Does it sound familiar to you? An app goes viral on social media, which often includes TikTok, then immediately rises to the top of the App Store, where it gets even more new installs thanks to increased exposure. That’s what happened to the recent No. 1 on the US App Store. Fontmaker, a subscription-based font app that appeared to benefit from the growth of word of mouth thanks to TikTok videos and other social posts. But what we’re really seeing here is a new form of App Store marketing, and one that now involves one of the oldest players in the space: Vungle.
Fontmaker, at first glance, appears to be just another standalone app that was very successful.
The app, published by an entity called Mango Labs, promises users a way to create fonts using their own handwriting that they can then access from a custom keyboard for a fairly steep price of $ 4.99 per week. The app was first launched on July 26. Almost a month later, it was the # 2 app on the US App Store, according to Sensor Tower data. By August 26, it climbed one more position to hit No. 1 before slowly slipping down the overall ranking of top free apps in the days that followed.
By August 27, it was number 15, before briefly climbing back up to number 4 the next day, and then declining again. Today, the app is ranked 54th overall and 4th in the competitive Photography & Video category, which is still a strong position for a new and somewhat specialized product aimed primarily at younger users. To date, it has generated $ 68,000 in revenue, reports Sensor Tower.
But Fontmaker may not be a true organic success story, despite its Top Charts success driven by an increase in downloads coming from real users, not bots. Instead, it’s an example of how mobile marketers have figured out how to leverage the influencer community to drive app installs. It’s also an example of how difficult it is to differentiate between apps driven by influencer marketing and those that rise to the top of the App Store due to actual demand, like the walkie-talkie app Zello, whose recent trip to number one can be attributed to Hurricane. Going
It turns out that Fontmaker is not your typical “standalone application”. In fact, it is not clear who is really behind this. Its publisher, Mango Labs, LLC, is actually an iTunes developer account owned by the mobile growth company. Jet fuel, what was it recently acquired by mobile advertising and monetization company Vungle, a long time and sometimes controversial player in this space, himself acquired by Blackstone in 2019.
Through The Plug, mobile app developers and advertisers can connect to JetFuel’s network of more than 15,000 verified influencers who have a combined total of 4 billion Instagram followers, 1.5 billion TikTok followers, and 100. million daily views on Snapchat.
While marketers could use the advertising tools built into each of these networks to try and reach their target audience, JetFuel’s technology allows them to quickly scale their campaigns to reach high-value users in the demographic of Generation Z, the company claims. This system may require less manpower than traditional influencer marketing, in some cases. Advertisers pay based on cost per action (CPA) for app installs. In the meantime, all influencers have to do is scroll through The Plug to find an app to promote, then post it to their social accounts to start making money.
So while yes, many influencers may have made TikTok videos about Fontmaker, leading consumers to download the app, influencers were paid to do so. (And often, from what we saw browsing the Fontmaker hashtag, without revealing that financial relationship in any way, a common trouble on TikTok, and an area of concern for the FTC).
Where things get tricky is trying to resolve Mango Labs’ relationship with JetFuel / Vungle. As a consumer browsing the App Store, it seems that Mango Labs creates a lot of fun consumer apps, of which Fontmaker is simply the latest.
The JetFuel website also helps promote this image.
It had showcased its influencer marketing system using a case study from an “independent developer” called Mango Labs and one of its previous apps, Caption Pro. Caption Pro was released in January 2018 (data from App Annie indicates that it was removed from the App Store on August 31, 2021 … yes, yesterday).
However, Vungle told TechCrunch: “The Caption Pro app no longer exists and has not been available on the App Store or Google Play for a long time.” (We can’t find an App Annie record of the app on Google Play.)
They also told us that “Caption Pro was developed by Mango Labs before the entity became JetFuel,” and that the case study was used to highlight JetFuel’s advertising capabilities. (But without clearly revealing their connection).
“Before JetFuel became the influencer marketing platform it is today, the company developed applications for the App Store. After the company changed to become a marketing platform, in February 2018, it stopped creating applications, but continued to use the Mango Labs account on occasions to publish applications with which it had monetization partnerships with third parties, ”explained the Vungle spokesperson.
In other words, the claim being made here is that while Mango Labs were originally the same people who long ago spun to become JetFuel, and the creators of Caption Pro, all newer apps released under “Mango Labs, LLC “were not created by the JetFuel team itself.
“Any application that appears under the Mango Labs LLC name on the App Store or Google Play was developed by other companies, and Mango Labs has only acted as publisher,” the spokesperson said.
There are reasons why this statement is not entirely correct, and not just because the JetFuel partners seem happy to hide behind the Mango Labs name, nor because Mango Labs was a project of the JetFuel team in the past. It is also strange that Mango Labs and another entity, Take-off laboratories, claim the same set of applications. And like Mango Labs, Takeoff Labs is also associated with JetFuel.
Breaking this down, as of this writing, Mango Labs has published several consumer apps on both the App Store and Google Play.
On iOS, this includes the # 1 Fontmaker app, as well as FontKey, Color Meme, Litstick, Vibe, Celebs, FITme Fitness, CopyPaste, and Part 2. On Google Play, you have two more: Stickered and Mango.
Most Mango Labs App Store listings point to the JetFuel website as the app’s “developer website,” which would be in line with what Vungle says about JetFuel serving as the app publisher. .
However, the strange thing is that the Mango Labs Part2 app links to the Takeoff Labs website from their App Store listing.
The Vungle spokesperson initially told us that Takeoff Labs is “an independent application developer.”
And yet the Takeoff Labs website shows a team made up of JetFuel leadership, including the co-founder and CEO of JetFuel Tim Lenardo and co-founder and CRO of JetFuel JJ Maxwell. Take-off laboratories LLC application it was also signed by Lenardo.
Meanwhile, Co-Founder and CEO of Takeoff Labs Some GoburdhunAccording to his LinkedIn and Takeoff Labs website, it still works there. When asked about this connection, Vungle told us that they did not realize that the website had not been updated and that neither JetFuel nor Vungle have a stake in Takeoff Labs with this acquisition.
Takeoff Labs website it also displays its “portfolio” of apps, which includes Celeb, Litstick, and FontKey, three apps Mango Labs publishes on the App Store.
On Google Play, Takeoff Labs is the credited developer with Celebs, as well as two other apps, Vibe and Teal, a neobank. But on the App Store, Vibe is published by Mango Labs.
(Not to complicate matters, but there is also an entity called RealLabs which hosts JetFuel, The Plug, and other consumer applications, including Mango, the application published by Mango Labs on Google Play. Surely someone likes to name things “Labs”)
Vungle says the confusion here has to do with how it now uses Mango Labs’ iTunes account to publish apps for its partners, which is “common practice” on the App Store. He says that he intends to transfer the applications published under Mango Labs to the developer accounts, because he agrees that this is confusing.
Vungle also states that JetFuel “does not create or own any consumer applications that are currently available in the app stores. Any of the applications created by the entity when it was known as Mango Labs have long since been withdrawn from the application stores. “
The JetFuel system is messy and confusing, but so far it succeeds in its goals. Fontmaker hit No. 1, essentially growth hacked to the top by influencer marketing.
But as a consumer, what this all means is that you will never know who actually created the app you are downloading or was “influenced” to test it through what were essentially undisclosed ads.
Fontmaker isn’t the first to make his way to the top through influencer promotions. Summer blow Poparrazzi also promoted himself to the top of the App Store. similarly, like many others. But Poparazzi has since sunk to 89th in Photography and Video, showing that influence can only get you so far.
As for Fontmaker, paid influence took him to No. 1, but his Top Chart moment was brief.