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.”

Playing the Long and Short Game with HTML5: Part 2

As the buzz around HTML5 keeps growing, we look at the technologies future and potential. Check out part one here.  

Breaking Free
One advantage of a true cross-platform technology like HTML5 is that developers no longer need to rely on native technologies to deploy their apps on specific hardware platforms. That means being able to potentially circumvent app stores that demand costly native development and take a portion of the profits. The downside is that often the support of these proprietary app stores can make the difference between sinking without a trace and being the featured app of the month and reaching an audience of millions.

For developers that perhaps have less need for the support that app stores can offer, HTML5 offers a significant advantage over native development, particularly when combined with native code whenever it makes sense.

“Many popular Web 2.0 services are using a technology like PhoneGap or a custom native wrapper that allows you to build the user interface for an application in HTML5 and use native code where necessary to deploy the same server-based user interface across mobile and desktop applications,” says Gail Frederick, product planning manager for Intel’s Open Source Technology Center. “And being able to update the UI without needing an app store update is a big advantage for them.” [Disclosure: Intel is the sponsor of this content.].

Selecting the parts that HTML5 can already do well and combining those with native technologies to do the things they want to do is proving to be an effective interim solution for many developers. “I think today that’s a very common programming model,” says Frederick.

“If we talk about Chrome being the bleeding edge and the idea that looking into the Chrome store is looking into the future, as we’re looking into that future, a lot of developers are going the hybrid route today as a hedge against the parts of HTML5 where the syntax might be settled but the performance needs work.”

Prying Eyes
Another serious concern with HTML5 for some developers (when compared to native programming) is the transparency of the source code for the application. Even the most basic computer user can easily display the code that powers the web pages being viewed, all of which can be instantly copied with a quick View Source and CTRL+C. Being essentially a web language that runs in browsers, HTML5 suffers from the same surfeit of accessibility, and hence, apps created using the platform are exposed.

Cloning is the widespread and illegal act of copying code and publishing a practically identical app, often only weeks or even as little as a few days after the original is released. The practice is a particular concern in gaming circles, where success increasingly depends on maximizing revenue through micro-transactions, and where certain large global markets suffer from the twin curses of inaccessibility and a somewhat loose application of copyright law.

All is not lost however. “If you were to do a View Source on most of these jQuery mobile apps you’ll find that a lot of the proprietary business logic is in the cloud, and that’s how people deal with it,” says Mike Richmond, from Intel’s Open Source Technology Center.

The team at European social gaming startup oOki is very aware of the issues presented by the transparency of HTML5. “Theoretically, all the game code can be read or copied, which poses problems in terms of cheating, piracy and cloning,” says Stephane Caillet, head of game programming at oOki. “It’s always possible to make it less readable by obfuscating the code, but parts will always be readable to a programmer.”

The cloud-based solution observed by Richmond is also oOki’s preferred approach. “The most effective solution is to manage a large part of the code server side,” says Caillet. “That code will never be downloaded by the client. In our case, for example, the game rules are handled by the server to avoid any cheating. We also encrypt all the network communications.”

The Long Game
What’s clear is that HTML5 is here to stay and it will change the face of application development. Whether it reaches its full potential next month or two years from now, its evolution is continuing apace, bringing new capabilities and new kinds of developers into its sphere of influence. Intel continues to show a keen interest in optimizing the platform for its hardware, as both the power of available hardware and of the platform continue to grow.

“We’re seeing some very interesting stuff happen on the PC with HTML5,” says Richmond. “If you browse the Chrome store you can see what this programming platform can do when you actually have a powerful processor. It really points to the future, because Moore’s Law says that what you have on the high-end devices will become a commodity two or three years later.”

“The position we’re taking is that HTML5 is a long-term friend,” continues Richmond. “This isn’t an instant changeover, so don’t throw out your C programming book if you’re a C programmer. At the same time, the technology is ready today for doing a number of things that would really be a waste to do with native code.

“If you’re a professional developer and have a broader range of language skills you should just add this to your toolbox and use it because it will save time and money. And if you’re a content developer you should be trying your hand at developing apps, knowing that as you get more experienced the capabilities you need for doing more advanced things are going to improve all the time.”

“There’s always a technology hype cycle that happens, and HTML5 has probably gone past the peak hype stage and is now in the ‘is this really going to happen?’ phase,” says Richmond. “But it is happening. The economics are just too compelling.”

Playing the Long and Short Game with HTML5: Part 1

Emotions have been running high in the HTML5 application development space in recent months. With the current worldwide explosion of mobile and web app use currently underway, many feel HMTL5 is the bright future of cross-platform development.

The vision is simple: one single, straightforward web programming language that allows the creation of anything from a basic service app to a complex game that works across any platform without the need for native development. In theory, HTML5 is a developer’s dream, reducing costs, leveling the playing field and, for app and game studios in particular, opening the floodgates to a wealth of new potential development talent. But in practice, as is often the case when disruptive new technologies enter the marketplace, the road ahead for HTML5 has some twists and turns.

One of the hottest HTML5 debates centers around game development. Games are complex beasts that generally require specialized coding and the creation of native versions for each platform they are deployed on. The idea that HTML5 could eliminate these hurdles is exciting to the countless coders around the world who are working to embrace the emerging technology.

But after initial exploratory efforts across the breadth of the cross-platform game development community, many reluctantly admit that HTML5 remains a promise for the future, not a current reality. In an article published on GamesIndustry International in May, two developers from GameDuell aimed a pin at the bubble of excitement surrounding HTML5 and, while investment in HTML5 game development is certainly continuing, the resulting burst bubble gives pause for thought.

It may be true that the platform is not yet ready to deliver Call of Duty on a phone, but many developers are investing heavily and successfully in HTML5 right now, predominantly in the app space, but also in games. At Google’s I/O conference in June, Electronic Arts unveiled a working prototype of a social cross-platform action game entitled Strike Fortress, designed to showcase exactly what HTML5 is -- or at least soon will be -- capable of. Although that game is not planned for release, it demonstrates that for developers with the right skill-set and approach, HTML5 is already working -- and working well.

An App for That
For a look at fully functional HTML5 apps that are already making the cross-platform dream a concrete reality, try visiting the website. The site is a showcase of 150 jQuery mobile applications submitted by developers and the companies the apps were built for. “There’s a huge spectrum of major companies represented there doing relatively straightforward but useful apps, and they run,” says Mike Richmond, from Intel’s Open Source Technology Center. [Disclosure: Intel is the sponsor of this content.]

They’re apps designed for mobile, but the fact that they’ve been created using HTML5 means they will essentially run on any platform, with no native development required. “You can point your Chrome browser to any that are actually live in the site and run them,” says Richmond. “Most are designed as mobile apps so they are not designed to exploit a big screen, but they work.”

The question of game development in HTML5 is a good deal more complex. The games industry is currently taking a moderate perspective on the usefulness of HTML5. “There are clearly games that can’t be done cross-platform with HTML5 right now,” says Richmond, “but there’s a tremendous amount of industry attention on this problem.”

“Whether you’re talking about the work that’s being done by us and Tizen, or the work that Google is doing in Chrome and Chrome OS, we’re all very keenly aware of the problems that are yet to be solved,” says Richmond.

Limitations with HTML5 can manifest themselves as a result of the sheer scale involved when developing games as opposed to more straightforward applications. Problems can range from a lack of clarity with script organization and issues with certain browsers, to programmers’ potentially reduced mastery of code behaviors resulting from the language’s high tolerance for less than optimum coding.

“I don’t think we’re there yet, at least not for every kind of app,” says Richmond. “For the kind of apps on the jQuery mobile gallery the answer is, yes we are there. For games, if you want to write a first-person shooter, that’s probably not true.”

Ultimately, the limitations developers hit with HTML5 will depend on the type of application they’re creating. European social gaming startup oOki is currently developing its first online multiplayer puzzle game for deployment on Facebook followed by other platforms, including browsers and mobile. The company decided early on to embrace HTML5 standards, seeing it very much as the future of cross-platform social game development, and the team is confident that it made the right decision.

“Some parts of HTML5 still need work, like WebGL management, and there are still a few problems with certain browsers, but the remaining hurdles can easily be overcome,” says Stephane Caillet, head of game programming at oOki. “We haven’t hit any problems we couldn’t find a way around.”

Caillet has a rather more well-defined goal when it comes to the real or perceived limitations of HTML5: “For me, the main challenge with HTML5 is showing that you can make better applications than you can with Flash.”

Speed Freaks
Another accusation regularly aimed at HTML5 is that it lacks speed when compared to, for example, C or other native programming languages. However, the speed issue is often not as clear cut as some of the naysayers would have us believe, and can be seen to have emerged more as a result of the migration of programmers from other languages to HTML5 and its related languages such as JavaScript and CSS rather than because of any intrinsic weakness in the platform itself.

“The straight programming comparisons between C and JavaScript are potentially quite misleading,” says Richmond. “First of all, JavaScript performance has probably improved by a factor of 50 to 100 in the last five years on exactly the same hardware based on the introduction of just-in-time compiler technology.”

Richmond paints a colorful picture to illustrate his point: “One of the things we’ve noticed is that if you ask a C programmer to program in JavaScript, a really good C programmer can become competent in JavaScript in about six weeks,” said Richmond. “Then if you tell the programmer to create dancing birds flying across the screen, they’ll start coding in JavaScript the same way they would have coded in C.

“Then the programmer will benchmark the code and say, ‘Oh look, it’s slower in JavaScript than it would be if I had written it in C,’” continues Richmond. “But then a content author comes along and says, ‘You want dancing birds? Well I’ll do that in five lines of HTML and forty lines of CSS, and that’ll run faster than either of them.’ Why? Because the CSS code was implemented by the best programmers on the planet working on the browser. This is particularly relevant for people doing visual-oriented apps. There’s a set of things you can do in CSS that, unless you’re trained as a content author, you might not even consider.

“And it’s very controversial,” continues Richmond. “If you go to a web developer convention and throw the word CSS out there, you’ll hear pros and cons. But the implementation of CSS is tied to the heart of the browser and the heart of the graphic subsystem, and if what you want to do is possible with CSS it’s going to be very, very fast.”

Caillet has certainly encountered no issues in terms of speed compared to the previous industry standard development platform for online social games: “For our game we’re achieving a level of performance that’s at least as good as a comparable Flash game.”

This reality is part of the opportunity Richmond sees for content authors to become highly successful app developers and grow the overall development ecosystem. “We see HTML5 bringing a whole new set of application developers to computing, and the people that it brings start out as content authors. Normally you associate people who do content development and authoring with creating websites. They have a certain kind of training and a certain set of sensibilities and skills, and then suddenly those people are creating applications.

“Compared to the traditional software engineering model where you go and get a computer science degree, learn to code in C, and use a certain set of tools, it’s all different now for these other people,” concludes Richmond.

Photo: Corbis Images