2 May 2012

Having dreamt up the perfect App, you’ve implemented it, and after thorough beta testing it has a user experience as slick as its interface is beautiful. Now it is live in the App Store and no one is buying it. Why not? Most likely because you haven’t told them it exists yet. This is a guide to shouting very loudly about a product without spending any money. It is hard for a developer to swap the familiar engineering hat for a marketing hat, but as a recent Ars article made clear, the ability to make that switch is what separates employees from employers.

My first marketing recommendation is tireless footwork. If you want people to know about your app, tell them about it. Email them, tweet them, facebook them, do whatever it takes. There is a fine line between genius marketing and reputation damaging spam, but for the most part morals are a luxury of the rich, so stop thinking and send that email. A Daring fireball post was the first big break for our markdown editor Valletta, we shipped an extra $2000 dollars worth of software the next day, and all we had to do is ask.

So what should you put in these emails? When writing promotional materials, remember that no one has a reason to read your brochure/landing page/press release, so it is your task to engage them. If readers don’t like the title, they won’t read the first sentence, and if the first sentence doesn’t capture the imagination then the killer feature described at the end of the first paragraph will remain a secret. Forget the programmer’s maxim of never repeating yourself; communicate your key feature in the title, then again in the first sentence, expand on it in the first paragraph, and ensure it is immediately visible in any videos or screenshots you distribute.

In the case of web pages the title -> sentence -> paragraph sequence of reading doesn’t apply. People read out of order, usually biggest and brightest first. On our Valletta publicity page we chose the “single pane markdown editor” and “configure with CSS” messages to promote, making them immediately visible with further details written below. The screenshot and video are crafted to ram that message home once more, in all cases we design our marketing collateral so that the first thing you read is the first thing we want you to know.

Whilst I’ve always been suspicious of any political system that requires Permanent Revolution, this communist ideal is well applied to software. In the age of the App Store it takes no more than a minute to transmit an update to millions of users, so why not split your development into weekly updates? The benefit goes beyond the enhanced quality of your software; users notice the improvements and your application becomes a living, evolving entity to them. From a user’s perspective if the software isn’t fixed in stone, then neither are its flaws, and they become temporary inconveniences to be worked around, rather than festering wounds that annihilate your reputation. The weekly update strategy propelled Pocket God through the App Store’s million download barrier, and Google Chrome’s six weekly updates are such an important part of its success that Mozilla have copied it with Firefox. If it isn’t absolutely clear what place an excited and engaged user base has in your marketing strategy, then remember that nothing you say about your product will ever be as valuable as what your users say about it.

Despite what I said about swapping from programming mode to marketing mode during at least part of your week, don’t discard your hacker’s mindset completely when you do so. The electronic and print media is a system, and a skilled marketer is someone who can control that system as adeptly as a hacker can manipulate a computer. Attack your marketing activities with the same creativity and zeal you would a coding problem, and not only will you succeed, you may even enjoy it.

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