Free Apps? There’s No Such Thing

by Gilad Bechar

Are your app’s permission requests costing you users?

One of the mobile world’s most common misconceptions is that free apps are being offered free of charge. The truth is there are no free rides. Users pay for apps with a unique virtual coin – one that was here long before Bitcoin and is only getting stronger – their personal data. It makes sense to treat the app’s permission requests as the price tag for your app, which users will examine closely when deciding whether or not to install it. In other words: if you’ll take it too far, you’ll learn the true meaning of all covet, all lose.

Please note: The worst thing you could possibly do when developing and marketing your app is underestimate your users. Today’s users are far more sophisticated and aware than ever. In the past they would dismissed the permission screen on their way to download your app. Nowadays, especially following a number of privacy-related scandals, they view it as a significant step. Within seconds, users will judge your app and decide if it makes sense to share such valuable information with it.

Yes, they know very well how valuable it is. In fact, they can name their price. A fascinating study conducted by Orange found that European users estimated their personal data’s worth at about 244$. The price went up when it came to unfamiliar brands, too. There’s no fooling your users, just so you know.

We recently realized, once again, what a PR disaster the accusation of spying on users can be. Apps that were meant to be used solely as flashlights, were revealed as a sneaky way to gather information completely unnecessary for using the app. Users chose to sit in the dark and deleted the apps immediately.

And these aren’t just unknown apps that users find alarming. Facebook, a company that already holds so much information it can pretty much blackmail us all, faced similar accusations. The Facebook Messenger app asked for so many permissions, it raised users’ suspicion and required an explanation. We also witnessed the most recent allegations against Whisper, which the company firmly denies.

These are just a few examples in a long line of scandals, of which the most serious one allegedly involves the US government. How serious? Well, we just used the word “allegedly”. In a recent interview with Edward Snowden, the whistleblower gave a few privacy tips. According to him, all you have to do is quit Facebook, Google and Dropbox, live in a cave under a false identity – and it should be all right (we totally made up that last part, but giving up Google is really not that far).

Sure, your app probably won’t report users’ actions to the government, but these catastrophes still concern you. Why? Because they made it very clear to users that they aren’t being paranoid.

Let’s take for example the most difficult permission to approve – registering via Facebook to a dating app. To say that users would be reluctant to approve is an understatement. The amount of information a user’s profile will provide you with is the equivalent of all other permissions, plus going through childhood photo albums with his Mom. It doesn’t get more personal than that. And as if that’s not enough, your user thinks you’re about to tell the world that he, to put it nicely, is having some difficulties in the dating department (hey, we don’t judge! Some of our best friends etc.). If you neglect to approach users in the right manner, you will scare off approximately 50% of them. Please note: These are users who have already found and downloaded your app, but will now delete it– shame. We’ve seen it happen to many of our clients. The key is to build a clear process that explains why it is necessary, and to clarify that you will not post anything without permission. With the right approach, we’ve managed to improve registration rates significantly for clients. In one case they jumped from 40% to 86%! Yes, it required expertise and some work, but we’re hopeless romantics.

And not only users raised an eyebrow after examining the over-the-top permission requests made by so many apps. A recent report by the GPEN, which was formed for the purpose of looking into the way apps use personal data, found that about 85% of the apps failed to provide an adequate explanation for their requests. In addition, one in three apps asked for an excessive number of permissions. With growing concerns regarding users’ privacy, it’s not long before tips and instructions become rules and regulations.

We can already see the shift from recommendations to rules in the iOS8. Users receive a more detailed explanation regarding the app’s data usage. For example, the AppStore will inform them if the app intends to track their location only when it is being used, or if it intends to stalk them constantly. And even though it’s still not an official order, in the mobile world, Apple’s requirements are the closest thing to the Ten Commandments.

As mobile professionals, we can safely say that the direction we’re headed is no joke. It should, and it will, affect the development and marketing process. It is crucial to understand the subtle balance between information that enables you to provide a better product, and an intrusive violation of privacy. The tendency to rush in and ask permissions for everything is unprofessional, to say the least. What seems like a gold mine may turn out to be a minefield, and without experts’ assistance, you could find yourself making the wrong move.

Gilad Bechar is the Co-Founder & CEO of Moburst, a global mobile marketing agency helping first tier startups and brands grow their mobile business. Gilad serves as a mentor to rising startups at Microsoft Accelerator, The Technion, Tel-Aviv University, Unit 8200 and for strategic Moburst clients, and is the Academic Director of the Mobile Marketing and New-Media course at Tel-Aviv University.

Photo Credits

Microsiervos Geek Crew | Courtesy of Gilad Bechar