Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Promoting iTimeZone or I Didn't Know I Had To Be A Marketing Exec

I thought I was reasonably well prepared to be a moonlighting indie iPhone application developer. Here's what I thought was required before I got started:

Application Idea...
Intel Mac for Development...
Accepted into iPhone Developer Program...
An Icon I Liked...
Application Name...
Company Name...
Blog (hey, your reading it!)...
Twitter account...

In addition to all the development, UX, and graphics work I had to do, I planned on blogging and tweeting for marketing. That should be enough right? Wrong! I was shocked to learn I also had to become a marketing exec!!!

When iTimeZone 1.0 was released, sales where higher than my optimistic projections. I had been seriously worried that I would not break even on my modest initial investment. iTimeZone was not bringing in get rich money, just better than expected. As summer turned to fall, sales kept gradually decreasing. I was already working on iTimeZone 1.1, feeling some pressure to get the new release out due to customer feedback. I was also really counting on the new release of iTimeZone to push sales back up, just as I had grown to expect from reading from various Mac indie developers over the years. Reading the PCalc 1.1 for iPhone post-mortem threw cold water on those expectations, since I learned that new versions of existing apps no longer pushed apps to the top of the Release Date filter in App Store category view. iTimeZone is in the Travel category. Apps only get listed in one category. I had low expectations then that releasing iTimeZone 1.1 would be sales invigorator until I read Benjamin Ragheb's comment, which said to change the availability date of the app in iTunes Connect. That did the trick!

Onward and Upward
When iTimeZone 1.1 was released, sales did increase a good amount, but the effect doesn't last. I am not sure I have seen even a modest boost with the release of iTimeZone 1.2. As the number of apps is only increases and accelerating (see image on left, 15,000 app, 500m downloads as of this post), you don't stay on top of your apps category by Release Date for long. Especially when a city guide, for example, is released as one app per city all on the same day, resulting in 30 separate apps. If you are lucky enough to get a prominent property with a large audience to mention your app, you will get a huge boost. Right after iTimeZone 1.1 was released, we unexpectedly got it.

The Apple Boost
It is hard to overstate what a sales difference being on the front page of the iTunes App Store home page is. Sales increased several orders of magnitude. Even better, iTimeZone wasn't leaving the front page for a whole week, and would then get shuffled back in the NEW box until it dropped off after a month (there are 4 pages). Did iTimeZone make the 100 Top Paid Apps? Yes, incredibly, iTimeZone climbed to #75 as far as I can tell.

Pretty soon after iTimeZone was on the App Store front page, Apple launched the iPhone Your Life site, which included a World Travel section. This was the first indication that Apple was going to break out top apps by paid and free in each category, and iTimeZone happened to be the top paid travel app when the World Travel site launched.

Being promoted by Apple is the best marketing you can get, it's free, but its impossible to quantify how to get it. That said, marketing your app is your job, not Apples. The deck might be slightly stacked against you on the App Store, but there are things you can do, or at least try.


Not the actual ad
Click through to the product page

Not the actual ad
Click through to the product page

I had looked into using Google AdWords for iTimeZone weeks before 1.1 shipped, even setup the ad (pictured left) but was holding off turning it on until 1.1 was released and the web site was updated. I activated the ad on a very modest budget of $50/month. I was floored the morning when 30% of my budget was burned through overnight, in about 13 hours. I was using up my budget at a pretty good pace, and I changed the ad (pictured right) to use action words (e.g. Buy) and just let it go for a while. I found AppCubby's blog post in early December (ok, someone in my feed list linked it, sorry, can't find that source) about marketing iPhone apps. The post articulates something that was nagging at the back of my mind since turning on AdWords, how do I correlate the clicks on the ads to actual sales? You can't, and the price of keywords is only going up! AdWords itself told me that my ads weren't running enough to be effective by late December (advertisers, recession, have you heard of it?), so in early January I stopped trying to run the ads until I can dedicate the time to figuring out how, or if, I can effectively use some form of advertising.

What's Next and Lessons Learned
What is a realistic expectation for iTimeZone sales? Should I set the goal to be sustainable Top 100 sales across the whole store? Seems highly unlikely given the number of apps in the store, the rate of new apps, and the kind of app iTimeZone is. iTimeZone is a use once in a while, or in short bursts (e.g. planning a trip) app, so it is never going to attract the same kind of attention that say, a farting app will. How about Top 100 Paid in Travel? That seems doable, but I am going to have to take some action, aside from what I am already doing, to sustain or hopefully increase ongoing sales. There are numerous next steps that I can take, and I will probably try most or all of these.

  • Press Releases. This seems like a no brainer now. Both directly to key sites, and trying a listing site like prMac.
  • Promo Codes. Since Apple has unveiled the ability to give away promotional copies, going to have to figure out a group of people I would like to get iTimeZone in front of and cold email them or something offered the promo codes. Of course, I could send out promo codes to anyone that has contacted us for support. Not huge reach, but a token of appreciation maybe.
  • Lite version. There has been some mixed advice, some like iShoot have seen phenomenal new success with existing paid apps after releasing a Lite version of their app. I have read it really hasn't moved the needle at all for other apps. Seems to me though a lower featured version of iTimeZone would be essentially good free publicity, and maybe some number of iTimeZone Lite downloaders will convert to iTimeZone buyers.
  • Interviews, Case Studies, and Publicity. These are much harder to pull off, but if you are asked to participate in any of these, you need to go for it. I have a few opportunities I am hopeful will pan out.
  • Podcasts. I draw the distinction here between interviews, where you don't run the podcast, and running your own podcasts. I can't see doing this right now.
  • Alternate versions. Since apps are only listed in the App Store once, perhaps segmenting the app, if it makes sense, into different tiered features and pricing. A Lite version if the typical one, but I am also considering what I am thinking of as a Pro version of iTimeZone, probably in another category.
  • Release another app. If you only developing one app, not only are all your sales tied to that app, so is your exposure. If Apple decides to consume the idea you are shipping in the OS, you are out of business. If people like your one app, you don't have another to sell them. If customers aren't interested in your app, but like how you are doing things, you don't have another app to potentially sell them. It is easier to sell to existing customers than new ones, essentially you are potentially leaving money on the table.
  • ABS. Always Be Selling. I think natural sales people just know when and how to sell, and how to market their wares to people. Even if you aren't a natural, if you are talking to people you know or at conferences and such, you have to look for openings to sell yourself and your work.

While as a developer you might not have thought it necessary, or you even find it distasteful, the simple truth is that marketing is The One Thing Every Software Engineer Should Know. Ignore it if you don't want anyone to buy, use, or enjoy your work.

This post on Majic Software Jungle has some good info on pricing strategies, which I intentionally avoided in this post because concrete data on what works or not is pretty hard to come by.