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Experiences with some app promotion strategies

Buy my thingIn the dim and distant past, while in a moment of neglecting my PhD to work on the very first version of Loopy (which is now currently one of the most popular music apps on the iPad!), I had grand visions of an almost totally passive income, making apps. I love the creative initial product development process and, with naive optimism, I pictured pumping apps out and then sitting back and watching the money roll on in. Tim Ferriss’s 4-Hour Workweek had me enthusiastically lifestyle-designing and dreaming of all my free moneys.

I bet I’m not the only one, but of course reality struck and we realised that the App Store aint that kind of beast. Like any other product, an app needs to be actively presented to the world on a regular basis, and needs to be nurtured to keep it fresh and relevant.

I say “we” because at this point, my partner Katherine joined me after this particular revelation, and became A Tasty Pixel’s part-time marketing director and PR strategist — it’s taken two of us to keep A Tasty Pixel’s wheels turning smoothly, and we still have a lot to learn.

I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on some of the lessons we’ve learned in the past year, in which we’ve released a relatively successful travel planning and travel assistant app, The Cartographer, a very successful live looping app, Loopy, and its big brother Loopy HD, and tried a bunch of promotion strategies, some successful, some not, and some that haven’t yet run their course.

Stating the obvious: It’s not enough to just build it

Just for the record, and I’m sure we all know this now, but “build it and they will come” doesn’t cut it on the App Store. Maybe it did in Month One, but now, you might as well not start if you’re not going to devote a goodly amount of time to promoting your app, because it just won’t get anywhere amongst the hoards of other apps.

Don’t expect everything to work

Perhaps the biggest, or at least most helpful, lesson we learned was not to expect everything to go as planned, and not to get too down if a strategy didn’t pan out.

It’s often impossible to predict which things will be successful and which not, but we found it helpful to consider the payoff for the successful strategies being spread around amongst all the strategies, successful or not — that way, we could be pleased about the ones that paid off, and philosophical about the ones that didn’t! The trick is just to keep at it, and keep being creative.

High quality attracts attention

Please excuse a moment of immodesty: I’d like to think my apps have a fairly high standard of quality, and it would appear that making “premium” apps really does pay off!

It’s not entirely “build it and they will come”, but having an app that looks great and that customers love gives you a big head-start in the PR game. Word of mouth is huge on the App Store, and the mouths in question produce more words about great apps.

What’s more, a feature by Apple, which generally only happens to high-quality apps, can make a massive difference, both in the short and long term, and gives an app a great “social proof” bump.

Incidentally, this goes for the app site too. Sites like App Sites reward beautiful designs, and you can get picked up on various design blogs too — we’ve had quite a bit of traffic lately from Blog Du Webdesign, for example. And the same goes for demo videos. The Cartographer’s demo got a huge response, and got a lot of word of mouth, just about the video itself:

So: Put in the extra sweat-and-tears. It’s worth it.

Influencers

Sometimes, depending on the nature of the app, a good word from an influencer in the area can be huge.

For example, when Loopy was in pre-release, I made contact with a musician I’m a big fan of, Dub Fx (you might know him from this video, which went viral a couple of years ago). Ben was very interested in the app, and threw his not inconsiderable support behind it, unleashing this amazing demo video:

…our jaws were dangling around our knees when I found that in my inbox! We’ve since decided to work together — look out for the Dub Fx app some time next year!

That was the success story — our experience with The Cartographer was quite different, though. Katherine spent months upon months getting to know travel bloggers, interacting on their blogs and via various social media, hoping to make connections and get to introduce the app to some of them.

The good news is that we made some really good new friends out of the process, which makes it all worthwhile as far as I’m concerned. But as a marketing strategy, it was a total bust. As it turns out, many travel bloggers seem to be quite unresponsive — some of them, despite lots of friendly comments and other interactions, never even noticed us! Some did, and kindly give us a mention on their blogs, but this didn’t seem to have any effect!

It turns out, as Katherine discovered in an industry report, the places that travellers (our target audience) go on the Internet: Not travel blogs! Travellers visit airline sites, hotel websites, TripAdvisor and forums, Lonely Planet’s forums…all places that we have no hope of exerting any influence at all (those forums, by the way, are militantly moderated for anything that even loosely resembles product mentions). So, we did the best we could, given the options, but it’s a really difficult market.

So, I suppose the lesson there is tread carefully, do your research, and spend the time strategically — be aware that the payoff might be huge, or it might be nil. If we’d known in advance how poorly the months of work Katherine put into meeting travel bloggers would turn out, we might have invested less time in it. We may have even decided to find an alternative target market.

Reviewers

There are a lot of app review sites out there, now. It’s just insane — it seems like every man, his dog, and several of his goldfish have app review blogs. Back at the start, Katherine put in a huge number of hours and built us a spreadsheet of the most important reviewers. With that done, whenever we do a release, she spends half a day (that’s how long it takes, or more!) emailing and filling out web forms of reviewers.

Most of them never respond, especially the big ones — they get such a barrage of review requests, it’s not hugely surprising. Many blogs offer paid reviews, but we haven’t gone down that track yet, so, nothing to report there. But many have responded, and every review helps, both for the social proof and word-of-mouth, and for the SEO.

Honestly, we haven’t yet collected hard stats about the proportion of reviewers who contact us in response to our initial contact, and how many are contacting us of their own accord. Many of the significant reviews we’ve had have happened independently of us tracking down and contacting the reviewers in question, though.

So, we’re still undecided about whether the amount of time invested in telling reviewers about our products is really paying off. I think we’ll always do it for initial releases, and possibly for major, major updates, though.

Journalists

This is something we want to do, but haven’t really pursued a whole lot — finding relevant journalists and contacting them directly. We’ve found contacts for a few, but they always seem to be out-of-date and emails just bounce.

So, this seems like a good thing to do, but still TBD.

Press releases

Press releases seem to have two main benefits — they help with SEO, which helps users find your app — and they marginally increase the likelihood of getting picked up and getting some free media.

We’ve been doing regular monthly press releases via PRWeb (a.k.a. Vocus) for a few months now, after previously only doing a big one (via PRWeb) for launch, and a couple smaller ones (via the much cheaper PRMac service) for updates.

Vocus talked us into signing up for a 12 month subscription (for a thousand-and-something $), which includes one release a month, and a representative who helps suggest topics, and checks over our drafts. Our representative Rebecca has been great with both, and has been very responsive with answering our dumb questions along the way.

We’ve been pseudo-picked up by a few nice sites like the San Francisco Chronicle, although it’s automated and I don’t know how much of a direct difference it actually makes. At the moment, loopyapp.com’s page rank is at 4, which is not bad at all, some of which is presumably thanks to our releases, and we seem to rank fairly well with most of the google searches we want to be associated with. An interesting side note is that quite a lot of our referred web traffic is coming straight from PRWeb, which surprised me.

As with a lot of these strategies, I can’t say for sure whether it’s been a huge success so far — it’s hard to determine the cause of a good page rank, for example — but my gut feeling is that it’s worthwhile; it makes sense.

Social media

I never “got” Facebook up until quite recently, but now I can’t get enough — after being a staunch Twitter user for quite a long time, I’ve discovered that Facebookers are amazingly engaged. I remember hearing somewhere that one Facebook follower (…”like”-r?) is worth several Twitter followers, and that rings true. I have a great time hanging around on the A Tasty Pixel Facebook page and interacting with people there, as opposed to Twitter, which is sometimes a little bit like shouting into a black hole.

Google+? I have no bleeding idea. Anyone?

Anyway, it’s important to engage with your customers on both, but particularly Facebook, and there’s lots of scope for interesting interactions with customers. For example, I’m about to start building effects into Loopy, and I was curious about what people most wanted to see. So, I created a poll on the Facebook page, and got a great response (“More Cowbell” coming right up…).

I quite like being able to “be me” on Twitter and Facebook, to show what I’m up to, get feedback on stuff as I’m making it, and to respond straight away to people. I get to present a personal face, instead of being A Company.

As Loopy is a music-creation app, it also hooks straight into SoundCloud, and has a very active SoundCloud group which I find myself trawling every morning — a great entertainment. One of the unexpected benefits is that I’ve met quite a few talented and lovely people though SoundCloud, some of whom have gone on to become testers and advisors, and help shape Loopy.

Customer support

While this isn’t promotion-related, I’ve been in the position (being a one-person dev company) to interact with customers directly, and I make a point of responding almost immediately when possible, and doing my best to address problems straight away. On a couple of occasions, the customer’s helped me identify a time-sensitive issue — they’re using The Cartographer and are about to go away on holiday — and I’ve had a fixed ad-hoc build out to them within a couple of hours, which has been very satisfying on both sides!

Customers love the straight-to-developer contact and the fast replies, and quite a few people have gone on to become very vocal supporters, which has been great. A very positive support experience goes a long way towards building goodwill, and I think it’s super-important. It also feels really satisfying, so in my option, there’s no reason not to go all-out!

Expertise

Tim Ferriss encourages product creators to position themselves as authorities in the area targeted by the product, to give the product more clout and attract more attention. The idea is, if your app is targeted at a particular area, and you have experience in that area, then write: write on your own blog, and seek out others to do guest posts on (make sure it links back to you!).

We’re spending a few years travelling in a motorhome around Europe as we set up A Tasty Pixel and Katherine’s art business, and The Cartographer was built as a result of our experiences travelling. So, (I say “so”, but actually we were already blogging as a journal for ourselves — but let us conveniently ignore that fact) we keep a travel blog, which brings in some traffic. But not much — honestly, this is a terrible example, and we’ve had very few results, possibly because of the nature (and diminutive size!) of our audience. Were we to focus on promoting our blog more and making it less “this-is-what-we-did” and more “this-is-what-you-can-do”, we might see more response, but our priorities lie decidedly elsewhere — traditional travel blogging: not our bag, baby.

But, I know this can work — I know it’s an extreme example, but look at Trey Ratcliff, the HDR photography authority, and his app 100 Cameras In 1. They got onto CNN, ferchrissake, and pretty much every other media outlet you can imagine!

Paid advertising

This is the next frontier, for us, and I’m fairly excited about it. Everything I’ve mentioned up to this point has been about “free media”, but advertising is a whole new category to explore.

With that said, I’ve had two initial forays into ads: Facebook, and AdMob, and both have been total failures.

Facebook ads

To an advertiser, Facebook is like a giant damn candy shop. (I felt really weird when I read this recent Joy of Tech, and found myself drooling a little bit by the fifth panel…). The kind of targeting options available are just a-mazing — you can target people from their age, gender and location, right down to their areas of interest (which is insanely cool), and even down to targeting users who like one particular competitor’s product.

Despite the cool factor, it turned out to be pretty much a total bust for attempt 1 — we were paying a stupid amount per click, compared to the actual amount we would earn per sale. We spent $75, and got…45 clicks. That’s $1.60 per click, which represents about 75% of our actual take per sale, and it’s very unlikely even 10% of those clicks resulted in a sale.

At the time, I was choosing to bid per thousand clicks (CPM), instead of per click (CPC), but the reason I chose to was that the recommended CPC was well above what I was prepared to spend.

AdMob summaryThe lesson there is that Facebook users aren’t ready to buy straight away. A friend who works in advertising reported good results marketing the Facebook page instead of the product, so that users who are interested can hang around for a while, get to know you, and then you can market to them later. I’ll try this soon, and I’m hoping that the mechanics of a social ad (with a “Like” button on the ad, instead of a click to navigate away from the current page) will result in higher (and cheaper!) conversions.

I found similar results with AdMob — we got a much, much better cost per click (I was playing with the minimum bid of 29c per click), but even at 29c/click, in order to break even for our $2.99 app, 1 in 7 people who click the ad would have to buy it, which I think is far-fetched.

So, as far as direct advertising goes: As someone who earns just over $2 per sale, we just can’t afford it! My next experiment: Trying to use Facebook to increase our social reach, instead.

Summary

It’s become abundantly clear to us that app promotion is a job in itself, and it’s one that can scale right up to the amount of time you have available. They key is to be constantly creative, and to be out there, all the time, chipping away.

Almost everything’s a shot in the dark, and while many strategies may yield no results at all, some might be a big break (like meeting Dub Fx, for us), so it’s important to just keep on trying.

Apple give you absolutely no help in tracking the success of any particular strategy, unfortunately, although there are tricks you can use to help track where some of your sales are coming from.

The PR thing is just as important as actually creating the app; it’s hard, and it’s constant, and it means that running a software development company is anything but a “passive income”. Fortunately for me, I love it to bits!

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7 Comments

  1. Posted October 28, 2011 at 1:44 am | Permalink

    Something to add to the list: consider NOT giving away an iPad as part of the promotion. #1 it is hard to compose tweets/status updates without sounding like spam. #2 Even if you do a good job at that you’ll see people commenting on posts about promotion with “did your account get hacked?”

    Next contest we are giving away a pot belly pig… “:^)

    • Posted October 28, 2011 at 9:25 am | Permalink

      Hah!! Yeah, I’ll bet! We considered it for a few seconds, before we discovered someone else doing it as part of a retweet publicity campaign, and they’d had a total of 12 or something RTs with the competition about to end. Those’re some expensive RTs. Hate to be them…

  2. Posted November 22, 2011 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    Michael your article painted a realistic and true picture of marketing in the mobile app arena. I have just recently enter edit with the publishing of a lifestyle app dubbed Rips Across the Waters. I’m also a musician and the marketing that I did for years there is coming full circle in getting the word out about my app as you so truly echo in your article. It’s very great that you have a partner I your marketing strategy, always helps.

    James (Jim) Goodin Tips Across the Waters

  3. Posted December 2, 2011 at 6:04 am | Permalink

    Awesome article! I lapped up every word. I’m in a similar boat as you as I’m a one-man app dev shop working on audio apps with deflated dreams of free moneys but still loving what I do too much to consider anything else at least for a while :)

    It looks like you’ve invested not just time but a fair amount of money into your apps, between getting a designer for the visuals (or did Katherine do those? they are gorgeous!), making the video for the Cartographer app, and of course marketing spend. Did you have a specific budget in mind for this, especially in the beginning when you didn’t have any guarantee of significant revenues?

    • Posted December 2, 2011 at 11:31 am | Permalink

      Cheers, Adil! I’m glad it was some help =)

      Actually, no, I’ve not really invested any money – all the work is my own, including the graphical design, web stuff and video (because I’m cheap, and don’t like risk when I can do it myself with reasonable results – yet, anyway).

      • Posted December 2, 2011 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

        That is super-impressive. The app is cool enough as it is but I don’t know many engineers with the broader set of skills to create visual assets and a video like yours. You’re quite the renaissance man! I am thoroughly humbled. What tools did you use to make these? I feel the need to fill in this gap in my own skill-set as I’m also cheap and risk-averse, but am not sure where to start.

        If you get the chance would love to hear your thoughts on my little app – it’s called guitarism [lite], and there’s a bunch of usage videos up at http://www.rhism.com. My visuals and videos don’t compare to yours, but I’m proud of the rest of the product. User ratings are great but sales are low, indicating that I need to do better marketing, which is why I found myself drawn to your article as it speaks to someone like me far more directly than what most “marketing people” say. I also love your choice of the word ‘artisan’ – this is how I’d like to see myself too but never found the right word to describe it till now :)

  4. Posted December 4, 2011 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    Cheers, Adil, you’re too kind! I used a fairly standard toolset: Photoshop, After Effects, GarageBand for the music, etc.

    Guitarism looks really cool, and has a great sound, definitely looks like you have a good product. As you say, though, it’s the promotion that’s (possibly more than) half the battle, so – definitely get on it! ;-) (and best of luck – to us both!)