What you need to know about marketing apps

Kevin Partner discovers that marketing mobile apps is a surprisingly familiar process, as long as you do it with enthusiasm

Kevin Partner
21 Nov 2012

Regular readers will know that I believe in making decisions based on facts rather than guesswork, but those can be hard to come by when entering a new market.

So for the past several months I've been conducting research to ensure that my first apps were valid experiments, and to determine which of many variables are important for success. I identified broad themes in the advice given by successful app developers, as well as downloading their products to see how they worked in practice – and once I was confident my first app wouldn't be a complete howler, it was time to put it out there.

Perhaps the most important lesson I learned is that app development is still just business. There’s a certain geeky coolness to creating apps in your spare room like some dubstep producer, for very small investment (almost none for Android) that can be run on every smartphone and tablet on the planet.

Perhaps the most important lesson I learned is that app development is still just business

However, a market can be "cool" without being profitable. The majority of apps make very little money for their developers, and the high-profile exceptions to this rule usually succeed due to the large marketing budgets of the games studios. The gold rush is over, the market for apps is maturing and smaller prospectors find themselves increasingly marginalised. An online business developing apps faces exactly the same challenges as any other online business.

This may sound obvious, but despite having entered many new markets over thepast decade, I still fell for this one. To be frank, I feel a bit of a fool, because despite chuckling cynically as I read Chris Stevens’ excellent book Appillionaires, I still fell under the spell and believed the rules were different.

No hype

I didn’t believe the general hype, nor did I think I’d make lots of money by cranking out the next great game. I did know that the biggest challenge would be promoting the apps to get noticed by enough people to make the development effort worthwhile – but even so, somehow I’d acquired a subconscious belief that this would be accomplished by special fairy dust, whereas in fact it’s just as important to get the basics right in this market as any other.

I’d created a series of driver training apps for both Android and iOS devices, to support my existing PassYourTheory.org.uk web service (PYT). These apps have performed reasonably well and now boost the income from PYT by around 50%, so on that basis they’re a success.

But I’m frustrated having missed a trick or two, which I wouldn't have missed in any other market, and I became painfully aware of this through watching the "Marketing 101 for Developers" session held at Google I/O in June.

Ironically, this session was under-promoted, yet it contains much essential practical advice for app developers. For most developers marketing is nothing like as sexy as learning about cutting-edge technologies, but the fact is that without marketing your app will wither on the vine.

The idea that your latest game, packed chock-full of genius and playability as it is, will succeed by word of mouth alone is a doomed fantasy and not a sober way to plan a business.

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