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DevJuice: Promotion from the Trenches

TUAW Dev Juice talks with Mac developer Lyle Andrews, who agreed to discuss his real-world experience launching applications. He'll be sharing tips and hints about practical app promotion skills.

I want to thank you for taking the time to talk to me and to TUAW readers. The reason I asked you here was because I think you have a really compelling story to tell and tips to share. You're a small developer who's achieved some exciting success in Apple's App Stores, yes? Can you tell us about your background and your products?

Yes, I've been coding since I was 12, have been through 14 languages, have a degree in philosophy, and am a veteran of the dot.com wars where I ran over 60 projects including a dot.com startup and a Fortune 500 web deployment. My project history can be seen here.

I've been moving into consumer software development and have two large projects in the works, Ynnis Myrddin, an interactive film about Merlin, and MetaView, a 3D market vizualizer.

When the Mac App Store started operations I decided to write a few small apps to learn its dynamics: Tempest - a video lightning screensaver, Fireworks HD, another screensaver, and Network Logger, an active network monitor. Network Logger is currently selling in the top 6%, Fireworks HD in the top 2.5% and Tempest! in the top 2% of their categories on the US store.

I first came across your work when I reviewed your Fireworks app just before New Years. Can you share how that process of pitching and reviewing worked from your end and talk about how the TUAW review affected your sales?

Getting Fireworks HD reviewed by Apple was straightforward compared to getting the first screensaver on the store, since the App Store doesn't sell screensavers directly. I tried numerous ways around this restriction, including zipping up the saver and storing it in a shell app's bundle or having the app download the saver.

After half a dozen rejection cycles one of the Apple reviewers took pity on me and suggested adding a download link that the user could click on in the app. This puts the onus of responsibility on the user, gives them control, and with that approach I was able to get approved and onto the store.

Being very much a developer I have the classic indie tendency to just keep coding and sit around wishing that someone was promoting my apps full time. This does make the exposure the App Store affords very attractive. I do occasionally send out press releases and hold free promotions on the store.

For Fireworks HD, I knew getting some exposure for New Year's Eve was important so I emailed an editor at TUAW about the possibility of a review right after Christmas. I saw that as a win/win since that was the app on the store most appropriate for New Years' Eve at the time. Fireworks HD was named Mac App of the Day on Dec 27, 2011 and the sales rank responded immediately and dramatically, moving from around rank #100 up to #4 in Top Paid Entertainment within a day.

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On New Year's Eve itself Fireworks HD was on the Top 10 Entertainment charts of 13 countries. Over the next few weeks Fireworks HD trended down as expected but happily ended in a higher average range which has persisted for five months to date.

Can you tell me about some of the strategies you've used in-store for helping your apps stand out from the competition? I know you mentioned something about icons when I first started talking to you about doing this interview. What other suggestions do you have?

I anticipated your question, so here is a very long list of suggestions.

Pop out. Your icon has to pop out. Look at the primary category you will be listed in, imagine you are in the top 200, what similarities or appearance trends can you find in the app icons, and how can you break them in a way that draws attention and invites a click. A number of people have told me that they clicked on Network Logger just because of the icon. Something about it just makes you want to click it whatever it leads to.

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Keep it short. This indicates that you are confident that the customer is going to like your product if they are interested in general. It shows you feel like you don't have to say that much to make the sale. This is true with new clients as well as products.

A long description starts to feel like an apology after awhile. However, some things are complex and merit a longer description. Conciseness is the actual metric. How can you say the most with the least words?

Keep it Plain. Plain descriptions with minimal self-praise and adjectives are trusted more by App Store customers than overinflated rhetoric.

Focus on Strength. Best in class in some way? Definitely say so. If nothing is the best, should you be aiming higher? This is true for Fireworks HD, it is in some ways a silly app I built to test out the store, but if you need beautiful 100% realistic HD fireworks for your event that don't repeat in sequence and work when no network connection is available, there is nothing better available for Mac than Fireworks HD.

Be a master of the obvious. While there are many great naming strategies, if you can name a product after its product category, you have a home field advantage. With "Network Logger" for instance, the genus is instantly obvious, the customer just needs to know the species. They click, they are coming to see you, you are the category, the sale is yours to lose.

Don't sweat bad reviews. They are going to happen, if an app has merit it will tend to sell anyway and time will equalize things. Tempest has been in the top 10 in Spain in Paid Entertainment for many weeks despite having only two reviews there, both 1 star.

Follow or lead the market, either way know which you are doing. Leading the market is much more challenging, and can be much more rewarding. Can you come up with a way of systematizing a part of the raw unordered universe and create a new class of human activities? If you succeed your glories will be sung in Valhalla. Following the market can be safer and is often more lucrative. Can you rethink a better way to handle a common human activity?

Use resonance awareness. There are some things you just know are going to resonate with a particular audience, fireworks, lightning, beaches, white rounded kitchen appliances...resonance awareness is really a diverse skill set it pays to hone. We know Steve Jobs actively developed this skill set throughout his life.

Understand need. You need their need. What fundamental emotions are driving the user as they use your software? A desire for order? Curiosity? Love? A desire to conquer? Every activity has a number of emotions that are commonly associated with it. Knowing what your audience is experiencing and wants to experience emotionally is the foundation of an evolving relationship. It's not just woven into the advertising, the product is built around it.

In conclusion, these things are all simple in theory, but if the execution sounds simple, think again. The student sees the simple and thinks it simple, the master sees the simple and thinks it profound. I hope one day to be such a master myself.

There's been a lot of negative talk over the last few years about the App Stores being too saturated, that small guys can't make a living at it, that there's no room to break in. What would you say to that?

I would say that oversaturation is bound to happen given the gold rush mentality, but overall the App Stores have been really empowering to smaller developers and that virtue will be recognized if one persists. The bar is higher now and development and marketing effort have to reflect that.

The App Store gets far more traffic than my own web sites and provides more than just sales exposure; the review system has sort of opened up a dialog between me and my customers that wasn't there before.

There are a lot of nasty reviews on the US App Store but internationally they are much more measured; they all make you tougher (better at taking criticism), and your app better.

Being able to say you have apps on the store also has a certain social cachet these days that's valuable in personal and professional situations and that opens up new opportunities.

Lyle, thank you so much for taking the time to talk today. I'm hoping that your experience and your insights will help inspire other developers, especially those just getting started.

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