Analyzing the 2012 App Store Freeze


Well that didn’t last very long! A careful review of ranking data compiled by Fiksu indicates that the much-anticipated App Store freeze, during which app rankings in the US App Store don’t move, lasted around 20 hours this year, from about midnight to 8 pm EST on Christmas Day. Here’s an analysis of what happened and what tactics app marketers used to deal with the freeze.

What Happens When the App Store Freezes?

Rankings within Overall, Top Free and Top Paid, and specific app categories were all fixed in place for 20 hours during the freeze this year on Christmas Day.

Under the hood, though, it’s a different story.  The back-end algorithms that actually power the rankings continue running, tallying downloads and calculating rank changes throughout the freeze, even though those changes aren’t being displayed. And the back-end XML feed that Apple provides for that 3rd party rank trackers like App Annie also continues to update, so from their point of view there’s no freeze at all.

To be precise, what actually freezes during the App Store freeze is the front-end user interface of the App Store. The distinction between front-end and back-end explains why some apps jump or drop when the freeze ends, as rankings quickly adjust to correct positions according to Apple’s ranking algorithms.

What Tactics Did App Marketers Deploy?

Every app publisher wants to be at the top of the charts during the first hours of Christmas when app euphoria hits; new phones and tablets mean prime time for app discovery. But when we look at the relative success of different tactics for dealing with the freeze, it’s clear that there’s no one answer to which approach is best for every app.

One common and effective tactic for dealing with a rank freeze is stopping any incentivized spend, as there seems to be little immediate value there if ranks aren’t moving. A related tactic is timing a push up the ranks in advance of a potential freeze, to maximize the amount of “free” time your app gets at the top of the rankings.

This combination still has value: free time at the top of the charts, especially during high-value periods like Christmas Day, can quickly recoup the costs of the rank push.

However, as the freeze gets shorter each year, this approach becomes more and more challenging, as there’s less time to cash in on the high rank without spend.

It’s also extremely dependent on timing the freeze correctly so you don’t do your push too early – or worse, too late. It’s likely that for many app marketers, this approach will become less effective in years to come.

One alternate approach that’s gaining steam is to maintain a consistent spend during the freeze – it’s becoming more worthwhile to not react to the freeze at all. This year, apps that continued spending during the freeze were able to jump up the ranks when rankings resumed relative to competitors who paused their spending.

Gambling on a long freeze is no longer a good choice; the freeze has gotten shorter every year, from several days, to 48 hours, to less than 24 hours this year — and that’s not a trend that’s likely to reverse. If a rank push in advance of the freeze is likely to cost more than you can earn during a short freeze, you won’t be getting the reward you were hoping for.

The Shutdown Vs. the Freeze

There continues to be considerable confusion in the marketplace about the App Store Freeze and the iTunes Connect Shutdown. It’s important to note that these are two separate and distinct events:

  • iTunes Connect Holiday Shutdown: Every year, Apple restricts access to iTunes Connect and puts delivery of any new apps, updates or price changes on hold for the winter holiday week. This year, Apple pre-announced the shutdown week from Friday, December 21st to Friday, December 28th.
  • iTunes App Store Freeze: Last year, Apple also froze the front-end App Store display on December 25th, effectively pausing the rank of all apps for almost 48 hours. This year we saw the duration drop to 20 hours. Similar freezes occurred in previous years, but they’ve never been officially announced by Apple.

The iTunes Connect Shutdown has little impact on the everyday functionality of the App Store, so with good planning of any needed updates, it’s not hard to prepare for. The App Store Freeze is more of a challenge for marketers – but as it gets shorter every year, its impact is diminishing.

Planning for the Holiday Season – Not Just the Freeze

More important than the specific tactics for the freeze itself is your overall holiday strategy – and that strategy is absolutely critical and should be planned well in advance. We saw marketers take four distinct approaches based on their goals, including:

  • Focusing heavily on volume to drive visibility in the app stores.
  • Focusing on value in order to minimize costs and maximize loyal users.
  • Continue a constant spend to maintain normal volumes, while anticipating higher spend.
  • Hold back spend until the New Year, when traffic prices have historically plummeted and acquisition costs may be significantly reduced.

As with freeze tactics, which of these strategies is right for your app depends heavily your overall goals, your monetization strategy, your current ranks, and more. It’s worth working through the costs and rewards of several strategies before settling on one, so you can claim your share of the massive opportunity presented by the surge of new device owners over the holidays.


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