for how this can be done, but so far most revenues on media apps have been kept outside the App Store statistics.
This being said, the top grossing lists confirm that media companies still have a way to go to crack the code for how to make users pay. Still many media companies are taking rather bold steps these days – such as the introduction of the meter model at The New York Times – and I am confident that we are about to see many success stories in the months ahead.


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This article is based on the ranking on the top grossing lists in the Norwegian market one particular day only. What is your experience from other markets? Do you see the same picture? Or are media apps doing better than in the Norwegian market? Let us know in the comments field below!
  • http://twitter.com/palbratelund Pål Bråtelund

    It is also possible for media publishers that their apps should fall into the useful category, connected to services or sections on the web site. An example could be that if you have a health & sports section, perhaps the app isn’t the health & sport section, but a GPS training tracker that interfaces with the web service. 

    Perhaps we didn’t make the news services useful enough?

    • http://twitter.com/JohnEi John Einar Sandvand

      I agree. Certainly publishers should try to look for useful services that can be spinned out of their core business. But I think it is also a question of looking at how the news and content experience itself can be more convenient and therefore also useful for readers. I think there is room for a lot more innovation in how digital media products are designed across all platforms and devices. And here we probably can learn a lot from other industries.  It is not just a matter of having great content – although that is very important. It is also a matter of creating an exceptional experience in how readers can use that content. 

  • http://twitter.com/K_ArdaKos Kadir Arda KOS

    I agree. Certainly publishers should try to look for useful services that can be spinned out of their core business.

  • Anonymous

    Intrestingly, since you wrote this piece, VG+ has climbed to number one in top grossing apps in Norway (and since yesterday, it’s placed second, losing out to the Voddler app).

    Also of some interest, the negative comments on the VG+ app focus on the lack of breaking news stories, while some more positive point to higher-than-web quality of stories. While it’s not sufficient data, it could suggest that the iPad is used when the reader has more time on his/her hands (this again is reflected on the usage patterns, iPad having their peak after office hours).

  • http://danehomenick.com Dane

    great article and great insights.  it pushes me to further my development of extreme usefulness or entertainment.  Educated or entertained right?

    glad i found your blog.  rss’d this puppy and look forward to more from ya!

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