Expert advice: Creating, selling and marketing your killer app

Coming up with a killer idea for an app can be a mind bending process. Unfortunately, once you’ve done that, the hard work is only just beginning; you’re competing with millions of other killer ideas, both in apps stores and in the murky business of PR and marketing.

Luckily, we caught up with two guys who have been there and done it, numerous times, to ask them for some insight into the processes and key decisions behind creating successful apps.

Mark Sigal, co-founder and chief product officer at one of the app industry’s most successful developer companies, Unicorn Labs, producers of a number of successful apps and eBooks to Apple’s App Store.

Thomas Chung VP, GM at The Playforge, mobile game specialists and makers of the hugely popular ZombieLife and ZombieFarm iOS apps.

The creative process behind developing great apps

Mark and his team at Unicorn take a systematic approach when they first hit the drawing board, getting stuck in right away to the serious analytical work; first of all they look into what kind of app types and user experiences are currently engaging people in the App Store.

“This is a process of looking at rankings, reading reviews both within the app store and across the web and downloading and playing with a bunch of different apps,” he says; which culminates in a ‘de-composition exercise,’ where core building blocks are broken down schematically into container functions, complete with workflows that will serve as ingredients for new application ‘recipes.’

This, in turn, leads to a building up of 3-5 high-level narrative cases of the primary jobs, outcomes and constraints that the target application could address, followed by storyboard and wire-framing of the application screens based on a workflow codification model that the team calls “starting in the middle.”

At The Playforge, Thomas Chung says that their philosophy is based around making games that they would want to play themselves. CEO Vince McDonnell came up with the idea of Zombie Farm by combining two of his favourite games from around 2009.

“If you'll recall Farmville and Plants versus Zombies were both really popular at the time,” says Chung. “Vince didn't start out trying to make a smash hit. He was making a game that combined some of the favourite elements of games he was really into at the time and thought would be fun to play.”

At Unicorn, Sigal believes that there’s no substitute for having frequent alpha and beta builds, which everyone, including target users, get to play with. The team also holds recurring alignment meetings with their clients and a operate share project management sandbox. “This ensures that course corrections can be made incrementally, and in real time,” he says. “It’s the single best way to avoid feature creep, missed delivery dates and miscommunication.”

Challenging times for developers: Pricing and discovery

The market can be a tough and unforgiving place for developers to operate in at the minute. The biggest challenge that developers face in terms of the way that the market operates today are two-fold, says Sigal.

“One is that the app store models are fundamentally optimized to drive pricing to 99 cents or less, which is a hard model to build something other than a lifestyle business around

“The second is that there is such a surplus of apps that discovery is a real challenge,” he adds. “And the lifecycle durability of an app, from a revenue generation perspective, is lower than in the days of packaged software.”

Chung is in total agreement here: “With over half a million applications in the App Store today the big question is: How do you get your application discovered?” he says. “I think the destinations or applications that will win out in the end are the ones that focus on a unique value proposition or are differentiated in the quality of content.”

Mark Sigal’s two most obvious approaches to maximizing discovery are:

  1. Segmenting your product into full ‘paid’ version and a lite ‘free’ version, so you maximize downloads and can focus on conversion to paid.
  2. Creating a storefront around your application, where the user downloads a base application that is free, and via in-app purchase can augment and extend the application via filters, new content or wholly new application capabilities.

“This second approach has the added benefit in that it creates an installed base, aggregates your download counts from a ranking perspective, and provides a better means to touch users with new marketing messages every time you upgrade your apps,” he adds. “Also, don’t underestimate the importance of cultivating strong relationships with the segment specific personnel at Apple, Google and Amazon.”

Neglect marketing and PR at your peril

If you simply build it, they won’t necessarily come. Don’t assume that once you’re in the store that that hard work is done. The biggest shift in developer mindset with regard to app development has been that these are app services now. “With so much disposable content out there today, to be successful in the long term these apps require ongoing support,” says Chung. “That goes for everything from community management, to development to marketing and pr.”

“Find a concentration of users fitting your target market, and get to work,” he adds. “As with the development process, it's important to have goals, targets, budgets, timeframe, and an approach or methodology.”

But who are your PR targets? Make sure you’ve done your homework on who exactly it is you need to hit from a PR perspective. Who are the influential blogger? Who are the key journalists, review sites, important vertical communities?

“Make sure you know what assets you need to have handy so that when you reach out to prospects, you have already done the hard work for them,” advises Sigal.

This might include a screen capture of your application, a pithy, one paragraph blurb on your app and why it matters and a 45-90 second video trailer that showcases your app in action; and of course, promo codes. Bear in mind that you need your best PR prospects to be able to seamlessly interact with you app and its associated promotional materials.

At Unicorn, Mark Sigal says they always feel it’s important to have a clear social media strategy. “This is inclusive of what nuggets you are sharing, with what frequency and how you plan to leverage the various core services to cast your breadcrumbs efficiently,” he says.

“Candidly, you want this process at least nominally baked before you start building the product, as the product itself can deliver payloads to your target social sites that will enable your user base to do some of the viral uplift work for you,” he adds.  “If you can’t think of a compelling PR story on the front-end, you’re likely to have challenges evangelizing your product on the back.

“Good product management anticipates product marketing at the inception stage.”

Mark Sigal and Thomas Chung are both appearing at Apps World North America at the Javits Center in New York on 1-2 November. The event features a free to attend developer workshop, featuring both Mark and Thomas, plus a whole host of industry experts, leading brands, developers and operators.

For more information on how to register, visit:






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