If your product is a Shopify App, it’s almost a given that you’re planning to or have already launched on the App Store. The dominant majority of partners born and thriving in the ecosystem are still there, and new apps are finding success regularly.
But the App Store doesn’t have a monopoly of credit for the success of apps, and while it’s a small share of apps and wins, operating off of the App Store is growing in popularity. In other words, companies have a choice when it comes to the App Store, so is the App Store right for you or not?
This isn’t about choosing to serve Shopify merchants or not, but whether or not the App Store is a requirement for you to be successful, or is it even possibly detrimental? The App Store has traffic and optimizations, but it also comes with Terms of Service and revenue sharing - very real trade-offs.
As a developer or company, you have the option of being a published app in the App Store or being a private app. This post is part 1 of a 2 part series that explores the main differences between embracing and avoiding the App Store.
It’s important to remember the the App Store exists for merchants. Shopify’s sole motivation in offering the marketplace is to further empower store owners. This culminates in 3 primary mechanisms: discovery, curation, and evaluation. The objective for all three is to make it as easy as possible for merchants to grow.
Discovery is all about helping merchants find solutions they are both looking and not looking for. It’s a given that it should be simple for a merchant to add the piece they understand to be missing from their operation, but sometimes merchant’s don’t know what’s missing - or what’s possible. The App Store achieves this with promotional spaces, relevant categories, and enticing collections based on the jobs they do.
The same could be said for curation, but curation goes one step further than discovery. Curation includes a sense of understanding of the merchant doing the searching. By listing in the App Store, Shopify is able to compare merchants that use the same apps and understand which apps are present among higher performing stores. Those apps get algorithmically promoted.
Evaluation is probably the most pertinent piece, because Shopify may lead a merchant to water, but it remains up to the merchant whether or not they drink. To this point, information is still top dog - product overview, pricing, and reviews all serve as a basis for merchants to judge the suitability of the app in question. This, the aforementioned factors, and a healthy dose of common sense are the key elements that signal for whom the App Store is built.
Shopify of course has a keen interest in the App Store and engineers their desired outcomes into it’s design. On top of how sticky the App Store makes Shopify as a platform, declaring your business on Shopify, cross referenced by API usage ensures prevention of abuse and an understanding of usage. This shines light on the spaces where merchants are most reliant on partners, which brings us to the Shopify product choice trifecta: defer, acquire, or build.
The App Store let’s Shopify punt or even ignore indefinitely certain functions and domains. Shopify definitely doesn’t want to build everything and letting partners own that work allows the platform to simplify their road map. When Shopify does identify something critical enough to a critical mass of merchants, the App Store is a prime location to be spotted for acquisition. Alternatively, it can be a playbook for Shopify’s own product development, which we covered in Adding Platforms :
“Shopify has historically been a fairly altruistic landlord. The company places immense value in the platform play and they’ve been good stewards of that platform. This has enabled an insane amount of growth in the ecosystem, but remember, they’re a $40B business. They have shareholders with priorities and product teams with priorities; a relationship with your friendly neighbourhood Partner Manager won’t mean much when those immovable priorities crash headlong into your business.”
- Nov 20, Railspur Roundhouse #002
Calling partners the last stakeholder might be understating how much consideration for partners does go into the App Store and Partner Platform as a whole. Shopify understands that in order for them to get what they want from offering a platform, it has to work for partners. This has led to huge investment in team and product supporting the third parties that in turn support merchants. The App Store is certainly among those investments.
Publish and Prosper
If an app offers value and demonstrates positive impact to merchants, Shopify wants to see you be successful. In fact, this is probably the first benefit the App Store provides: rewarding winners. There’s a vested interest in pumping up companies that strive hard to help shops while the opposite - apps that don’t seem to be pulling their weight - get penalized.
This is the sort of incentive that makes sense: people that care about the job they fill get rewarded and people looking for a quick buck, acting negligently toward the concerns of merchants, or aren’t exhibiting the traits of a company that’s trying their best don’t get that reward. The most obvious place that this is manifested is through social proof, namely, reviews. This is a big one.
Shopify has the ability to see app churn, but churn isn’t a proxy for quality. Churn can occur when an app is tried and just deemed not a good fit, which is a different thing from being good quality. Instead merchants can leave reviews on App Store app listing pages for the Apps that they use.
Apps that have a good grasp on the service they offer and the life-cycle of their customers know when and how to prompt a merchant to leave a review, and you better believe a merchant knows when and how to leave a review when their standards are not being met. Merchants lean on reviews religiously, which is why it’s important that you have them, and that they’re good.
A review can only be left by a merchant that has used an app, and as of right now a developer offering an app can reply to the reviews. This hasn’t always been the case, and developers were left frustrated with the inability to balance such a prominent narrative when it’s negative. This is a good example of investment in partners, but don’t over index: balancing serves merchants too. A true correction will result in the merchant adjusting their rating.
The cumulative effect of these reviews isn’t just sentiment to be evaluated. Shopify uses these reviews as a qualitative indicator of app performance and promotes or demotes your search ranking in part because of this. Let’s say it together: reviews are important. With that said, your app listing plays a big role in searchability too.
Shopify gives you all the real-estate you need to promote your app within the App Store for free. Well, nothing is free but that’s next week’s post. What’s important here is that it doesn’t cost you anything upfront to get your page and it’s more than enough space to make the case for your wares.
The listing page contains several sections to lay out catchy grab lines and thoroughly planned product descriptions. It hosts your branding, links to your own site, and displays contact information and app pricing. Below this is a sortable reviews section. Frankly it looks pretty nice and does a good job of leveling the playing field between teams with marketing design and those without quite well, but the magic really happens with what you don’t see on the listing.
Companies submitting apps should be aware of the role that keywords play in how your app is discovered. It’s super important to make sure your descriptions and opportunities to describe the service by text are done while accounting for the way a merchant will search for it. On top of this, it’s important to identify the right category and collection to be in so that merchants choosing that route for discovery find it.
Onboarding and Billing
One of the best reasons to launch on the App Store is how easy it makes onboarding new merchants. Clicking the install button initiates the integration process. The merchant will be taken to their Shopify admin and be asked to approve the permission requests that you set as part of your app setup. No hoops to jump thought, just a couple of point and click steps.
When the time comes for a merchant to confirm that they plan to pay for your service, this is handled by prompts that leverage the Billing APIs. This is how App Store generated leads are expected to pay for their app. Once a charge is approved, the merchant’s app charges appear on their Shopify invoice and after payment, Shopify remits the revenue minus the revenue share agreement dues to your bank account. Since it’s a digital marketplace, there’s no need to worry about relevant tax remittances. A nice perk.
Best of all, if a merchant pays for an app this way, they’re less likely to churn. Aggregating the charges related to running an online store is seen as simplifying a merchant’s life and consequently they’re less likely to scrutinize the large collective charge as opposed to having a credit card statement with a bunch of small charges. None-the-less, service quality should be the cornerstone to retention, not financial absenteeism, but the Billing APIs serve a major role in helping merchants understand the cost of running their business.
The Billing APIs support 3 types of charge: the application charge, the usage charge, and the recurring application charge, and they’re mostly self explanatory based on their name. A usage charge let’s you bill a merchant based on events up to an approved monthly limit. Recurring charges are just as they sound - best for monthly SaaS subscriptions. The application charge is used for one time charges. Additionally, there's functionality to enable free trials before a charge gets in which is a pretty useful tool for your toolkit. Oh, and if you need to issue a refund, that can be done with the application credit.
The Flip Side
If it feels like this piece neglected to touch on some of the downsides that come with the App Store, well done. Part 2 of 2 is an examination of the very real trade offs that it takes that comes with this… privilege. Don’t expect doom and gloom however. The same post will talk about life outside of the App Store - the good and the bad.
There is no right way to succeed in Shopify’s partner ecosystem, but there is a best way for your business. Hopefully those undecided will be in a better place to judge after a light is shone on the dark side.
And like pretty much everything, there is a dark side.