Does this sound acquainted? An app goes viral on social media, typically together with TikTok, then instantly climbs to the highest of the App Retailer the place it positive factors much more new installs because of the heightened publicity. That’s what occurred with the current No. 1 on the U.S. App Retailer, Fontmaker, a subscription-based fonts app which appeared to learn from word-of-mouth development because of TikTok movies and different social posts. However what we’re really seeing here’s a new type of App Retailer advertising and marketing — and one which now entails one of many oldest gamers within the area: Vungle.
Fontmaker, at first look, appears to be simply one other indie app that hit it huge.
The app, revealed by an entity known as Mango Labs, guarantees customers a strategy to create fonts utilizing their very own handwriting which they’ll then entry from a customized keyboard for a reasonably steep value of $4.99 per week. The app first launched on July 26. Practically a month later, it was the No. 2 app on the U.S. App Retailer, based on Sensor Tower information. By August 26, it climbed up another place to achieve No. 1. earlier than slowly dropping down within the prime total free app rankings within the days that adopted.
By Aug. 27, it was No. 15, earlier than briefly surging once more to No. 4 the next day, then declining as soon as extra. Immediately, the app is No. 54 total and No. 4 within the aggressive Photograph & Video class — nonetheless, a stable place for a brand-new and considerably area of interest product focusing on primarily youthful customers. So far, it’s generated $68,000 in income, Sensor Tower studies.
However Fontmaker is probably not a real natural success story, regardless of its Prime Charts success pushed by a lift in downloads coming from actual customers, not bots. As a substitute, it’s an instance of how cellular entrepreneurs have discovered tips on how to faucet into the influencer neighborhood to drive app installs. It’s additionally an instance of the way it’s arduous to distinguish between apps pushed by influencer advertising and marketing and those who hit the highest of the App Retailer due to true demand — like walkie-talkie app Zello, whose current journey to No. 1 may be attributed to Hurricane Ida
Because it seems, Fontmaker isn’t your typical “indie app.” In actual fact, it’s unclear who’s actually behind it. Its writer, Mango Labs, LLC, is definitely an iTunes developer account owned by the cellular development firm JetFuel, which was lately acquired by the cellular advert and monetization agency Vungle — a longtime and typically controversial participant on this area, itself acquired by Blackstone in 2019.
By means of The Plug, cellular app builders and advertisers can connect with JetFuel’s community of over 15,000 verified influencers who’ve a mixed 4 billion Instagram followers, 1.5 billion TikTok followers, and 100 million day by day Snapchat views.
Whereas entrepreneurs may use the built-in promoting instruments on every of those networks to attempt to attain their target market, JetFuel’s expertise permits entrepreneurs to rapidly scale their campaigns to achieve high-value customers within the Gen Z demographic, the corporate claims. This technique may be much less labor-intensive than conventional influencer advertising and marketing, in some circumstances. Advertisers pay on a cost-per-action (CPA) foundation for app installs. In the meantime, all influencers should do is scroll via The Plug to seek out an app to advertise, then publish it to their social accounts to begin earning profits.
So whereas sure, plenty of influencers might have made TikTok movies about Fontmaker, which prompted shoppers to obtain the app, the influencers had been paid to take action. (And sometimes, from what we noticed shopping the Fontmaker hashtag, with out disclosing that monetary relationship in any approach — an more and more frequent downside on TikTok, and space of concern for the FTC.)
The place issues get difficult is in making an attempt to kind out Mango Labs’ relationship with JetFuel/Vungle. As a client shopping the App Retailer, it seems like Mango Labs makes plenty of enjoyable client apps of which Fontmaker is just the most recent.
JetFuel’s web site helps to advertise this picture, too.
It had showcased its influencer advertising and marketing system utilizing a case examine from an “indie developer” known as Mango Labs and one in all its earlier apps, Caption Professional. Caption Professional launched in Jan. 2018. (App Annie information signifies it was faraway from the App Retailer on Aug. 31, 2021…sure, yesterday).
Vungle, nevertheless, instructed TechCrunch “The Caption Professional app not exists and has not been stay on the App Retailer or Google Play for a very long time.” (We are able to’t discover an App Annie report of the app on Google Play).
Additionally they instructed us that “Caption Professional was developed by Mango Labs earlier than the entity turned JetFuel,” and that the case examine was used to focus on JetFuel’s promoting capabilities. (However with out clearly disclosing their connection.)
“Previous to JetFuel turning into the influencer advertising and marketing platform that it’s right this moment, the corporate developed apps for the App Retailer. After the corporate pivoted to turn into a advertising and marketing platform, in February 2018, it stopped creating apps however continued to make use of the Mango Labs account once in a while to publish apps that it had third-party monetization partnerships with,” the Vungle spokesperson defined.
In different phrases, the declare being made right here is that whereas Mango Labs, initially, had been the identical of us who’ve lengthy since pivoted to turn into JetFuel, and the makers of Caption Professional, all of the newer apps revealed below “Mango Labs, LLC” weren’t created by JetFuel’s workforce itself.
“Any apps that seem below the Mango Labs LLC title on the App Retailer or Google Play had been the truth is developed by different firms, and Mango Labs has solely acted as a writer,” the spokesperson mentioned.
There are the reason why this assertion doesn’t fairly sit proper — and never solely as a result of JetFuel’s companions appear comfortable to cover themselves behind Mango Labs’ title, nor as a result of Mango Labs was a venture from the JetFuel workforce up to now. It’s additionally odd that Mango Labs and one other entity, Takeoff Labs, declare the identical set of apps. And like Mango Labs, Takeoff Labs is related to JetFuel too.
Breaking this down, as of the time of writing, Mango Labs has revealed a number of client apps on each the App Retailer and Google Play.
On iOS, this consists of the current No. 1 app Fontmaker, in addition to FontKey, Coloration Meme, Litstick, Vibe, Celebs, FITme Health, CopyPaste, and Half 2. On Google Play, it has two extra: Stickered and Mango.
Most of Mango Labs’ App Retailer listings level to JetFuel’s web site because the app’s “developer web site,” which might be in step with what Vungle says about JetFuel appearing because the apps’ writer.
What’s odd, nevertheless, is that the Mango Labs’ app Part2, hyperlinks to Takeoff Labs’ web site from its App Retailer itemizing.
The Vungle spokesperson initially instructed us that Takeoff Labs is “an unbiased app developer.”
And but, the Takeoff Labs’ web site reveals a workforce which consists of JetFuel’s management, together with JetFuel co-founder and CEO Tim Lenardo and JetFuel co-founder and CRO JJ Maxwell. Takeoff Labs’ LLC software was additionally signed by Lenardo.
In the meantime, Takeoff Labs’ co-founder and CEO Rhai Goburdhun, per his LinkedIn and the Takeoff Labs web site, nonetheless works there. Requested about this connection, Vungle instructed us they didn’t notice the web site had not been up to date, and neither JetFuel nor Vungle have an possession stake in Takeoff Labs with this acquisition.
Takeoff Labs’ web site additionally reveals off its “portfolio” of apps, which incorporates Celeb, Litstick, and FontKey — three apps which can be revealed by Mango Labs on the App Retailer.
On Google Play, Takeoff Labs is the developer credited with Celebs, in addition to two different apps, Vibe and Teal, a neobank. However on the App Retailer, Vibe is revealed by Mango Labs.
(To not complicate issues additional, however there’s additionally an entity known as RealLabs which hosts JetFuel, The Plug and different client apps, together with Mango — the app revealed by Mango Labs on Google Play. Somebody certain likes naming issues “Labs!”)
Vungle claims the confusion right here has to do with the way it now makes use of the Mango Labs iTunes account to publish apps for its companions, which is a “frequent follow” on the App Retailer. It says it intends to switch the apps revealed below Mango Labs to the builders’ accounts, as a result of it agrees that is complicated.
Vungle additionally claims that JetFuel “doesn’t make nor personal any client apps which can be presently stay on the app shops. Any of the apps made by the entity when it was referred to as Mango Labs have lengthy since been taken down from the app shops.”
JetFuel’s system is messy and complicated, however up to now profitable in its targets. Fontmaker did make it to No. 1, basically development hacked to the highest by influencer advertising and marketing.
However as a client, what this all means is that you simply’ll by no means know who really constructed the app you’re downloading or whether or not you had been “influenced” to strive it via what had been, basically, undisclosed adverts.
Fontmaker isn’t the primary to development hack its strategy to the highest via influencer promotions. Summertime hit Poparrazzi additionally hyped itself to the highest of the App Retailer in the same approach, as have many others. However Poparazzi has since sunk to No. 89 in Photograph & Video, which reveals affect can solely take you up to now.
As for Fontmaker, paid affect obtained it to No. 1, however its Prime Chart second was transient.