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.”

Getting Enterprise Projects

Many large enterprises have the resources to develop apps in house but prefer to outsource that task. Meanwhile, many smaller businesses don't have the budget or skills for app development. Either way, there's a large and growing market for enterprise-specific apps.

Medtronic is just one example. For years, the company built Palm and Windows Mobile apps entirely in house.

“Apps at the time were easier and a little more streamlined because there was only one dominant platform: first Palm and then Windows Mobile,” says Jim Freeland, enterprise mobility IT. “So the whole equation of ‘insource or outsource?’ really didn’t start until iPhone and Android came out.”

Today, Medtronic has more than 150 apps for internal and external use. All but about 10 were developed by outside contractors. In May 2012, Medtronic created a certified mobile vendor program to provide consistency in the way that it works with developers.

“That allows them to work across our company with any of our business units because they understand our guidelines, policies and requirements,” Freeland says. “We’ve got consistent pricing in place for all of our businesses internally. They understand who to talk to when there are questions or issues. In the end, my team is trying to help them succeed with our mutual customer: the business internally.”

Many enterprises -- large and small -- don’t have that kind of framework. So one way that developers can maintain a good relationship with their clients is by helping them create a sustainable process.

“Big companies are at a loss for how to handle this,” Freeland says. “They don’t know how to handle the proliferation of their consumers: the businesses internally demanding these mobile apps get built. Vendors can help themselves by coaching corporate IT or marketing on how to work with them to have a more effective relationship.”

App Developers: Partner Up
Like any other type of B2B service, there are multiple options for getting in front of potential customers, including networking and responding to inquiries on sites such as LinkedIn’s iPhone, Android, iPad, Tablet & Mobile Application Development group, as well as traditional RFIs/RFPs.

“They need to know how to balance value with price and represent how they would partner with the prospect/customer such that the enterprise sees them as an extension of their own,” says Tony McGinty, Genesys Telecommunications Laboratories’ senior manager for North America. “RFPs tend to be more solution-oriented, with much more at stake than an application development by itself; although if the application is complex, an enterprise may choose to take that route.”

Some enterprises turn to their mobile operator when they’re looking for developer references. Hence AT&T’s Foundry program, which fields app-development requests from enterprise customers and the operator’s own business units, then looks for developers with the skills to deliver those products. For each project request, AT&T picks several developers, which then go through a fast pitch process to determine which one gets the gig.

“We look for those two guys in a garage, as well as the larger shops,” says Mike Berry, director of operations for Foundry’s Plano, Texas, facility.

Developers can throw their hats in the ring at http://developer.att.com. “If and when we have a [project request] that meets their general description, one of our scouting teams will contact them,” Berry says. “It’s not a guarantee that you’re going to get your foot in the door, but at least it is a door.”

One Foundry participant is OpenPeak, which provides the Toggle platform that AT&T offers to enterprise customers. “The Foundry process has been a huge success story for us,” says David Barclay, vice president of business development.

Developers can also get their foot in the door via systems integrators -- and not just large ones such as Accenture. Some enterprises say they prefer smaller, boutique integrators. “We’re trending toward those kinds of shops,” says Medtronic’s Freeland. “We feel like they can help us stay up with the current mobile standards faster than some of the larger shops.”

How to Stay in the Room
Enterprises farm out app development for a variety of reasons, but if there’s a common denominator, it’s a desire to avoid the cost, risk and hassle of doing that work internally. That’s worth remembering if you want to stay in the room after landing what could be a one-off project. Some tips:

  • Don’t be shy about showcasing what you can do. Don’t assume that your client believes you can do more than just what you’re currently providing. “Don’t rest on what you’ve delivered for them,” Freeland says. “Develop a video highlight reel of the types of apps you can build. Offer to come in and do a showcase where you demonstrate capabilities. Customers these days, when they’re looking for a mobile vendor to work with, it’s a very visual game.”
  • Show how you can protect clients from the uncertainty that comes with a rapidly evolving mobile world. For example, enterprises don’t want to add staff with Microsoft Surface skills until they’re convinced that the platform has legs. “If I’m a vendor, that’s how I’m selling my services: ‘Let my company insulate you from changes in the mobile world,’” Freeland says.
  • Be straight about who owns what. “Vendors need to understand the consequences of not providing source code or the entire project source code,” Freeland says. “If a vendor has developed some proprietary code, and that’s kind of their secret sauce that they want to leverage across multiple customers, make sure they’re very clear about what they plan to keep and what they plan to turn over. That’s huge right now -- huge.”

Photo: Corbis Images

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 NewsUp.me, 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

App Marketing: Standing out from the Pack

The number of apps for iOS and Android is only increasing. To take one example: There are more than 8,100 health and fitness apps for the iPhone. The What’s Hot selection narrows the field to a still-daunting 120. How many iPhone owners have the time and interest to look beyond the top dozen or so?

Such is the app marketing challenge that developers face -- and not just in the health and fitness category or on the iOS platform. No wonder, then, that some developers are looking beyond Android and iOS and focusing on platforms such as Windows Phone. These smaller app selections make it easier to stand out from the pack.

“Right now, on Apple, only 40, 50, 60 apps get discovered,” says Matthäus Krzykowski, head of marketing at Xyologic, whose app store aims to make it easier for developers and consumers to get a handle on what’s available in a particular category.

Part of the challenge is that most consumers and businesspeople often don’t visit Google Play, Apple’s App Store or Amazon’s Appstore with a specific app in mind. “The vast majority of searches are for app categories,” Krzykowski says. “The typical user doesn’t know any brands. They search for things like ‘social networking’ and ‘arcade games.’”

App Marketing Strategies: Keep Away from the Crowd

One strategy for standing out in a crowded category is to avoid it – strange as that might sound. “Many developers assume they fit in one category when they haven't really explored others that may work just as well -- with less noise and competition,” says Robert Rositano, Jr., CEO of CheckMate Mobile, a developer that specializes in gaming.

“I have seen several apps that have crossover in gaming and social categories,” says Rositano. “Developers seem to gravitate toward the gaming category because of its apparent upside and excitement. In reality, the social category will typically provide much more exposure and allow the gamified aspect of the app to grow virally. We have learned this the hard way. Experience has shown us a significant increase in downloads, rank and overall visibility. If you are going to hit the gaming category, the app should be a pure-play game for the hard-core gamer.” 

The Role of App Names

When naming your app, it can be just as important to appeal to major stores’ search algorithms as it is to appeal to potential customers. The right name can leverage those algorithms to move up in rankings, as is the case with Apple’s App Store.

“They rank by title and keywords,” says Ben Sann, BestParking.com founder and CEO. “The title tag has to match the title of the app. You can’t just take the title tag and cram it with keywords. They used to allow that, but they got a little more strict. You can still stretch the title tag a little bit to include additional keywords, but it has to be in a way that makes sense as you’re reading it. You definitely want to maximize the title tag. Your keywords section should contain keywords that are not in the title tag.”

It’s also important to understand whether a particular store’s algorithms can handle acronyms and other things that might seem like a slam-dunk way to rank high in searches. “The Apple algorithm is very strict in interpreting words,” Sann says. “It won’t interpret that ‘NYC’ means ‘New York City.’ Google’s search algorithm does that; Apple’s doesn’t. It’s very literal. If you have two words, you’re better off separating them. So if you have ‘CityParking,’ you’re better off having city, comma, parking.

“Even higher than the keywords and the title is the name of the company,” Sann continues. “So you want to think long and hard how you want to call yourself. We probably shouldn’t have been BestParking.com. Maybe we should have been Best Parking.”

At the same time, don’t get too hung up on a particular store’s algorithms. These tend to change periodically and without notice. And by the time word gets around in the developer community, those algorithms might have changed yet again.

“If we (or any app developer) try and build our business on anticipation of what Apple may or may not do, what they are currently testing or what we hope will happen, we will have taken our eye off of making the most compelling app in our target category and ultimately lose as a result,” Rositano says. “Keep it simple, stay focused and simply name your app in the most descriptive way possible -- or a name that drives so much intrigue a user just has to see what it's all about.”