Top five ways to market your mobile app

Guest Post: Some interesting perspectives from a developer leveraging the openness of Android to, for once, create an Android-only app.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Jason Devitt, CEO of Mr. Number. Mr. Number is an Android app that enhances caller ID at the most basic level and provides a variety of tools for managing who can contact you, how they can contact you, and when they can contact you. What's almost as interesting as the app, though, are the lessons he's learned marketing his app. Here's what he had to say:

Guest post from Jason Devitt, CEO, Mr. Number

You spend months polishing your app, pushing it to the store, persuading your friends to try it, getting a great review from some guy in Indonesia and…nothing. There are half a million apps out there and you need a marketing strategy. In fact, you need to figure it out before you start coding.

What about PR? Blogs? Twitter? Facebook? SXSW? Asking users for a five-star review? Yes, these things are important and you have to do them all. But everyone else is doing them too. In engineering terms, PR and social media and conferences and Scoble are necessary but not sufficient. What are you going to do that other people cannot or will not do? That’s strategy.

We’ve identified five winning strategies. If you can execute on all of them you are destined for number one. If you score zero, that’s how many downloads you can expect.

(1) Build on success

Thems that has, gets, so use what you have.

If you have a successful website, gate your mobile visitors so you can offer them your app. If you already have a mobile app, cross-promote it with your new one. If you have a great track record, an operator or OEM may want to preload your new app or feature you in one of their commercials.

If you’re a startup, ask yourself if there’s an obvious competitor that already has these advantages and how you’ll compete. Also: are you really mobile-only, or can you build a website that draws mobile and desktop users? Those two audiences may reinforce each other—think Pinterest.

(2) Build in the cost of advertising

Yes, real people tap on those little mobile ads and download apps. Say it costs you 50c to acquire a user this way. If the average user spends $2 on virtual widgets in your Widgetville game, you can write a big check to Admob or Millennial Media every month and be sure to come out ahead—until competition drives up the cost of advertising, drives down the price of widgets, or you hit diminishing returns.

Remember that in-app purchases are not as seamless on Android as on iPhone, so the math is harder. You can get users by buying ads and make money by selling ads, but you need a truly addictive app like Angry Birds to make this arbitrage work.

(3) Build to share

Stop telling yourself that your app will “go viral.” That’s a prayer, not a strategy. You can ask users to “tell their friends,” but any app can do that.

When an app is truly viral, it’s also social because you can’t use it without promoting it to the people you know. Think multi-player games like Words With Friends, photo-sharing apps like Instagram, or pure communication apps like Voxer.

It has to be a natural fit. If you’re building a productivity app, jamming in social features may irritate users and hurt you.

Mobile only? Then you need to support iOS and Android as soon as possible or users will get frustrated that they can’t reach all their friends. Voxer did not take off until it supported both platforms. But you don’t have to be mobile only—Instragram lets users share content with all of their friends through Facebook and Twitter.

(4) Build for search

Sometimes people browse the store, sometimes they search. Even with half a million apps, it’s still possible that people are searching for something specific and not finding it. Does your app fit this mold? Then choose a literal name. As I write this, the number one free download in the Android Market is called “Draw Something Free.”

Unlike iTunes, Google Play indexes the entire app description, so integrate search terms and keywords into your information. But the name is critical (at one point a slight change to the name of our app increased downloads by 33%).

Are you building something entirely new, something people won’t know that they need until they see it? Search won’t bring you anyone who hasn’t already heard of you through some other channel. But choose a name that people can remember!

(5) Build the greatest app in the history of the world

It’s not too late. A truly amazing app can succeed on its own merits. But power users have seen hundreds of apps at this point, so you need something really special to impress them. It happens most often with games, but that’s because new mobile games often have six- or seven-figure development budgets. You probably don’t.

Please don’t build another photo-sharing app, restaurant finder, or to-do list. Look at the most sophisticated Android phones and tablets on the market (which will be mainstream a year from now) and think about what will be possible. Then build that.

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