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Apple’s plans to cut apps out of its affiliate program may shut down independent iOS news sites

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Sites like TouchArcade and AppShopper may take big hits

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Today, Apple announced that it plans to remove apps and in-app purchases from its iTunes Affiliate Program by October 1st. The company cites its own editorial teams and discovery features as strong enough alternatives to third-party websites and news operations that have historically made money in part by referring their readers to the App Store.

The longstanding affiliate marketing service was a way to receive revenue from Apple that the company took out of its standard 30 percent iTunes and App Store cut, and that revenue provided a much-needed source of revenue for independent news sites and publications that wrote about and linked to mobile apps. As Apple puts it, the affiliate program is unnecessary “with the launch of the new App Store on both iOS and macOS and their increased methods of app discovery.” (Google does not maintain an affiliate program for the Play Store, given how many Android apps are monetized through advertising.)

Now, iOS-focused news websites like TouchArcade may have to shut down in absence of the much-needed financial resource. Here’s Eli Hodapp, who’s been TouchArcade’s editor-in-chief since 2009:

Moments ago, Apple announced that they’re killing the affiliate program, citing the improved discovery offered by the new App Store. (Music, books, movies, and TV remain.) It’s hard to read this in any other way than “We went from seeing a microscopic amount of value in third party editorial to, we now see no value.” I genuinely have no idea what TouchArcade is going to do. Through thick and thin, and every curveball the industry threw at us, we always had App Store affiliate revenue- Which makes a lot of sense as we drive a ton of purchases for Apple. I don’t know how the takeaway from this move can be seen as anything other than Apple extending a massive middle finger to sites like TouchArcade, AppShopper, and many others who have spent the last decade evangelizing the App Store and iOS gaming.

Hodapp says that, over the years, websites like TouchArcade have become harder to maintain as advertising revenues dried up and free-to-play games, which don’t drive as much referral revenue because they monetize mainly through in-app purchases, have come to dominate the mobile marketplace. He says that TouchArcade tried its hand unsuccessfully at maintaining a Patreon account, and it’s also been using Amazon’s affiliate marketing service to help stay afloat.

But for a site all about mobile apps, Apple’s affiliate program was the “ol’ reliable,” as Hodapp puts it. “Each individual purchase was almost inconsequential, but when you put them all together it’s sort of in line with the plot of movies like Superman III or Office Space— these fractional transactions, over a large volume, become very significant.”

Last year, Apple cut the affiliate rate from 7 percent to 2.5 percent, a “massive punch to our collective guts” that Hodapp says the site nonetheless dealt with by cutting back on freelance and event budgets. Now, he says it’s unclear what his publication will do to pay its bills. “I’m just beside myself,” he writes. “I don’t know what we’re going to do.”