Under the Radar

256: Optimizing Paywalls


00:00:00   Welcome to Under the Radar, a show about independent iOS app development. I'm Marco Arment.

00:00:05   And I'm David Smith. Under the Radar is usually not longer than 30 minutes, so let's get started.

00:00:09   Did you notice that you missed the "usually" last week?

00:00:11   I did. It haunted me for two weeks, but I...

00:00:14   One of the things, just pulling back slightly on the behind the curtain of how we make the show,

00:00:19   is it almost always is just one run straight through.

00:00:23   We don't do takes, we're not re-recording things or trying to record a lot of content and then editing it down to 30 minutes.

00:00:32   It's pretty much 30 minutes, we hit go, we hit finish, and every now and then we go slightly over, but it's pretty much a straight run through.

00:00:39   So I thought of it as soon as I was finishing it last week, and it's been haunting me for two weeks, so I made extra sure I did it right this week.

00:00:45   So there you go.

00:00:47   Awesome. All right, so what are you even working on?

00:00:50   Yeah, so I think the thing that I want to talk about today is sort of...

00:00:55   I'm trying to think of the right word, but it's a kind of optimization in our apps, or in our business, maybe, moreover,

00:01:01   that I think is so... I've seen myself struggling with for a long time, and I think has...

00:01:08   The more I become aware of it, the more I see places where I'm not doing this, that I think it's useful.

00:01:12   And specifically, this is the kind of optimization where it's so easy for me to be focused on, are there new opportunities, new features,

00:01:22   new things I can do to enhance my app, increase my business, etc.

00:01:27   I'm always looking kind of over the horizon to what I could do next.

00:01:31   And it's very easy to do that, it's very exciting to do that, there's lots of fun things that can happen if you start looking over the horizon,

00:01:37   but very often, I'm not looking sort of backwards or I guess down at my own feet for things that are in my app right now,

00:01:45   like features I've already built, things that exist that are out in the world that I'm not taking as full advantage as I could.

00:01:54   And I think increasingly what I'm finding is it's leaving a lot of kind of opportunities that I could be taking advantage of, that I'm not,

00:02:03   and it's way, way cheaper, simpler, less time to work on these kind of things than it is to build these massive new features.

00:02:10   And the example we're going to get into later on that I think is useful and very instructive for this is the journey I've gone on in the last year or so,

00:02:19   kind of trying to optimize and improve the paywall inside of Widgetsmith, which is a prime example of this kind of thing,

00:02:26   where I feel like, oh, maybe if I add one more feature to behind the paywall, then more people will subscribe.

00:02:33   And maybe that's true, or maybe I should spend some time making sure that I'm maximizing the amount of income

00:02:39   and the amount of conversion that I can get out of the existing features that I already have.

00:02:44   And I've definitely found that this is very true, that there's a lot of opportunity that I've had in going down this road of trying different things,

00:02:51   doing lots of A/B testing, trying out different approaches and kind of optimizing what I have,

00:02:56   rather than trying to find these new things that I need to make and only sort of move on to those new things,

00:03:03   once I'm in a place where I feel like things are fairly optimal, things are good and stable,

00:03:08   and at some point you hit a point of diminishing returns, when you get there, great, move on to the new things.

00:03:13   But make sure you've hit that point rather than just like moving on because you see something shiny off in the distance.

00:03:19   Yeah, this is yet another area where your pragmatism and discipline greatly exceed my own.

00:03:27   Like, when it comes down to like, let's try to optimize the conversion rate and stuff like that, I am terrible at this.

00:03:35   I have always been terrible at this. And I used to actually look down upon this kind of work.

00:03:40   Now I recognize this is actually very valuable work, I just don't want to do it. So at least I'm making some progress.

00:03:46   But it's so tempting as indies and as nerds, really. We just want to focus on the features and the product and making users happy.

00:03:57   And it's so hard for us to even consider the possibility like, hey, maybe the way that we are asking for money

00:04:05   or the way that we put people through our onboarding or signup process, maybe these aren't as good as they can be.

00:04:11   Maybe we should actually focus on that. It's so hard because to most nerds like us, that is just the most boring work in the world.

00:04:17   And to many people, it would feel kind of wrong or dirty, the same way that we kind of think badly of things like app store optimization techniques.

00:04:27   It feels kind of wrong sometimes to us. But the reality is, this is just a part of the business that we need to do.

00:04:36   We need to make sure that like, I changed my login/signup screen last year sometime.

00:04:44   Because I was looking at the conversion numbers at App Store Connect and it was just comically bad.

00:04:52   Like how fast people were dropping off the app. And some of that is normal and inevitable. In fact, a lot of that is normal.

00:05:00   But I realized, if I can just make a small change here, if I can improve the number of people who get past the screen by 10 or 20 percent,

00:05:10   that could be a pretty significant long-term gain for me. And so I should probably start doing that.

00:05:15   And for a while, my easy growth is over. I don't have huge numbers of new people coming in all the time.

00:05:25   That's why I have to start getting into things like search ad buying, which I hate. But I'm still doing it because it's kind of necessary.

00:05:32   And starting to optimize for the people I already have and starting to optimize for retention and conversions.

00:05:39   And it's easy for the first stage of an app, when you're mainly just trying to get as many people in the door as possible,

00:05:46   it's easy to just focus on the product and just say, "Alright, you know what? I'm just going to make as many features as I can,

00:05:51   to get as many blog posts and recommendations and reviews as I can." That'll get people in the door.

00:05:56   But once you're past that point, once your flow of new people has leveled off, you really have to focus a lot on,

00:06:04   "Alright, well, how do I optimize what I already have?" Because the rate of new people coming in is slow to nothing now.

00:06:11   And that's... it's hard. I'll tell you one thing. It's hard, and many people, myself included, have a hard time even thinking about it.

00:06:18   Not in the sense that it's difficult to deal with, but in the sense of we don't think about it.

00:06:24   Yeah. And I think there's two reasons for that that make this so difficult.

00:06:31   And it's like, "You want to say that I do good at this?" I feel like I've been struggling with this for years,

00:06:35   and if anything, it's slightly comedic how long it's taken for me to even get to the basic level of this kind of thing.

00:06:43   And I think the first part of why I find it difficult is that sense of a lot of this requires data collection, I think.

00:06:52   And I think in order to do that, then you start to get into the all kinds of things where it becomes less clear what a good path is.

00:07:01   Like, are you doing this in a way that's privacy-preserving? Are you being too... sort of spying on your users?

00:07:07   Those kinds of things are negatives in my mind and not things that I want to get too far into or do a lot of.

00:07:14   And so it's hard to want to do that, but the reality is I'm going to build something, and you can come at it from the,

00:07:21   "Well, I'm the artisan craftsman. I'm going to make it the way that I think is best, and I'm going to make it and put it out there,

00:07:27   and because I made it that way, it's the best." And it's like, maybe that's true for one person, but for the majority of us, it's not the best.

00:07:34   There's going to be some improvement, some optimization that we can do to go down that road,

00:07:41   and so the way we need to do that is to do data collection. And so there needs to be some kind of analytics.

00:07:46   There needs to be some kind of thing that we have some feedback mechanism by which we are gathering to do this.

00:07:52   And for a lot of us, it's just going to be some kind of in-app analytics.

00:07:56   And I think that's one thing that's often a barrier to kind of be thinking in that way.

00:08:00   And I think the other thing that I personally find really challenging with this kind of work is that it's,

00:08:05   I think it is so easy to be focused on, "Yeah, I want to get people in the door."

00:08:12   It's like whatever you measure is like how you keep score starts to be the thing that you start caring about too much.

00:08:19   And I feel like for a long time, I would be focused on download numbers. Like, how many people am I getting in the app?

00:08:25   What is that? And if that's my focus, then how do I get people into the app? I will focus my attention in different directions.

00:08:31   Then once they're in my app, what are they doing? How am I best am I taking care of them?

00:08:38   Am I keeping them around? Do I have good retention?

00:08:41   And I find that in some ways, it's just harder for me because it's similar to my first point.

00:08:46   It's like it's harder to quantify and you need to kind of dig into user behavior in a way that can feel a little bit tricky.

00:08:53   But it's also one of these things that you have so much more leverage with those customers.

00:08:58   It is so hard to get someone to download your app in the first place that it is so important to then take full advantage of every single one of those downloads.

00:09:07   If we can increase, and this is the thing that I've been finding in my own work with this, is how you think about a 10% improvement in some metric in terms of people sticking around,

00:09:17   people clicking on your buy button, people returning to the app, whatever that is.

00:09:22   Trying to get 10% more downloads to your app is very difficult and likely very expensive.

00:09:29   Keeping the people around by making your app easier to use, more intuitive, clearer to understand, whatever those things are, that's probably a lot easier.

00:09:38   There's probably much more kind of low hanging fruit that we can pull on that will allow us to have these very outsized impacts without necessarily even spending a lot of money.

00:09:49   It's a hard thing to both want to do sometimes and then also to feel competent to do.

00:09:55   I've been going through this in a very meandering, bumbling, made a lot of mistakes kind of way, which I think is useful for this topic.

00:10:02   If you have a podcast and you like talking about your mistakes, it's excellent to make lots of mistakes.

00:10:07   It's overall something I think I feel like I'm a better independent developer as a result of going through this because I've had this recognition that I need to do more of it and just try to focus more.

00:10:21   I have more of a focus on how can I optimize my existing customers' experience and conversion rather than being too focused on the next thing.

00:10:30   How can I attract the next customer? That's so much harder and such a bigger struggle to face.

00:10:39   Also, suppose that if you think about it from a user point of view, if you need to invest in, you're going to spend two weeks making your app better for the business in some way, right?

00:11:01   Maybe if you're lucky, you'll get press coverage, but then it'll be only people who see that press coverage who will know about it. Most people who are going to come upon your app, like in the App Store through a link or just through search or whatever, most people are going to see the big main parts.

00:11:17   They're going to see your login screen or your onboarding, whatever it is. They're going to see your basic features. They're going to hit your paywall at some point, hopefully, if you have one.

00:11:28   Whatever feature you just spent two weeks adding might be off to the side somewhere. Most of the people who come to your app aren't even going to see it.

00:11:36   Whereas if you improve those core parts of the experience, the onboarding, the main core features, the paywall situation, if you improve that, everyone sees that.

00:11:48   Everyone coming into your app could see that. That could benefit you far more than adding a feature that at best might get you a link from a blog at some point.

00:11:58   Really, if you're looking at dollars and cents and what's going to have the biggest bang for your buck, you are better off improving those core parts rather than adding side quests, basically.

00:12:10   Oh, sure. I think even to that point, for the majority of apps, it's probably true that if all we ever did was have an absolutely amazing core experience, that core experience was perfection, and we never touched it ever again.

00:12:28   We just held that perfection for the core experience. It's probably good enough, probably in many ways better than going down side quests and rabbit holes and these things that we often want to do.

00:12:40   It's enjoyable to make, or we think maybe this will be a thing that's a new big branch. But just optimizing for that core experience, there's certainly a lot of wisdom in that.

00:12:50   It's an interesting thing you just said. It makes me think. How much of my apps am I building stuff that 90% of people will never use? And if that's true, then should I just not do it?

00:13:03   It's a waste of time. But anyway, that's a whole other side quest for us to explore.

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00:14:46   So, what you're talking about here makes a lot of sense, and I'm terrible at it. And you can look at the overcast paywall experience and you can see how terrible I am at it.

00:14:58   And I really, really desperately need to improve that screen because it's awful. You've been doing a much better job.

00:15:05   Or at least I've been going down the road of making it a better job, I suppose.

00:15:11   So I think an interesting thing to talk through is this journey that I've been on. I was looking at my stats. I think I started working on my paywall maybe a year ago.

00:15:19   It's kind of wild how, because I didn't make this a focus in the sense of it's something that I devoted a huge amount of time to.

00:15:26   It's something that I pick up and put down regularly and just keep hoping I can improve.

00:15:31   And specifically what I've done, and so there's essentially, in Widgetsmith, there is a paywall.

00:15:38   And you hit it whenever you want to use one of the premium features, which are things like photo filters or weather widgets or certain themes or fonts, and it removes the ads.

00:15:46   So that's, you know, it's an auto-renewing subscription in the app. So every time you hit one of those features, it pops up a paywall.

00:15:53   And I had the initial paywall that was in the app, I think for a year, which is kind of wild when I think of how bad it performs, how that was what I had in the app for a year.

00:16:05   Oh, it's probably worth saying, in the show notes for this app, and potentially as the chapter, we'll see, there's definitely going to be a link to a page that just has all my paywalls for you.

00:16:15   So you can kind of follow this along. I'm going to be describing some things that are a little bit visual, and obviously, podcast is excellent for visuals.

00:16:21   So just that's where you can go.

00:16:23   We should review flags.

00:16:25   Yeah. So that is what we're going to do. So just kind of understand kind of that's where I'm going.

00:16:30   And so specifically, I had just a very simple paywall that describes the features and has like one button that says like subscribe monthly and one that subscribes yearly.

00:16:39   And the first thing I did was just collect some basic stats, like for how many people are opening this page a day, how many people are clicking either of those buttons.

00:16:49   Of those people who are clicking those buttons, how many people are then canceling the purchase? How many people are completing the purchase?

00:16:54   And I just started basic doing some basic collection for this. And the results were kind of like shockingly bad.

00:17:01   If I'm being completely honest, where it's like, I think I was getting below point 1% conversion, I think.

00:17:08   Now, do we do we have a good idea? Like, what's a good number there?

00:17:11   I don't know. Well, I think that's an interesting point. And I would say, I don't know if there is, I think it seems very market dependent in terms of what that's what's going to be a good number.

00:17:21   And I can say that's a bad number now, because I know what's been possible subsequently.

00:17:25   Okay, good. Good. I mean, congrats.

00:17:27   I think it is a good point. But I think the tricky thing in comparing your numbers to others is it's like, if I'm comparing my like, kind of whimsical, you know, home screen optimization tool to a highly professional tool where the number of people who are using it are using it to, you know, make money from their income, like the conversion rate is probably going to be higher.

00:17:49   So I think relative conversion is the thing that you can really look at in a way that is more useful potentially than comparing against each other. And it's like, I know, my less than point 1% was bad, because I know I'm able to get it much better now, if that makes sense.

00:18:04   Okay, good.

00:18:05   So I started with that and got some baseline stats. And then I like added a slightly different version that rather than having a button for bi monthly and bi yearly, I have like a toggle to choose if you want a yearly or monthly subscription and then just a big like start free trial button.

00:18:21   This converted massively better. So these are the alternate ones if you're following along in the show notes. And here I tried a bunch of different colors for my, my start free trial button. It turns out in this case color didn't matter at all, which I was in some ways in heartened to see because it means it was a variable I kind of could forget about testing because it ultimately wasn't that important.

00:18:42   But the original one that I had for over a year versus this one, I think I was seeing like a 50% improvement in actual conversion, which Wow, was, which is kind of a wild thought when you start to get to like, man, yeah, that's that that's a lot of mistakes that I've been making for the past year.

00:19:00   Just don't you can't you can't think about that.

00:19:02   You can't think about like, wow, how much would I have made if I would have done this early? You can't do that.

00:19:09   But it showed and I think sort of demonstrated to me that there was a lot of space for improvement here. There's a lot of things that I can do. And I think what was really cool with this particular improvement is that the biggest difference in that conversion rate.

00:19:23   While it was overall people were it was converting better. It was also that fewer people were canceling their purchase after they'd hit by.

00:19:32   Which makes me think that there was much more intention behind what I was communicating that the number of people who were hitting by understood what they were doing, rather than hitting a button, which they weren't sure what it would do.

00:19:44   And it popped up like the pay, you know, the actual like, give us your money, Apple screen. And they were like, Whoa, whoa, whoa, and hit cancel.

00:19:51   And like, I liked that that that that metric, like my cancellation rate improved dramatically from one to the other. And it's like, I like that just even just almost like morally that fewer people were sort of feeling like they were being tricked into being asked for money in a in a way that like, this this one definitely converts better in that way.

00:20:09   In addition to more people actually going through with the purchase, the number of people who hit by and then, you know, confirm that purchase went up as well. So great score in that regard.

00:20:20   Yeah, so anyway, so then I'm, I'm thinking, Okay, this is great. I'm going to try something totally different and like tried. Like I went in with the thing I had this version where it was like these, these pages of all the different features, and it would like auto rotate through it.

00:20:34   And that version converted horribly. Like this was almost this was worse than the original one. So worse than the like the point 1%. This one did terribly immediately like through through through through that went away.

00:20:47   Went and tried something like that was super simple, that rather than having these big like lots of images of the widgets and what they look like and all the different variants and not types, I went for something that was just very straightforward, a little bit of a little bit of text, when an example of each of the main things.

00:21:03   And this one actually did way better in general than any of the than my previous one. This is now we're starting to get to the place where I'm getting like 10% improvements and 5% improvements, but no consistent measurable improvement, which was great.

00:21:18   And then I was realizing I was looking at my paywall and I was thinking, huh, my paywall looks very different than I feel like a lot of big companies paywalls do. I have like lots of buttons in a way that I feel like the majority of these kind of big apps who I imagine have teams of people whose job it is to optimize these things tend to only have like one big button.

00:21:38   It's like there's just one big, I think the term of art is a call to action. They have one big call to action and then everything else is kind of secondary to that. And so it's like, Oh, I'll try that. And I tried the new button and this was like 25% better.

00:21:53   Which makes sense. And it's like, I guess that's why everyone else is doing it that way. So that's a direction that I then went in. I mean, this is like this is an area where, you know, when it comes to like whether developers like us should look towards what big companies are doing.

00:22:09   There's a lot of areas where we should not. This is one area where we probably should like, you know, this is because you can be sure that big companies have optimized the crap out of their call to action for their like main ways they make money.

00:22:23   And so this is an area where like, yeah, we shouldn't look to them for things like, you know, tracking ethics. Oftentimes, you know, like there's a lot of things that we should not look to big companies for.

00:22:36   But when it comes to like the design of paywall screens, yeah, we should probably take some input from them.

00:22:43   Exactly. And so that is what I've done. And so I've gotten to there. And then most recently, the thing, the last thing that I've tried that I thought was, I was one of these, like, huh, I wonder if this is true, is it's so easy with conversion to think of just like, how many times someone viewed the screen versus how many times someone hit my, and then I started to think, huh, I wonder if it makes a difference where they're coming from before they get this paywall.

00:23:06   So are they hitting the paywall when they're trying to set up one of the premium themes? Or are they trying to use one of the photo filters? Or they're trying to set up a weather widget? Or like, where are they coming from? Are they doing it from the settings screen? Are they getting it from like, the footer? Is this someone who has, has previously had a subscription and is now sort of, they've hit the, you know, your this widget is locked, won't show the data because your subscription is expired, you know, tap to renew essentially.

00:23:35   And so I started to collect data based on that, like the source specific kind of thing. What I found there that was really interesting is that some, it's like some of those sources would convert better if I went, if I give them different paywalls, which sort of makes sense. But if I show a weather oriented paywall to someone who's trying to set up a weather, a weather widget, it makes sense that that would convert better than if they're just trying to set up a font and I want to show them the fonts.

00:24:02   And so that's where I am right now. And this has been very promising. And I've kind of gone down the road of kind of optimizing to this this point. And it's really cool to see that I've been able to like steadily improve the relative conversion of my app by looking at these kinds of things. And so now, every time you depending where you are in the app, if you tap it, tap, you know, if you tap send that generates a paywall, you'll see a different one that's based on where you're coming from. And it's not perfect. It's not like I continue. I have so many questions for what I'm trying to do.

00:24:31   And I have so many questions for that I want to answer in the future about how other ways I could sort of optimize this. But I think hopefully, hopefully, like walking through this journey is interesting is sort of a demonstrate that this is something that the core experience of widgets has not changed at all.

00:24:46   I've been able to have like in aggregate, a very meaningful increase in the revenue and number of subscribers that I have to my app by doing relatively basic changes that like none of these are these super complicated, like high production things. It's not like I had to hire a team of designers to come up with, you know, like this hike, you know, it's not like I got Adam Lizzigore to make like a sandwich video for my paywall.

00:25:11   It's like a super awesome high production value thing. It's like, no, I moved around some buttons, change their colors and made things a bit clearer, and then added a bit of logic so that I could work out which one to show you based on where you are.

00:25:22   And I feel like none of this was really the super cool, like detailed thing, but it's a meaningful increase. And I feel like it's such an interesting opportunity for most apps to look at their apps in this way and find ways to optimize and to find ways to sort of take advantage of what we have rather than getting stuck on feeling like, you know, if we add one more thing, or that it would make, you know, that that's the thing that will make the difference finally.

00:25:47   Yeah, because I think it's very useful for developers like us to hear and to see that this kind of thing is accessible to us, that we don't need a team of growth hackers, or a team of professional designers necessarily.

00:26:02   We don't need big company resources in order to make changes like this that can be materially beneficial to us. And I'm telling you all out there, you should do this, even though I myself have not done this very well. I'm really talking to myself as well as talking to everyone else.

00:26:19   And this, frankly, I mean, this is one of the reasons why I'm trying to switch as much as I can over to SwiftUI over the coming, you know, six months to a year, probably, because this is the kind of experimentation that SwiftUI makes this so much easier than UIKit to do all this like quickly and, and, you know, in certain polished ways.

00:26:38   Like, the more I use SwiftUI, like, I'm finally getting good at it. And I'm finally realizing like, wow, I can work a lot faster in this. And this is one area where I just I cannot wait to convert more of my app over to this so I can iterate faster so I can offer things like this so I can so I can, you know, have major impacts on on my app without having to like, you know, rebuild the Brooklyn Bridge every single time I want to change something.

00:27:03   I feel like all my UIKit code is like, it's almost like I wrote everything in assembly, and I'm trying to like iterate quickly with an assembly UI. Moving to higher level stuff like SwiftUI, I think really enables a lot more experimentation like this a lot more quickly.

00:27:19   Yeah, I think there's definitely something to that. And I think these are all like, it's one of the advantages of SwiftUI and making it feel like he's making these very lightweight things that are very easy to kind of switch between and part of, you know, like, making components that are easy to share.

00:27:34   And it's not just SwiftUI, but that definitely helps. And it definitely has made this process something that kind of is easier without like, so there's an example of another way you could go down with something like this is there's a tool called Superwall, which was made by Jake Moore and a couple other guys, which is a way of doing this where you make all of your paywalls in HTML, essentially.

00:27:55   And it's all done server side, so that you say like, show the paywall, and then they have these cool tools for letting you do A/B tests and try different things, and so on. And I was intrigued by it and kind of looked at it a little bit. But that's, for me, I think I want to make, I don't feel as comfortable in that area, whether or not it's better or not, I think is would become a question of your, your skills.

00:28:15   But, you know, I feel better and more skillful making these kind of things in SwiftUI. So that's where I wanted to go. And I kind of built my own system to manage that. But like their way, there's lots and lots of tools and templates that you could go down to try to try and do these kind of experiments, and just see if, you know, without feeling like you have, you're not, you don't have to commit to this big, heavy thing.

00:28:38   And also, too, it's probably fair to say is you could very easily with a lot of these things, just do it as an experiment, like show it to 10% of people and see if that's different. Or if you're not, you know, like, there's a lot of ways to experiment and be sort of tentative in this area without needing to feel like you're, you know, betting the whole company on something because you don't need to like a lot of this stuff is, you know, the nice thing with most statistics is once you get a beyond a certain, you know, sort of representative sample set, you have enough information to know if it's a good idea.

00:29:07   Without having to worry too much about is this going to completely up to earn everything?

00:29:11   Yeah. Well, this is once again, you've inadvertently assigned me a lot of work that will probably benefit me quite a lot. So thank you very much.

00:29:21   Well, you have two weeks to build a better paywall for overcast. And I expect your you know, your homework on my desk in two weeks. And I will look forward to taking a look at what you've come up with.

00:29:32   I mean, it's hard to be worse than my current one.

00:29:37   Just think of how I look forward to knowing what that your percentage, you know, mine was like a 50% initial uplift. I wonder what yours will be. You can, you know, it's like stay tuned to find out.

00:29:46   Yeah, right. Thanks for listening, everybody. And we'll talk to you in two weeks.

00:29:50   Bye.

00:29:51   Bye.

00:29:51   [