In the last 6 months, I have been looking for different ways to market my new Shopify App – SPO. If you are also a newbie in Shopify App business, I am sure you feel headache about how to let other people know your new baby.
Note: According to the FTC disclosure requirement, there are affiliate links included in the post. By clicking the links, I will earn commissions at no cost to you. Also, the links are essential to start a successful project.
Why are we joining Shopify?
I have mentioned why did we develop a small Shopify App? Basically, we wanna leverage our experience in E-commerce to develop an application that can help other online store owners.
As Shopify App store is well developed compared with other existing platforms, we would like to solve the pains in marketing products for the niche market. It’s the same problem faced by us and many other store owners.
I am not sure if we can make it into a big business. But I am very confident that we can create a useful software for E-commerce Marketing. Shopify will be the best place to test the water before heading to the ocean. 1,000 paid users will be my primary target, as mentioned in From 0 to 0.1: the Journey of Bootstrapping a Small Ecommerce Plugin to a Scalable Business (Part 1).
What we have done
- We developed the Shopify App – SEO Product Optimizer
- We finished the marketing video, blog & product website.
- We started an online store review service, Conversion Report
- We developed a mini web app, Terminal, to enhance sharing URL on Facebook with a custom link preview image (rebranded to Socialport.io in March 2018)
- We’ve got 200 users after launched for 2 months. Around 5% are paid users. Not bad, huh?
How much we spent
Development Time & Cost
We have spent 3 months to study Shopify App Development. 2 headcounts are involved. Totally 6 man-months were spent to develop the first version since Sept 2016. We published the beta version on Shopify AppStore in Early Dec 2016.
We purchased a mini server for $5 from Digital Ocean (1vCPU, 1GB RAM, 25GB SSD storage – upgraded in Dec 2017). That’s enough for the current stage. I got another server hosting (for the company – SillyCube website & demos) from AWS.
In Dec 2017, we purchased 1 more mini server for backup.
I spent $110 on Facebook and Reddit Ad. Both are not effective in driving new users install. But I need to test paid marketing anyway.
I spent $157 to hire a video producer on Fiverr. Not expensive. Quality is acceptable. The fee also included English voice-over. It took a week to finish it.
The Technical Stack Using
- LNMPy – Linux, Nginx, MySQL and Python / Django
- Docker + Compose
- Vue.js, JQuery & Chart.js
- Embedded App SDK – provided by Shopify
- Shopify Embedded App Frontend Framework – developed by Microapps
- Shopify Python API – provided by Shopify
- Celery + Redis for tasks scheduling
- Metrics measurement
- Google Analytics: free. tracking traffics from various
- Hotjar: free. Recording user action in apps
- Pure Chat: free. Live chat with SPO website users
- Helpscout: $35 / month. Knowledge Base for FAQ. Instant help menu in App. Most users submit support tickets here. So I guess the experience is quite good. The free plan was cut in 2019. I use it to host 2 support sites. After the annual ends, I will switch to the $20 plan soon.
- Bitbucket: free. Code management
- Asana: free. Project management
- StatusCake: free. Notification about web service status
- SendGrid: free. Transaction & Drip email triggered in SPO App
- Digital Ocean: 2 Cloud Servers: $10 / month in total. for SPO blog, website, app. One for development, one for production. I’ve upgraded the production server to 2GB RAM for $10 / month.
- Namecheap: I bought the domain here. user-friendly interface. Didn’t give me any trouble.
- Cloudflare: free. CDN & DNS. I will migrate the domain to Cloudflare to enjoy the cheapest domain renewal fee.
- Bug tracking (added in 2020)
- Sentry: Given that I am using the free version, I am very happy with the value it provided. It mainly helps to track django exceptions, though you can set django to send you auto notifications. Sentry provides more user info like browser version, country, etc.
- Typeform: free. I used TypeForm to set up feedback survey and embed the form in my app. The interface is easy to use. However, there are more limitations set on the free plan. I will just use google forms as an alternative.
- Godaddy email: free gift when I purchased domain. Though the mail client interface is like shit, it works.
- WordPress: free. SPO blog
- Mailchimp: paid per email sent. My list got more than 2,000 subscribers (for my consulting business). Marketing emails to SPO users.
- ConvertKit & TinyLetter: since Mailchimp is expensive now, I tried them for substitution (updated in 2020)
What I have learnt
Shopify store owners are
Willing to pay for apps, even on a monthly subscription fee
If your app is really useful, users are willing to pay from $10 – $100 per month. You don’t need to drill on monetization model like building mobile apps.
Usefulness is more important than a sleek user interface. They don’t need another fancy camera filter, just useful features to generate sales or solve other practical problems.
Interested in trying new apps in general
They are always looking for useful apps which can help them. Unlike the mature mobile app market, users are looking for the next big thing, either help them to save time or make more money. That’s it. Simple enough.
The Shopify infrastructure is very mature
Shopify will handle payment, billing & invoicing, user management or even app distribution. There are Shopify app developers, theme designers, Shopify experts & partners. Each of them is performing its function. You can really focus on building something people want.
Low user acquisition cost
The AppStore provides a channel get users at a very low cost. I get a constant flow of users. I can say that the 20% transaction fee is well-worth.
The Shopify API is quite slow in retrieving products.
Not sure if it’s related to my location.
Embedded App is good in user experience but causing cross-origin problems
It can be very annoying because browsers will give warning all the time. iFrame will introduce more problems during development. Developing in a separate website may be better to generate reusable codes.
In 2020, the problem is even worse since browsers are disabling 3rd party cookies. I need to deal with cookies, Content Security Policy & xframe option. Now, I didn’t even know how to fix this issue in Safari. Safari has just completed banned the use of 3rd-party cookie. My users can’t open SPO with Safari. You can refer more in this community thread. Some suggest to use Safari Storage API, which is an experimental technology.
AppStore rankings are hard to change
The app distribution is mainly via Shopify AppStore, just like Apple AppStore or Google Play. First movers will dominate higher positions. They have more users, more reviews. Latecomers can hardly change the situation. it’s an uphill battle.
In 2020, Shopify has changed the algorithm for AppStore ranking. It will consider a higher rating for recent reviews. The move definitely helps to prevent old apps from dorminating the AppStore top list.
Beta stage will be easier to rank higher on the Shopify AppStore.
After formal publication, your ranks will drop and you can do very little about it. Think carefully if you want to switch from beta stage to formal publication. It cannot be rolled back. There is no re-launch mechanism. It takes 14 and 17 days for beta listing and beta to formal publication respectively.
I always suspect the reviews are fake on the Shopify AppStore. When I was searching “SEO”, I was on the #18. But the 17 apps in front of me are having average of 5 stars reviews. It’s simply hard to believe.Talking about me, I got 4 reviews out of 200 installs, i.e 2%. I guess most developers are getting between 1 – 3% reviews from their users. Most users are not active to give reviews. We try to send personal emails & make in-app notifications. It’s better to answer customer inquiries and ask for a review after that.
Cannot reply to bad reviews. Damn it
You can only contact your app users via email on your own. Unlike Google Play, there is no way for you to reply them on Shopify AppStore. So you cannot address their issues in public. When I sent email to Shopify staff, the only solution told by them was asking the reviewer to change it. It’s OK. I believe that most store owners are rational unless I break their businesses. In 2019, you can finally reply to the comments directly.
There might not be so many users as you thought
Shopify website shows that there are 377,500 stores at the moment of writing. But I am not sure if it’s true. This is because even Shopify partners, experts, theme designers will open a store for testing (We opened 2, one for testing, one for production). I am not sure if this number includes these testing stores. As my target is 1,000 paid customers at the current stage, it’s a suitable small pond for me.
The Most Important lessons
You really need a Great Product
If the market demand for your app is low, you cannot change the market. You can only change your product to match with market demand. This is well-known as the Product Market Fit. If there is no usability problem in your app, your app is not useful enough to retain users.
Perception is more important than reality
It’s about users perceive your app as useful, but not the perception of app developers. Even the app is not effective but users like it, it’s still a useful app. This is because you can hardly tell users that they are wrong. You are not Steve.
Free app is the same as no commitment
If you are not charging your users, they don’t think they have a relationship with you either. They installed your app because they were free or just wanted to try something new. Therefore they will not be interested in your emails or app updates. What you have got is just an increase in user number.
Customer Support can take up to 30 – 40% of your product
Besides your core product, you should carefully design your on-boarding process and self-help support channel. Make it as smooth as possible. If there is any user inquiry, you should reply them asap. We spent a long time in writing the content of the helpdesk. After you help your user to solve a problem, it’s also a good time to ask for a positive review.
Users – the Shopify store owners
Shopify store owners are not tech-savvy. You cannot treat them like the users on Hackernews. In other words, you need to spend more time in explaining your app’s value. If your app is at the back stage, it’s not an easy task. That’s why you can find a lot of “front-end” apps about pop up, loyalty, drop-shipping, live chat, etc. Users can see them appearing on their stores. This is definitely easier to justify your app as useful.
Pay or Free
Shopify store owners like Free but they are willing to pay. Just like their customers, these store owners get used to the concept of No Free Lunch. If you want to get useful stuffs, you need to pay. They are willing to pay if you can show them the ROI in number. If you can find a way to grow their businesses and make a split, you gonna be rich (Leading drop-shipping app, Oberlo said it made from 0 to $1M in eight months).
I am looking for a self-sustaining lifestyle business rather than being super-rich within a short time.
Some of them are running brick-and-mortar stores but they are not familiar with online businesses. There are new business founders for sure. My customers are in the ratio of 1:4. Around 2 out of 10 are running physical stores.
The age greatly varies. Though I didn’t meet them face to face, my users should be somehow between 28 – 45. I couldn’t find relevant age statistics from Shopify either.
I don’t see a major inclination on gender. It’s more about the product category.
Where are them?
My paid customers are mainly in US, Canada and UK. But users are all over the world except Asia region. I don’t see many users from China, Japan, Korea or even my region, Hong Kong. Anyway, it matches with Shopify data on Alexa. Alternatively, you can check the Verified Business Locations provided by BuiltWith.
Competition of Shopify App is not very keen in general. But it also depends on what fields you lie in. My field is more about marketing and SEO. Compared with the mobile AppStore, there are still spaces to start your small business. I can see that some indie developers are doing quite well. There are not many big players yet. If you are considering developing a Shopify app as a side project or integrating your web service with Shopify, it should be worth your time.
Shopify AppStore Listing
As talked above, AppStore is the main distribution channel of Shopify App. Many users will just search for a suitable app and install it. You need to spend more time in preparing the banner image, logo, app name, description and promo video. Including many search terms will likely increase your chance to be discovered.
Unlike Apple AppStore or Google Play, you don’t need to pay for listing fee. If you collect payments from your app users, Shopify will take 20% cut from your charge. However, you can use external payment channels other than Shopify. In my case, I will just stick with Shopify payment channel to save my time.
If you want to feature on AppStore’s home page, you can contact the Shopify App Team. There is a staff called Deanna who is responsible for selecting suitable feature apps. As I didn’t fulfill the criteria at that time, I didn’t go further to ask for featuring.
In general, the Shopify App Team is quite helpful, sometimes they will organize developer office hours to address problems faced by Shopify partners. It’s just the timezone problem. I’m in Hong Kong (GMT +8:00), the App Team is in Canada.
[Update in March 2018]
Your app can be featured by the AppStore if you can fulfill certain criteria. There are 2 categories, the Hero Carousel and New and Noteworthy. Both categories don’t have a high entry barrier for submission.
For Hero Carousel, To be considered for the Hero Carousel, your app must have been installed at least 100 times, and must have at least 10 reviews of 4 stars or more.
For New and Noteworthy, your app will be required to follow the success criteria.
The Shopify forum is quite effective in getting app installation. When the user wanna fix something immediately (a.k.a their hair is on fire), they will find the fastest way by posting on the forum. When the user is urgent, they will try anything that can fix their problem immediately. Whenever I saw a user was asking questions about SEO, I will answer them and ask them to try my app. Sometimes I will post my blog post to drive referral traffic. The forum teaches me a lot about users’ problems. I guess I have found a problem worth to solve.
I have published more than 15 posts on this blog. But I am not sure if blog is effective in driving traffic from other sites or the quality of my blog post matters. This blog is mainly about SEO, social marketing, startup, niche marketing. I will write my posts and post them to Shopify forum, Reddit, etc. There will be more users trying our app when I publish new posts. But the spike is not remarkable, just few more users per post.
After writing a post, I will post to the following communities to drive traffics for my potential customers:External sources
Hackernews Bootstrappers.io Reddit – Ecommerce Reddit – Shopify Fb – Shopify Groups Growth Hackers Stumbleupon Shopify forum Medium.com inbound.org Quora.comMy sources Facebook page
What’s better than getting new users from your existing users? I believe the most effective marketing tactic is getting word-of-mouth from existing users. Even the SPO users don’t have a high level of satisfaction now, I will give them the best customer support and my knowledge on SEO & social marketing. I will regularly send email tips & feature updates to them. I would be happy to grow the business together with them.
$10 has been put on Reddit Ad. There are only 4 clicks received. I have targeted the ad at /ecommerce and /shopify.
$100 has been put on Facebook Ad. There are around 100 clicks received. But none of them changed to app users. So I suspended my ad campaign. When the churn rate is high right now, it’s better to reserve the budget.
- Shopify AppStore Ad (Added in 2020)
You can buy ads on AppStore. Some app developers do not like the move since it’s not going to be favorable to indie developers with less marketing resources. Well, I don’t try it yet. So I don’t much to talk about here.
There are mainly 2 ways, monthly subscription or Freemium (free app + in-app purchase for extra services). Subscription is more popular than Freemium under my observation. It’s totally different from WordPress, where 90% of plugins are free. Some developers like Booster Apps or Beeketing are getting 1,000 – 2,000 reviews, i.e. around 10k – 30K installs for their free apps. They are doing very well whether in Freemium or monthly subscription. As my team is pretty small, I will focus on 1 app and make it profitable. For me, monthly subscription is the best strategy for me.
If you are offering with monthly subscription plans, it’s better to provide 14 – 30 days free trial before charging users. Most apps will offer a free trial period.
[Update in March 2018]
If you’re targetting new store owners, the fail rate is quite high. I can see that store closed every day. Many stores are closing within 1 year. It should be normal given that the fail rate in tech startups is almost the same. Charging for one-off payment may be a good choice, just like the plugin business model in WordPress.
There are not many blogs featuring Shopify eco-system. I can only find Shopify Nation. Shopify Nation is a free Shopify resource site for people who run online stores. Shopify Nation was founded in 2014 by a team of Shopify developers, designers, and marketers. It’s not very popular. I don’t think many store owners will keep checking the site regularly.
EcommerceRVW is another blog I can find. Not popular either. I tried to submit a guest post. I didn’t see much traffics coming from it.
Improve the product. More iterations.
Obviously, the most important task is to improve the product. According to my conversations with users and existing data, the users don’t find it useful enough to keep it. We will add a new function to help them drive their businesses. I believed what Mark Cuban said “Sales Cure All“. The new function will help store owners to get more sales.
Pivot our app to niche marketing instead of SEO only
Our app is mainly improving SEO for niche products. But ordinary store owners do not understand very well about SEO. And we can hardly convince them to learn the correct ways. We’ll try to pivot our app for niche marketing, whether SEO, social marketing or marketing promotions. I have updated the banner on AppStore to test for this change.
Improve the onboarding process
Explain our professional SEO approach via email. We will send more emails after users install our app. Hopefully, it can help us to reduce the churn rate. Currently, our bucket is leaking water. I think we better fix the hole instead of pouring more water into the bucket.
Many Shopify store owners are not good at editing code snippet in the theme. We are looking for an easier solution than our existing one and serving a broader audience. We decided to develop SocialPort.io for social media managers, online store owners and publishers.
You can easily share URLs without messing with Open Graph tags or other meta tags. Just fill in the page info and we’ll generate the short URL with the custom link preview for sharing immediately.
Please visit our website to leave a comment or subscribe to early access! (In 2020, I put down socialport since there are too many spammers abusing my service. My server was shutted down by DO for a few times.)
Interviewing my app users (Testing a new initiative in 2020)
Due to the global crisis covid-19, I am trying to invite my users to write interview posts to share their story. For maturer merchants, it can help them to boost SEO and build online branding. At the moment of writing, there are not many merchant interested yet. I’m still trying to reach out them manually. From my observation, many merchants are seriously affected by the lockdown. They can’t ship their products and delivery the orders. Hope they will be safe soon and their businesses can stay afloat. (~1.5M confirmed cases)
Conclusion: worth it or not, Shopify?
Shopify app business is suitable for:
- Extending your existing web service to support Shopify users
- Make a side project to make several hundred to several thousand dollars a month
- Developing an Ecommerce-related product to test the water in a small pond. MVP testing
- Accumulate a user base with online store owners
I will definitely give the thumbs up to Shopify.
Thank you for reading my long post. Here are what I have found on the web. I curate them into a list here, bonus for you:
The Shopify App Marketing List
4 Must-Read Shopify Docs to Maximize your Success on the Shopify App Store – Written by the Shopify Apps Team in Jan 2018
Marketing Your Shopify App: Networking and Partnerships – Written by ShopStorm on Shopify Partner Blog in May 2016
Marketing Your Shopify App: The App Listing Page – Written by the Shopify Apps Team in April 2016
Marketing Your Shopify App: The Details We Overlook – Written by the Shopify Apps Team in Aug 2016
5 Things We Learned Creating Our First Shopify App – Written by Sauce App in Sept 2014 (App’s disappeared now)
How can I market an app in Shopify stores? – A Quora post (many ads)
I just started selling on Shopify. Are there any online communities/forums/blogs/Facebook or Linkedin groups that I could join to interact with other Shopify sellers? – A Quora post (fewer ads, much better)
Fake App Reviews – A thread on Shopify Discussion Forum
Are Shopify App reviews legitimate? – A Reddit post raised by a store owner in 2015 (2 years ago)
Related Facebook Groups
Related Twitter Handles
- The Shopify Web Design and Development Blog – you can write for them via writeforus[at]shopify[dot]com or subscribe to the latest posts.
- Developer Support by the Shopify Apps Team – Contact via apps[at]shopify[dot]com
- Signup to open your online store – via Shopify
- Charging for your app – by Shopify
- Listing on the AppStore – by Shopify
Best Ecommerce Platforms and Shopping Cart Software Comparison Chart (March 2017) – by Ecommerce Platforms
If you have other relevant sites, please feel free to leave a comment below. I will see if it’s suitable to be put on the list.
Are you looking for co-operation with other Shopify app developers?
If you are looking for co-operation with other Shopify developers, please drop us a note! We’d be happy to hear from you.
Follow me: @BennyyChan
Also published on Medium.