According to an App Annie report, China eked out a 15 per cent lead in iOS App Store revenue generation over the US, which held the title of top iOS market since 2010.

China earned over $1.7 billion in Q3 2016 and this is only going to go up. What’s more, according to Statista, the number of smartphone users in China is estimated to reach 601.8 million this year.

If the predictions prove accurate it raises questions over whether western iOS developers will, or should, get in on the action in China?

Don’t be controverisal
One concern which may be on top of their minds is China’s strict policies. Earlier this year, the Cyberspace Administration of China wanted all app stores to be registered as the watchdog strengthened its control of the market.

Meanwhile, the state censor said it will not license augmented reality games such as Pokemon Go until it assesses potential security risks, and Apple came under the spotlight after it pulled The New York Times app in China following pressure from the authorities.

With Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat banned, the market seems completely different to the one in the US.

However, it would appear there will be no problem provided developers steer clear of anything controversial.

Jon Tan, director of business development, APAC, at StartApp, told Mobile World Live: “At the end of the day, if you want to do business in China, you have to play by their rules.”

He said China is “sensitive to anything related to politics, especially if it can be construed as anti-China. Otherwise, as long as you don’t have an app that has controversial content, you will be fine.”

So can apps made in the west find success in China?

While the Chinese market is attractive, it is not an easy one to break into, especially because the market and the audience are not what US developers are used to.

Tan thinks most western developers aren’t brave enough to venture into China, but if they are up to the task, there are two ways of going about it.

The first is to become successful abroad first and then, at the peak of their app’s success, enter China “quickly through a well-known publisher. This way, you already have a hit product on your hands which will be easier to pitch and market”.

A good example of this is Plants vs Zombies by US publisher Popcap Games. The app was successful as it created a China-specific version of its popular title called Plants vs Zombies: Great Wall Edition.

“All of the zombies and bosses represented Chinese culture, and they also added classic Chinese characters from Journey to the West, one of the most important works of Chinese literature, and adapted them to fit inside the game,” Tan explained.

The second approach Tan recommends is “developing your app for China alone, skipping your own market entirely and building a Chinese app for Chinese users from scratch.”

Find local help
Another key ingredient is having a local partner.

“Without a local partner to ensure the correct characters and language and to navigate the mobile payment wall, it’s hard to appeal to local mobile consumers no matter how good your app is,” Tan said.

When you find the right partner, you have a better chance of being featured across China’s many app stores. Getting a strong publisher is also important as they will be able to command a bigger revenue share based on reputation.

Unlike in western markets, there is no dominant app store. Chinese users get content from hundreds of different sources. In order to get a localised app featured and promoted, western developers need to find a local publisher with connections at all of the local Android app stores in China.

When it comes to iOS versus Android, Tan said: “In my opinion, iOS is easiest as there is only one app store compared to hundreds of Android app stores. Your return on investment on iOS would also be higher since iOS users [are] typically more willing to pay a lot more than Android users.”

In either case, it is wise to opt for one rather than both.

As for which category is most likely to do well, Tan said: “Games, for sure, as there’s an audience for every type of game.”

He recommends developers focus on social and casual games such as ‘match 3’ type games – an example of this is Candy Crush where users form groups of 3 or more identical elements – card games, and endless runners (like Temple Run and Subway Surfers).

“This way, you can almost guarantee a large audience by appealing to a large number of casual gamers in China of all ages,” he said.

There are also some tips worth noting around aesthetics. According to Oniix Mobile, unlike the US, where users go for a clean and minimalistic look, the Chinese audience likes lots of colours and no white space.

Chinese users also prefer apps with multiple functionalities, more text and more design than in the west.

Since Facebook and Twitter are banned, marketing can be tricky. Developers should try to have a presence on Chinese social networks and messaging apps, such as WeChat and Weibo.

An article on The Next Web warns if developers experience success in China, competitors will be quick to copy their product and maybe even improve on it. “To have a fighting chance, you need to stay ahead of them by frequently updating,” the report said.

China may be unchartered territory for many, but it certainly seems like one worth exploring.

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.