What’s Your Android Distribution Strategy?

435,502. That’s how many Android apps were available on April 28, 2012. Depending on when you’re reading this, that number may have grown by at least 5,000.

Those numbers are good news for Android developers because a broad, deep and growing selection of apps helps attract more users to the platform. However, it can also be bad news -- or at least a challenge -- because the more apps there are, the more difficult it is to stand out from the pack.

How can you make sure your app gets noticed by Android users? Try these distribution strategies to overcome the challenge.

Play by Google’s Rules
Android Market’s March 2012 transformation into Google Play was more than just rebranding. It also expanded the store’s lineup to include books, movies and music, which means more shoppers and thus more potential customers for your app.

Google Play’s online store and app both have an Editor’s Choice section on their opening page. Google doesn’t explain its selection criteria, but developers whose apps have made the cut say they’ve got a few hunches.

“As far as I could tell, Editor’s Choice and Staff Picks are exactly what they sound like: apps that people at Google happen to like,” says Sterling Udell, whose apps have been featured twice. “As with any other group of people, there’s no real way to predict what they’ll like, nor is there any published way of bringing potential candidates to their attention. It appears to be that they find apps just like anyone else, and they’ll feature those they like. And because the editors and staff are Googlers, apps that have geek appeal probably have a better chance.”

The editors and staff also seem to prefer apps that don’t play fast and loose with Google’s rules, particularly its terms of service. Quality also matters, including a user interface (UI) that looks great on any device.

“There are a lot of bottom-feeder, low-effort apps that can be discounted right away,” says Udell. “Apps that closely follow Google’s various UX guidelines probably have a much better chance. I suspect Google wants to feature apps like that. For example, I have little doubt that you get points if your UI scales nicely between phones and tablets.”

Sell Through Amazon
The Amazon Appstore launched in March 2011 and provides another opportunity for mass-market exposure. If you’re targeting Amazon’s Kindle Fire, which now has 54 percent of the Android tablet market, Appstore is the place to be because Google Play is available only to Fire owners willing to root their device.

Some developers say third-party stores such as Amazon’s are useful for making a sale, but not necessarily for getting on customers’ radar screens in the first place. “I’ve had a fair amount of sales from third-party stores -- enough to make them worth doing,” says Udell. “It’s generally quite hard to tell if they’re raising awareness of my apps, though.”

If that’s the case, it could be yet another example of the showrooming that Amazon and other e-tailers are known for. One reason is because each day, Amazon selects a paid app to give away, so parsimonious buyers might hear about an app someplace else but then wait for it to go on sale at Appstore. Of course, not all customers are willing to wait. So becoming Appstore’s freebie doesn’t necessarily cannibalize sales -- especially if you have additional revenue streams.

“If your app involves in-app payments, you won’t have any worries,” says Joseph Farrar, president of JoeDeveloper. “I’m not even sure you would need to worry about one day’s worth of sales for your app. The amount of exposure and word of mouth might just be worth it in the long run.”

Know Who Knows Your Market
Another strategy is to identify bloggers, websites and magazines that have a devoted following in your target market. For example, if you have an app for shortwave radio hobbyists, trying pitching it to the editors of enthusiast publications such as Popular Communications.

“Tech blogs are a great way to build awareness,” says Farrar. “AndroidPolice.com, for instance, has an entire series dedicated to profiling new apps, as well as longstanding apps in the Android Play store.”

But even large, well-staffed websites don’t always have the time to ferret out cool apps to bring to their audience’s attention. AppCarousel aims to eliminate that hurdle by doing the research and then bundling those apps into a mini app store that websites can embed.

“We offer people with particular verticals the ability to showcase a bunch of apps,” says Terry Hughes, who developed apps such as momentem before becoming AppCarousel’s managing director. “They don’t have to write special app-showcasing code for their website or add deep links to Android Market.”

AppCarousel’s existence is just one more example of how challenging it is for Android apps to stand out from the pack.

“This whole notion of curating is really the buzz for 2012,” says Hughes. “As the market segments itself, that’s a better approach than hoping these great, big app stores do everything for you.”

Photo: @iStockphoto.com/juniorbeep

Mobile Technology Solutions for Customer Loyalty Programs

A range of enterprises -- from restaurants to retailers -- use customer loyalty initiatives to encourage repeat business. Customers might receive a free item based on a certain amount of visits and purchases, for example.

Developers now aim to get customer loyalty programs up and running on mobile devices. Many businesses already provide mobile apps to help users locate stores or find particular brands. So the task becomes helping businesses integrate loyalty programs into their existing mobile customer outreach efforts.

Different Approaches to Customer Loyalty
Approaches in this category vary. Punchh, which bills itself as a social loyalty program for restaurants, provides a mobile app version of the familiar loyalty program punch card. It also lets restaurants reward customers for referring friends and family via their social networks.

Sastry Penumarthy, co-founder of the Cupertino-based company, says he sees an enormous opportunity for restaurants and other enterprises to market themselves in a completely different way. “The technologies that allow them to do that are mobile and also social media,” he says.

If a restaurant signs up for the Punchh service, customers may download the mobile app which places a virtual punch card on their device. A customer launches the location-aware app when he or she enters a restaurant and the merchant “punches” the loyalty card when the customer purchases a meal. To validate a punch, the phone can be used to scan a receipt.

Recent Punchh customers include Max’s Restaurant Cuisine of the Philippines, which plans to use the service to reward customers for repeat visits and customer referrals.

To help restaurants dole out those rewards, Punchh taps Facebook to find out who suggested the restaurant to the user and whether the user has referred the restaurant to others. If new customers follow the original customer’s recommendation and eat at the restaurant, the merchant provides additional punches on the card. Penumarthy calls those perks “social rewards.”

In another take on mobile loyalty, PunchTab Inc. provides an on-demand incentive platform. Businesses and brands that subscribe to the platform can build “social and mobile-enabled” loyalty and rewards programs, according to the company. PunchTab’s customers include Atlantic Records, Arby’s and eBay.

Mehdi Ait Oufkir, founder of Palo Alto-based PunchTab, says he has seen solid traction for mobile-enabled incentive programs on the enterprise side. While some companies seek to cultivate customers, others use rewards programs to engage their own employees.

Oufkir cites the example of one customer who wanted to build a mobile app-based points program to encourage employees to attend training sessions. In another case, a company is using an incentive program to encourage employees to submit their billable hours via mobile phone. Oufkir says the company’s employees found their in-house reporting system difficult to use and, as a consequence, failed to submit all of their billable hours. In contrast, he says, employees find the mobile approach easier and more fun to use.

Beyond the Punch Card
Punch cards are the centerpiece of many a loyalty program. However, Steve Schroeder, chief executive officer at AppGage LLC, a mobile loyalty company based in Ann Arbor, Mich., says he believes mobile loyalty programs should push beyond the punch card.

“We take punch cards and stick it on the phone and call it a loyalty program,” he says of the industry in general. “Loyalty has nothing to do with digital punch cards.”

Instead, Schroeder says loyalty stems from understanding people and learning about their behavior. To accomplish that, loyalty programs need to harness a mobile phone’s sensors to gain insight into customer behavior and then feed that knowledge into an analytics engine to suss out the customer’s needs, he says.

AppGage’s AppGagement Loyalty Framework provides such a platform, according to Schroeder. The company’s first framework-based app, a project for Get Healthy Michigan, a statewide health program that aims to encourage health and wellness, is scheduled to launch in April.

There's a Map for That

Mobile’s value proposition is ultimately convenience: anytime, anywhere access to people and information. Hence the value of adding maps and other navigation features to apps.

For mobile app developers, there’s no shortage of map solutions. One factor to consider is the app’s target platform and what it natively includes.

“Google Maps is superior in terms of coverage and precision, especially in remote areas,” says Mette Lykke, co-founder of Endomondo, whose apps combine fitness with social networking. “Until recently this was the natural choice for apps on Android and iOS. It still is for Android.”

Apple’s dumping of Google Maps might be the best-known example of how the field of mapping options isn’t static, but it’s not the only major change in the past year. In June, Microsoft announced that Nokia Maps would replace Bing Maps in Windows Phone. And in November, Nokia announced HERE, a multi-device and -OS solution that will expand to Android in early 2013.

Map Features: Web-Based or Native?
When comparing options, one factor for mobile app developers is whether to use a native map library or a Java Script API (JSAPI) Web-based map. Each option has its pros and cons. For example, one consideration is whether the app needs to target multiple platforms, such as Android and iOS.

“The Web-based map enables cross-platform support, which will save the developer the effort in writing a separate mapping code for each platform,” says Oded Nevo, platform product manager at Telmap, an Intel-owned company that specializes in location services. [Disclosure: Intel is the sponsor of this content.]

“However, choosing the Web-based map will mean in many cases that developers will need to slightly compromise the map performance,” he continues. “Choosing to use a native library will mean coding the map section per each platform. However, you will get a slicker map behavior.”

Factors to Consider in Choosing a Map Feature for Your Mobile App
In addition to the Web-based versus native consideration, it’s also important to research the APIs available in a mapping library. Focus on things such as the ease of implementation and whether the map feature supports all of the functions that are key for making your mobile app stand out in the market.

“Last but not least is pricing,” Nevo says. “Most of the big brands in the mapping APIs arena will offer a free quota that many developers will probably never exceed, especially if they are at the initial stages of building/developing a product.

“For more mature products which generate a large amount of traffic, developers should seek getting an SLA with the chosen mapping solution provider. This is called in many cases the ‘professional’ plan/track. Developers also need to bear in mind that there are several types of applications that are automatically being categorized under the professional plan/track license scheme. These are usually paid applications, enterprise applications or applications around asset management and tracking.”

App Marketing: How to Gain Traction in the App Store

Developing a mobile application is tough enough, but then comes the real challenge: getting noticed on a major app distribution platform.

Apple’s App Store and Google Play each topped the 700,000 application mark last year. An app maker won’t be competing with all of them, but each app, regardless of genre, may well face hundreds if not thousands of rivals. Climbing to the top of that pile using app marketing -- a task marketers call “gaining traction” -- is far from easy.

“If the volume of apps approaches anything like Android and Apple, the biggest problem everyone has is discovery,” says Chris Skaggs, founder of game development company Soma Games.

According to Skaggs, some independent developers have taken the “field of dreams attitude” -- if they build a fun game, people will find it on their own. That approach may have worked in the early days of app stores, when a developer could launch an original, quirky game and expect to grab some attention. But “that is just not the case anymore,” says Skaggs. “It was always going to be a closing window. We all understand that marketing is part of the deal.”

“The problem is, sometimes nobody is watching when you’re coloring outside the lines,” adds Scott Steinberg, a strategic innovation consultant.

Creating App Marketing Approaches
Deborah Tillett, president and executive director of Baltimore’s Emerging Technology Center, which houses AccelerateBaltimore, says technology developers tend to think of app marketing as an afterthought. Part of her organization’s mission is to get entrepreneurs to think about their points of differentiation and how to articulate them. “Can you convey concisely what it is you do?” Tillett asks young companies.

Steinberg agrees that developers should think about the audience and ways to reach potential customers from the very beginning. “Before you make the app, understand...who the customers are and how you are going to reach them,” he says.

The “how” of app marketing could include a mix of website marketing, search engine optimization and social media outreach, among other measures. As for social media, Steinberg recommends engaging influencers of all types: reviewers, high-profile members of a given community, and Facebook followers among others. “It’s an all-of-the-above strategy,” he says.

Skaggs, meanwhile, advises app makers to develop products for multiple platforms so they can tap multiple distribution channels. “Our position is that you don’t ever want to say, ‘I am making an Ultrabook game,’ if that means to the exclusion of other things,” he says. “To leave off Apple and Android and Steam is just a bad idea.”

Focusing on one platform and one online store ignores a lot of eyeballs and could leave a lot of money on the table, Skaggs notes. Soma Games’ Wind Up Robots title, for example, is available in the Intel AppUp center as well as Android and Apple online outlets. 

Best Practices of App Marketing: Aligning with Stores and Hardware Makers
Learning an online store’s hot buttons and aligning with them can also boost developer’s prospects of app marketing. This tactic depends on the ability to develop contacts at the app stores, which requires some degree of persistence and luck.

“If you are able to talk with a representative from the distribution portal, you may be able to tie in with marketing programs or content initiatives they are pushing or create apps to showcase features they are looking to promote,” Steinberg says. “Any given distribution portal will have its own strategic objectives.”

Hardware manufactures also offer partnering potential. Skaggs says those companies are looking for apps that will make their hardware shine. “The hardware people are really driving a lot of the conversation,” he notes. “If you can make their technology look good, you have a good chance of getting their attention.”

In a recent case in point, Soma Games’ Wind Up Football was built as part of Intel’s Ultimate Coder: Ultrabook Challenge. The challenge tasked developers with creating apps that harness Ultrabook device features such as graphics, touch and sensor technology capabilities. [Disclosure: Intel is the sponsor of this content].

“Showcasing hardware features is a great tie-in to a store, but it’s also important to help ensure the app description and submission clearly state the benefits,” says Alexis Crowell, product marketing manager for the Intel Digital Stores. “Given the volume of apps being submitted into any given store, we suggest making it as easy as possible for the editorial team to know the key differentiators. Clear descriptions are as important as eye-catching visuals and graphics that capture consumers’ attention.”

Riding the promotional strength of a major manufacturer can attract more attention in online stores. “Align with distributors and manufacturers,” Steinberg says. “No one can open more doors of opportunity than they do.”

What Makes a Great Operator Developer Program?

These days, it’s no longer enough for a mobile operator to have a fast network, exclusive handsets and competitive pricing. An operator also needs thousands of developers using their APIs and SDKs to develop apps that work better on its network and devices than on the competition’s. 

That’s why most major operators now have extensive programs that typically include websites, conferences and support teams, all designed to foster a community of devoted developers.

“Community engagement absolutely is one of the ways that we differentiate ourselves,” says Carolyn Billings, assistant vice president of AT&T’s developer program.

Creating an environment that encourages third-party development goes back to at least February 1999, when Japan’s NTT DoCoMo launched iMode. Eighteen months later, more than 20,000 websites were available on iMode because DoCoMo chose CHTML to make development easy.

That strategy tacitly acknowledged that developers are often better at figuring out what consumers want than mobile operators are. Giving developers the right tools and then turning them loose also saves operators the cost and risk and developing a lot of apps in house.

Plenty of Face Time
Most operator programs include events in developer hotbeds such as the Bay Area, as well as road shows and events co-located with major confabs such as CES. Regardless of the location, these events often provide a high-level roadmap of where the operator plans to go technology- and device-wise over the next years. However, they rarely include specifics such as when a particular device or technology will launch.

“They have their way of reading between the lines to figure out what the mix is going to be,” Billings says. “But it’s a no-no for us to be launching early there.”

Events such as hackathons also are an opportunity to get hands-on time with new APIs and work with the operator staff who created them. One example is Sprint’s October 2012 hackathon, which featured more than 175 developers working in teams to create apps in 24 hours.

“Among the various APIs and SDKs made available for use during the hack by Sprint and our partners was the Pinsight Media+ beta SDKs for Android, iOS and JavaScript,” says Brian Smith, Sprint director of product and development. “Pinsight Media+ is an advertising and analytics platform that we launched early in the fourth quarter of [2012]. It’s an opportunity for advertisers to engage in high-value targeted inventory and another opportunity for developers to monetize their applications.” 

With so many operator events these days, developers inevitably have to pick and choose. One thing to look for is the amount of operator staff in attendance. For example, in 2012, AT&T held a daylong conference about its new APIs at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif. Several hundred developers attended.

“We designed the event to have a 10:1 ratio: For every 10 developers in the room, there was an AT&T expert on hand,” Billings says.

Not every developer has the time and budget to travel to operator events. Operator portals provide an alternative, including facilitating virtual networking with fellow developers.

“If you like to integrate telephony, conference calls, messaging or interactive voice response systems (IVRs) into your applications, Deutsche Telekom´s developer portal is the place to go for APIs, sophisticated components, documentation, support, news, tutorials and events,” says Sascha Wolter, Deutsche Telekom developer evangelist. “You can [also] offer your own software components to other developers or easily find pre-built and pre-tested libraries in the marketplace.”

Give and Take
Hackathons also are an opportunity for operators to get unvarnished feedback. “This important and valuable feedback helps us to improve our products,” Wolter says. “Just to give you a small example: Recently we supported a partner creating a voice-controlled coffee machine. We found some issues, which we have been able to immediately fix thanks to this direct channel between our partners and our development team.”

Operators often help put the spotlight on apps, giving developers promotion opportunities that otherwise would be difficult or expensive to secure. One example is Sprint’s Place Your Ad auction, where developers bid for prominent placement in the Sprint Zone and the Sprint Tab in the Google Play store.

"Some companies tell us that they’ve seen a four-fold increase in downloads of their application from participating in the auctions,” Smith says. “Driving click-throughs and downloads means better monetization for developers. Cost per click through the auction process is as low as a penny, so it's cheaper than almost any other form of advertising.”

Photo: Corbis Images