Please Acknowledge My App’s Existence

Getting your app noticed is hard. When you birth your bundle of bits, it begins its life at the bottom of the app store pile, buried amongst all the others underneath the relatively few apps that appear on the various top rankings lists and feature pages. The overwhelming odds are that your app will remain there, never to work its way up through the cruft and never-to-be-discovered gems to bathe in the glorious light of recognition, and yes, meaningful revenue. Barring Ashton Kutcher, Ellen, or some other tastemaker accidentally stumbling upon your virtual progeny and declaring it the new greatest thing ever, just putting your stuff out there and hoping for the best, as far as strategies go, is a pretty crappy one.

“But my app is so flippin’ good it cannot be denied!”, you say. That may be. I hope it reeks so strongly of awesome that any journalist who gazes upon its icon cannot help but drop whatever they are doing to compose an 8,000 word hagiography of you and the gift which you have chosen to bestow on the world at large. But I think it is fair to keep in mind that there are a lot of very good apps from extremely talented developers that sit unnoticed at the bottom of that pile. While your app may be so good that it cannot be denied, chances are it’s going to need a lot of help to work its way up.

So how does one go about promoting an app? That’s the question we’ve asked ourselves with our latest release, a household chore management app called Chore-inator. Though my wife and I have made a fairly decent living over the past few years solely from the sales of our home inventory management app for the Mac, Home Inventory, we don’t have a great track record when it comes to getting publicity for our work. Being completely dependent upon the sales of a single app leaves us vulnerable and we need another successful app to mitigate that vulnerability and expand our business. We think Chore-inator can be that app if we can figure out how to effectively promote it.

This is the first post in a series chronicling our efforts to promote Chore-inator. No doubt we’ll learn many lessons along the way and it is my hope other developers facing the same confounding problem will be able to glean an insight or two from our experience.

Hoping for a Feature

We launched the first version of Chore-inator in January of this year using the same tactics we’d always used. We sent a bunch of emails to members of the media asking for a review and put out a press release through a distribution service. We rarely see much in the way of media exposure from these efforts, especially from press releases, and I often wonder why we bother. Truth be told, the reason my wife and I have been able to support our family by selling apps is because Home Inventory has been featured in the Mac App Store on numerous occasions. Last year alone it was named Editor’s Choice, appeared in the Best New Apps section on two separate occasions, and was part of the Mac App Store Best of 2013 roundup. As I write this, Home Inventory appears in a Get Stuff Done feature running at the top of the Mac App Store. Being on the front page of the store is what has put Home Inventory in front of people and in turn helped us sell a lot of copies.

There is no sure-fire formula to getting your app featured in the store. However, if you are designing your app for iOS or OS X, it is important to give some thought to what Apple might be looking for when picking apps to feature and incorporate some of those characteristics. Try to take on Apple’s point of view and ask yourself some questions about why your app would be a good candidate for a feature. Does your app showcase any of the latest operating system or hardware features in a useful or novel way? Does your app make use of any of the hardware or OS features Apple is currently promoting? Does your app have a clean design and easy to use interface? Does it have any unique and compelling features that set it apart from other apps in the same category? Is your app designed for both the iPhone and the iPad (or Mac and iOS)? Is your app localized so Apple can promote it across multiple stores?

Going through this exercise won’t guarantee a feature, but it can help. When it launched, Chore-inator was featured in the banner carrousel at the top of the Productivity section of the iPad App Store. We were elated and somewhat surprised because it was iPad only. We made the mistake of grabbing the Chore-inator name in iTunes Connect too early and were in danger of running out of time and losing the name before we could finish the iPhone version. The feature also confirmed much of what we’d read elsewhere about iOS App Store features: the front page is where it’s at and category-only features, excluding games, give a much smaller sales bump.

More than a little proud of this.

More than a little proud of this.

With little in the way of media coverage and less of a lift than we were hoping for from the App Store feature, it quickly became clear we needed to change our tactics and get serious about promotion.

 A Little Introspection

We needed to look inward to figure out why we haven’t ever been able to make any significant headway in promoting our apps beyond hoping for and relying on features from Apple. Part of the problem is that Diane and I have our feet firmly planted on the product development side of the app world and the language of marketing and promotion is very much a foreign tongue to us. We’ve brought in outside help on several occasions, including a high-dollar PR guy out of New York, but their efforts never amounted to much in terms of meaningful sales growth.

For the time being, we’re going to try to solve our promotional problems on our own. Over the course of far too many conversations to count, here are the obstacles we’ve identified:

We Don’t Know Anyone – After nearly nine years of developing and selling software for Apple products, we have very few industry contacts – especially in the media. We don’t get out and meet people anywhere near as much as we should. On those few occasions that we do, well… While Diane is great with people, I’m extremely shy around those I don’t know very well and really bad at schmoozing. Really, really bad. It’s almost a certainty that I will manage to say something that is both awkward and offensive just out of pure nervousness. It’s painful to watch.

Ineffective Pitches – Journalists are swamped with requests from developers seeking coverage for their apps. They simply cannot look at every app that comes their way, so you need to be able to convince them yours is worth their time. The slew of unredeemed promo codes we’ve sent along with our pitches provides all the evidence we need to know that we’re not very good at that.

Playing Small Ball I cannot think of any other time in this industry when so much high quality software has been available for so little money as it is today. But crazy low prices mean you need crazy high sales in order to stay afloat. It’s easy to lose focus on that fact and we’ve certainly been guilty of doing so on numerous occasions.

Bad at Picking Outside Help PR firms and business consultants talk a big game on how much they can help your business. The ones we’ve worked with have fallen short when it comes to the all important goal of helping us get our products in front of a broader audience. No doubt there are people out there who could help us out, but we can’t tell the difference between someone who is only good at selling themselves and someone who would be good at selling us.

Only Going Viral in a Bad Way When we talk about something going viral in our house it’s always in reference to the latest plague our five year old son, Adam, has brought home from school. We have some very dear and loyal customers who’ve helped spread the word about our offerings, but we’ve never created anything that has caught fire and gone viral in a good way.

Ineffective Advertising – We’ve wasted a lot of money over the years with bad ads in the wrong outlets.

Giving Promotion the Short Shrift Like many independent developers, we spend very little time promoting our apps. Of course it’s the software that matters, but people can’t buy something they don’t know about. And if they don’t buy it, we go out of business and have to get real jobs again which means I have to start wearing pants to work.

Therapy’s Over

Our time’s up for this week’s session. Now that I’ve finished unloading all of our promotional baggage on you, it’s time to start turning things around. We released an update to Chore-inator earlier this week that adds iPhone support among other features and have spent the past couple of months developing a promotional plan to go along with it that addresses the issues I outlined above. We’ll be chronicling our progress in promoting Chore-inator as things progress. The first step begins at the 2014 Macworld/iWorld Expo next week.