The mystery of the iTunes promotional codes

After two weeks of strong changes in the App Store there was one last issue that developers and users weren't aware of until this weekend. It turns out that users redeeming apps using developer promotional codes won't be able to write reviews on the App Store, at least for now.

For those of you who aren't familiar with those, the so-called promocodes are a mechanism for app developers to distribute their app to 50 individuals for free. Simply pasting the code into the same screen where you redeem your iTunes cards and gifts, will get you a free version of the app downloaded directly from the App Store. 

As their name imply, promotional codes have traditionally been used to send review copies free of charge to iOS reviewers such as myself, but also to reward customers, beta testers and create the odd giveaway on social networks. In the past year I have given away many spare codes on my Twitter account, so you know what I'm talking about. 

Since the mentioned distribution method doesn't take any cash or iTunes credits from you, Apple included the limitation of 50 promo codes per app build (50 with every update) and an expiry date. My initial reaction is that giving away your app at launch when you are about to get your sales peak might reduce sales, the truth is that developers and marketeers are after something more precious than sales themselves: iTunes reviews. 

If you consider the typical paid app or game out of the Top 100, 50 positive reviews can be a deal breaker for some, quickly burying the genuine comments of people that bought the app. Believe it or not, the common iOS user reads those, and these reviews might pay a significant role in tapping the Buy button.

Why now?

This must be the logic Apple has used to stop promo code users from reviewing apps on iTunes. A user at TouchArcade forums noticed the change and took the time to contact Apple about the issue. Sure enough, representatives answered his email saying it wasn't a bug, but a new feature! You can find the original thread in the forums.

When I first read those posts and the quoted lines from the Apple email I was a bit skeptical. I did a quick test and was able to write a review for an app redeemed with a promo code for free. It turns out that the measure is not retrospective, so you can still write and modify reviews for apps you have already downloaded, but you'll get an error message when you try to do so with fresh promo codes.

What does this mean for developers?

The first thought is that the change won't affect the majority of iOS users. In fact, the amount of promo codes in the wild is quite limited and they often run out quickly. However, for the indie developer who used promo codes as part of their marketing plan, this can have a serious impact: there's nothing less appealing than an App Store page without any user reviews. Should I be the first person to experiment with it and tell others if its worth buying? Probably not!

A fair App Store?

The last changes to the App Store have been on the restricting side and trying to enforce points usually overlooked in the developers' agreement. We first had complaints about the review system and apps and games rejected, but we continue to see some cases going public (Smuggle Truck or Unpleasant Horse for instance).

Having altered the Top ranks algorithms to punish those apps using incentivation install programs from the likes of Tapjoy and Flurry was just one small step to keep at bay those altering the the rules of the game. Household brands don't have an exposure problem, but it's the small developer trying to build an audience quickly who used these cross-promotional tools. 

Since last December, Apple added the possibility to redeem promo codes in international iTunes stores. Previously, those were limited to the US market, so I see some correlation here with the new measure. Although the American App Store gets the biggest revenue share, I understand the need to limit the reviews written with promo codes in every country. The new measure prevents developers from distorting the rating system, something we spotted last year with the Molinker case.