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

What Are Your iOS Copyrights?

Sometime over the summer -- no one is sure exactly when -- Apple quietly launched a portal where developers and other entities can alert the company about possible app copyright infringements. “Once you have identified the app and described the alleged infringement on the following pages, we will respond via email with a reference number and will put you in direct contact with the provider of the disputed app,” says the portal’s main page.

How does the dispute-resolution process work? It’s tough to say, partly because it’s new and thus largely untested -- and partly because Apple didn’t respond to interview requests. But some developers and attorneys say it could be useful.

“The portal definitely makes it more efficient to communicate with the right point of contact at Apple,” says Derek Ting, Enflick co-founder. “Before, it was unclear what the process was to handle these issues. However, since I never had to deal with infringement issues through Apple, I can't comment on how much more effective the new portal is. The best way to settle any dispute is to contact the infringing developer directly before going through Apple and lawyers. Often issues can be settled directly without involvement of Apple or any other party.”

Apple’s new process doesn’t change one thing: the need for developers to periodically check what else is available in their target markets. That’s also an opportunity to see if rival apps have added features that give them a competitive advantage.

“In most circumstances, Apple’s portal should prove to be a relatively quick and cost-effective way to have infringing content removed from the App Store,” says Robert McHale, an attorney and author of “A Practical Legal Guide to iPhone Application Development.”

“As before, the onus largely remains on copyright owners to police the App Store for potentially infringing apps,” McHale continues. "While presumably not a common occurrence, in cases of clear IP violations triggering potentially high monetary damages or brand erosion, IP-right owners should consider seeking immediate injunctive relief to remove any IP-violative apps.”

Digital Copyright Issues on the Rise?

How common is IP infringement in the mobile app world? There doesn’t appear to be any analyst research quantifying it, but it’s safe to say that, at least in iOS, it’s reached the point that Apple felt it was worth creating a framework to deal with it.

Governments are also starting to crack down on mobile application copyright issues. In August, the U.S. Department of Justice worked with its Dutch and French counterparts to seize three domains --, and -- on charges of distributing pirated Android apps.

“This is the first time website domains involving cell phone app marketplaces have been seized,” the DoJ said in a press release. “The seizures are the result of a comprehensive enforcement action taken to prevent the infringement of copyrighted mobile device apps.” The DoJ seizure shows that when app piracy does occur, it’s not unique to the iOS world.

Some developers say that so far, they haven’t seen much piracy or other forms of IP theft. “Infringement has not been a big problem for us, and I don't think it is generally a big problem in the mobile app ecosystem,” Ting says. “[But] infringement is something that will happen regardless of which platform you're on.”

How to Protect Your App Copyrights -- and Yourself

The good news is that developers have several options for minimizing the chances that their app IP will get ripped off.

“The best ways for developers to protect themselves from infringement is to keep improving their app so that it becomes increasingly more difficult for a copycat to replicate your product,” Ting says. “Patents will provide legal protection of IP, but they take a long time to file and are expensive to enforce. It probably won't make sense for most developers out there.”

It also helps to understand how the copyright process works. For example, some developers mistakenly believe that code signing is a form of copyrighting.

“Code signing and copyright registration serve very different purposes,” McHale says. “The former serves to confirm the author of the software and to guarantee that the code has not been altered/corrupted. It does not confirm that the software itself is original or duplicative of another’s copyrighted material. 

“Although copyright protection subsists immediately upon writing the code, developers should also consider federally registering their copyrights to achieve greater protections, including a presumption of validity of the copyright and recovery of attorney’s fees and statutory damages in the case of infringement.”

It’s also a good idea to ensure that your app isn’t the one doing the infringing. “Developers or the companies that they are hired by should ensure that all code is the original product of the developer,” McHale says. “If not, express licenses should be obtained, and the terms of the license should be strictly honored. Developers should also obtain all necessary licenses for any images or sound created by others that they incorporate into their app.

How to Work with a Business Accelerator

Business accelerators are springing up around the country, providing seed money, advice, and the space to refine an idea.

Accelerators aim to help entrepreneurs quickly develop their concepts into marketable products. A 12-week time limit for participation in an accelerator program is fairly typical. That’s a departure from business incubators, which usually keep companies around for a longer period.

Accelerators now cover a broad swath of the U.S., including the major East Coast and West Coast technology centers. Examples include TechStars, which operates in Boston, Boulder, New York, Seattle, and San Antonio; Excelerate Labs, based in Chicago; and Kicklabs in San Francisco. 

Mobile app developers are among the many individuals and companies participating in accelerators. Deborah Tillett, president and executive director of Baltimore’s Emerging Technology Center, which houses AccelerateBaltimore, says the rapid development cycle of a mobile app works well with the accelerator’s three-month timeframe.

“You can get your viable product done very fast and head to the Apple store” or other outlet,” she says.

The first class of four companies graduated from AccelerateBaltimore, one of the many business accelerators across the country, in July. Two of the companies developed mobile apps: Kithly, an app for organizing social activities, and NewsUp, an app that discovers users’ interests and rewards points for reading suggested news items.

Andrew Schuster, chief executive officer of, says his company initially was with the Emerging Technology Center incubator and then applied to AccelerateBaltimore. Once accepted, the company was given capital and access to mentors.

AccelerateBaltimore companies receive $25,000 in seed funding. As for mentors, NewsUp worked with Chris Brandenburg, co-founder and chief technology officer of Millennial Media, a mobile advertising platform company, and Michael Teitelbaum, managing partner at Right Source Marketing, a marketing consulting firm.

“The experience they had was just the best thing we could ask for,” Schuster says.

How It Works
Accelerators offer a mix of money and mentorship. In return, an accelerator may receive a small equity stake in the company, usually 10 percent or less. There may also be a requirement to keep the company in the accelerator’s geographic region for a period of time. AccelerateBaltimore, for example, initially included a 5-year residency requirement. However, the program no longer has a residency requirement.

Accelerator applicants need to have an idea they can quickly execute. Tillett says a company won’t be a fit for the accelerator if it can’t bring its idea to fruition in a couple of months and put the accelerator’s capital to good use.

“It is important that they can do what they say they are going to do in a short period of time and the money makes a difference,” she says.

A company that has a working prototype is a plus, as it will have a head start once an accelerator’s clock starts ticking. “We like companies that have prototypes -- maybe not the final product but it works and they are able to test it and they are now looking to polish their business models and start getting customers and users,” says Matt Menietti, director of operations at Capital Innovators, a St. Louis accelerator.

Capital Innovators recently launched its third class. The 12-week sessions have each had five to six participants. Companies each receive $50,000 in funding, mentoring, office space, and free hosting. They also have an opportunity to pitch investors when the program culminates in Demo Day.

The accelerator, in return for the funding and supporting a company, receives a five to 10 percent equity stake. There is no residency requirement.

Menietta says Capital Innovators takes a holistic approach taking companies through the program. Participants may avail themselves of marketing, accounting, and legal services. Marketing partners working with the accelerator help participants with their branding, website, messaging and differentiation, he adds. An accounting firm works with companies to set up accounting systems.

Capital Innovators’ companies include mobile app developers including IDC Projects, which makes location-based social games.

Managing Expectations
First-time entrepreneurs need to have realistic expectations as they approach an accelerator. Accelerators provide funding and mentoring support, but a business launch remains an arduous task. Tillett says the task involves “many pieces and part” including patent issues, licensing agreements, and, of course, the quest for additional financing.

“On any given day one of those can fall off the wagon and you have to put it back on,” she says. “The leveling of expectations is important.”

Accelerator companies should also take a hard look at marketing. In the early days of mobile apps, any product could gain customer attention. But with the market maturing and thousands of apps hitting app stores, a business needs to determine whether there are customers who want the product and develop a plan for reaching them.

“Adoption and traction is huge,” Tillett says.

The accelerators, meanwhile, look for applicants that they believe will get the most out of their programs. Capital Innovators aims to pick companies that “really understand the value of the program,” according to Menietti. “It’s not just seed funding. It’s networking...and connecting with other companies.”

Schuster also cites networking with peers as one of an accelerator’s main advantages. “Working with the other companies -- there were four companies in this program -- and being able to collaborate and talk to the other entrepreneurs and share information was a huge benefit,” he says.

In early October, AccelerateBaltimore kicked off an outreach process that will eventually fill the six slots in its upcoming class. Tillett says the accelerator plans to reach out to colleges and universities, and get the word out internationally as well.  “We are going to be very aggressive this time,” she says.

Photo: Corbis Images

Who's Still Using Your App?

If 90 percent of people who downloaded your app stopped using it after 30 days, would you consider it a success? That’s the question raised by a February 2009 Pinch Media study. Keep in mind that back then, there were fewer than 50,000 apps. With so many more today -- and most of them free -- it’s even easier for consumers to flit from app to app to app.

“Free apps have been taking the app store by storm in the last year or so, lowering the barrier for download considerably,” says Ariel Michaeli, co-founder of analytics vendor appFigures. “I mean, who won't download something for free? But that doesn't necessarily mean they want it, so they'll abandon it rather quickly.”

That’s a concern not only for independent app developers, but also those on staff at companies that are spending five or six figures to create an app and want to ensure a decent return on that investment. A great first impression encourages repeat usage.

“According to research by Localytics, 26 percent of mobile apps are used just once after they are downloaded,” says Robert Gary, vice president and general manager for mobile enterprise at Nuance Communications. “So if you’re planning to build a mobile app for your business, getting users to download it will be just the beginning.”

Another challenge is that developers often have a tough time getting even a ballpark estimate of how many people have abandoned their app. If that app is linked to a service -- say, song downloads -- then usage of that service could provide clues. Two other options:

  • “Measure the number of updates,” Michaeli says. “While most users will download an update even if they don't use the app, the existence of the app on the device can suggest it was not abandoned.”
  • Also: “In-app purchases (when available) can be an indicator of abandonment,” Michaeli continues. “The problem here is being able to estimate users from purchases, which is no simple task.”

Do those on-the-cheap strategies provide a decent snapshot? Not necessarily. “Without in-app analytics, a developer has a limited set of tools with which to measure abandonment,” Michaeli says. “It's kind of like cutting a steak with a butter knife: It's not the right tool for the job, but with enough persistence, it'll work.”

First and Foremost: Don’t Build a Crap App
Build a really great app. That’s a surefire way to keep ’em coming back. Of course, if it were that easy to predict what will resonate with users, every developer would already be doing it.

“Who would have thought that Angry Birds would be so popular?” says Sam Liu, vice president of market at Partnerpedia, which provides app store solutions. “I don’t think the developers themselves would have guessed that.”

Keeping an app fresh is one option. For example, adding a level to a game each month can encourage users to keep playing.

Another option is to do such a good job of solving a problem that users find it unthinkable to go back to the old way. Case in point: Some surveys show that consumers increasingly prefer self-service options over, say, calling and talking to a CSR. So if a mobile app enables self-service, then they’re more likely to keep using it.

“Consider another reason why customers like apps,” Gary said. “Twenty-five percent said apps beat waiting on hold to get to help (read: I like to serve myself quickly). Another 20 percent find apps more personal than other channels. This is great news for companies trying to increase personal connections with customers and sheds some light on focus areas: make the app personal, make it easy to use, make it as convenient as possible.”

If you’re developing for a business, there’s another incentive to make a great first impression. “Nuance research shows that 79 percent of consumers ‘feel’ a company is innovative following a good mobile app experience,” Gary says. “On the flip side, 55 percent of consumers will consider changing companies if they have a bad mobile app experience.”

Find the Right Users Right Away
Many apps are abandoned immediately because they’re not what the user expected. “They mistakenly download an app they think does X when in fact it does Y,” Liu says. “How you describe the app is very important.”

Another solution for minimizing app abandonment is to get your app into a curated app store. These stores feature one or more app categories and are stocked with curated recommendations instead of every available app in those categories. That mini store is then made available in a place frequented by people with that set of interests. For example, a website that caters to fitness buffs might have a curation company create a mini store of apps for running, counting calories and staying motivated. Or an enterprise might hire a curation company to create a mini store for its employees, business partners or customers.

AppCarousel and Partnerpedia are two examples of curation companies. “We pick based on the top rankings, to start with: the top 25 or 50,” Liu says. “So sort of by definition, we’re already selecting just the ones that we think have a higher adoption. What we don’t know is whether those apps have been abandoned.”

Partnerpedia currently gets its apps from aggregators such as the now defunct MobiHand. “But we’re looking at opening it up to the individual developers,” Liu says. “We’ve had about a dozen in the last two or three months that have approached us: ‘We’ve got this app. We’re looking for a channel or a way to get it to business users.’ Google Play is not ideal for business users because of the way they procure and buy apps, so people approach us.”

There isn’t much research about how abandonment rates vary for business users versus consumers. But it’s a safe bet that business users are less likely to abandon apps that their employer recommends or even requires. Hence the value of working with a curation company, which can be a way to get an app in front of a CIO, IT manager or other decision maker.

“Getting mobile apps to business users is a new world,” Liu says. “That’s not as well thought out as the consumer world. It’s just a matter of time before that ecosystem develops. It’s a higher margin world, if [developers] can break into it.”

Photo: Corbis Images