Hi, my name is Jeff Hangartner! Recently I started a small Indie game studio called Bulletproof Outlaws. I'm an artist working from home and outsourcing the programming, music, etc. I've just finished my first iPhone game – Elusive Ninja: The Shadowy Thief (the App Store link is here). It was officially released on June 6th, 2011. I've jumped into the wonderful world of marketing and I'm approaching it from a bunch of different angles and trying various marketing avenues out. I'm fortunate enough (and planned ahead strategically enough) to have some money to spend experimenting with marketing and I figure by sharing what I've learned, these marketing articles can help other small Indie Developers who can't afford to waste money heading down dead-ends and trying experiments that might not pay off.
There are 5 marketing articles:
Using word-of-mouth marketing via Twitter, blogging, forum threads, etc. to build awareness for your game, and a realistic look at the pros and cons of price drops and using microjob services.
An in-depth look into the sketchy side of the industry that people don't seem to talk about like buying downloads, paying for reviews, etc. Also covering traditional expensive marketing like banner ads and marketing agencies and ad services like AdMob.
What to put in a Press Kit, using Press Releases, creating screenshots and trailers, etc. Plus how to efficiently maintain everything we've talked about so far.
How to survive the internal side of marketing as an Indie Developer and dealing with the stress of spending your money, watching sales figures rise and fall, making big decisions, handling critics and pushy marketers, and a big blunt look at how rampant iPhone App piracy is.
ARTICLE V – Optimal Marketing Plan
A summary of everything, condensed down into 36 steps from Pre-Launch to Launch Day to Post-Launch, that I feel make up an Optimal Marketing Plan for an Indie Dev with little to no money who needs to make sure every dollar spent counts.
ARTICLE II – Traditional Advertising
I learned a lotta' lessons with Promo Codes, lemme tell ya! When your game is approved for the App Store you get 50 Promo Codes to give out. Each time you update the game, you get 50 more Promo Codes. You can't get more than 50, so once you run out, you're out. Unfortunately I didn't do a lot of research on how to use them so I was handing them out like candy at a parade and wasted them. So in hopes of saving you from the same pitfalls, here are some tips:
Press, Not Friends
This is the main advice people give with regards to Promo Codes. Don't use them to give your friends and family free copies of your game...of all people THEY should be the ones who WANT to give you their dollar or two to support you. Give Promo Codes to the Press. Review sites get a ton of games to review and generally aren't going to pay to download them all. You want to be able to basically say “Hey, I'll be happy to give you a free copy of my game so you can review it!” to make it as easy as possible for them to give you a review. You might also want to use some of them in Promo Code give-aways as rewards for contests, or to have popular sites Tweet the Codes out, or to give them out in the Touch Arcade forums, etc.
Don't Jump The Gun
When you're new, you might think “I'd better send a Promo Code with my initial E-Mail to a Reviewer because I'm lucky to get their attention for even a second, I want to make things as easy as possible because they probably won't bother E-Mailing me back to request a Code and then wait for me to send them one, they have so many other games they could be reviewing who probably sent Promo Codes right away”. This is a quick way to lose a bunch of Promo Codes or have them end up in a void where you have no idea if they're being redeemed or not.
Instead throw a note in the E-Mail saying Promo Codes are available upon request or however you want to word it. Most E-Mails you send out to Reviewers will get zero response so if you're attaching Promo Codes right away they're just sitting in someone's Inbox going unused. I've found that the Reviewers that want to review your game will contact you back and request Codes. Some places even warn on their Contact Page “Please don't send us Promo Codes in your contact E-Mail, we'll request them if we want them”. I'm pretty sure a solid 30 of my Promo Codes expired unused because I had the mentality described above.
Promo Codes Can't Be Reviewed
Recently Apple changed things so that a redeemed Promo Code can't be used to leave a review on the App Store. So if someone grabs your game for free, they can't leave you a review. This makes it even more important to focus on giving these Codes to the Press who won't be able to leave an App Store review, but CAN write reviews for their actual websites.
Promo Codes expire 4 weeks after you request them, so you know what's NOT a smart idea? Requesting a ton of them on Day 1, which is what I did. :( By the time any Press started getting back to me, and by the time I had found different avenues to reach the Press and found new ways to use Promo Codes, the big chunk of the ones I requested on Day 1 were about to expire. So then I was stuck sending out Promo Codes that would probably expire before the person got a chance to check the game out. It was just a big mess all around.
Used And Abused?
The other unfortunate thing about Promo Codes is that you can't tell which Codes have been used. If you give someone a Promo Code, you will never know if they used it or if it's sitting there and still available.
I use AppFigures to keep track of my stats (it's only $5/month, and the service is awesome and gives you all sorts of stats and graphs). One useful thing it keeps track of is that you can see on any given day how many purchases of your game were via Promo Codes. This is slightly useful because if you've only given out a few Promo Codes, going by any E-Mail responses you get and the “what countries were your sales in today” stat in AppFigures you can kind of narrow down which Promo Codes were used...it's still a lot of guesswork, but it's about the best you can do.
In thread posts on Touch Arcade, people tend to add “Please post which Promo Code you used” and people will do that, so the Developer can keep track of which Codes are still useable. I didn't think of it at the time, but you could probably do this when you send the Codes to Reviewers. It's still an annoying situation, though...if someone decides not to E-Mail you back to let you know they used the Promo Code and you send it to someone else thinking it'll still work, now that big-name site you managed to get the attention of for a split second because the planets aligned just right, is going “eh, Promo Code didn't work, next game!” It's like going to job interviews not knowing if you're going to have a suit on or be standing in your underwear until you walk through the door haha
If you DO run out of Promo Codes, a super ghetto hail-mary solution could be to Gift the game to the Reviewer or whoever. The problem is you can only Gift to someone in your own country, so as a Canadian if an American site wanted a Promo Code and I was out, I'd have to get a friend in America to Gift the game to them. I haven't done this yet, but hey, we're thinkin' outside the box here!
How To Get More?
I'm still on my first batch, but it looks like when you update your game you get another 50 Codes. So it might be worth just doing a minor update with a few bug fixes to get the Codes, but then you're going through the whole Apple approval process again and it's a hassle. It used to be that when you updated you basically lost all the reviews you had for your previous version, but just taking a glance at some Apps on the App Store it looks like that's no longer the case...it'll just say “(v1.3)” beside the reviews so people know it's for a previous version.
“Have business reasons and make business decisions.” That's something my business coaches drilled into our class. It's fine to do stuff that seems outside the norm or that other people warn you isn't a good idea, as long as you have business reasons for doing it. Marketing is the fastest way to drain your money because you can throw it all away randomly picking areas to spend it on and not seeing any results.
Where To Find Ad Space?
Most sites will have an “Advertise With Us” link at the top or bottom of the site where they have some information on spaces and prices, or an E-Mail address you can shoot an E-Mail to requesting that information. I found that a lot of sites sell advertising space through BuySellAds.com...it's a great service, you get stats and charts and everything. You can even filter the search to just Apple related sites.
I use Alexa and SiteTrail to check the stats of sites, mainly looking for how much traffic they get, what part of the world it's from, page-views per month, that kind of thing. I'll also check out the site on both my desktop and iPhone to see where and how the ads are displayed, and I'll look at what kind of site they are, what their demographic of users is, how often they update, etc. BuySellAds shows how many Impressions a site gets per month, and the Click-thru rates and stuff. Honestly, a lot of it is mumbo jumbo to me but I've learned a few things:
Impressions Does Not Equal Clicks
Just because a site is listed as having 5,000,000 Impressions doesn't mean your banner is going to get more than a few Clicks. If you have to choose between a site about furniture design with 5,000,000 Impressions a month or a site about iPhone games with 1,000 Impressions a month, go with the 1,000 one because those are the people who are actually going to buy your game. If you have to choose between a site with 5,000,000 Impressions but your banner is at the bottom in a rotating banner spot (so your ad is randomly chosen from a group of other ads to be shown in that spot) or a site with 1,000 Impressions but your banner is at the top of the page and doesn't rotate, go with the 1,000 one. Impressions just means the number of times the banner is loaded, so while it's being loaded in that bottom rotating banner spot, that doesn't mean it's being seen by the user.
You can get banner ads up for as low as $10 per month at some places. It can also go high, like costing around $300. I've found that the best way to judge how good an ad is going to be is to go by the price instead of the Impressions. If there are two spaces and one gets 5,000,000 Impressions and the other gets 1,000 Impressions, but the 5,000,000 one costs $10/mo and the 1,000 one costs $300/mo, odds are the person running the site has determined through their own stat measuring that the $300 one is worth the money in comparison.
Pay Per Click
I honestly didn't mess with this much because it looks dumb to me. Basically the jist seems to be that you pay X amount of money per Click on your banner. So it's usually listed as $X per 1,000 Impressions or Clicks. But I don't see the point to this, because an Impression or Click doesn't automatically mean a sale. So you could have 5,000,000 Impressions and not a single sale, except that at $1 per 1,000 Impressions you're out $5,000. If you're a huge company with tons of money marketing a game like Angry Birds, maybe that's where it's worth it, but man, right now with limited funds I'd rather take the $X per month solid number so I can plan out my budgeting and stuff. With that $5,000 I could have a bunch of $300 banner ads all over the place. I'm not really “in the know” when it comes to Internet marketing so there might be a reason behind this concept or an optimal time to use it, but from where I'm sitting as an Indie with not much money, I'm staying far away from this whole concept.
If you can do an animated ad, do an animated ad. They catch the eye more than a static ad. If you don't have any art skills, hit up a microjob site like UpHype or Fiverr and you can probably get some done up for like $5. I did the art for my game pretty large when I originally drew it, and shrunk it down to fit on the iPhone screen, so throwing together banners is pretty easy. I grab some art and toss it into a layout and I'm done. You'll find pretty much every site has different sizes and shapes for banners, so be prepared to make horizontal skinny banners, vertical fat banners, square banners, you name it.
Track Your Expectations
Don't just buy ad space and then ignore it, or casually glance at the stats. When you buy ad space (which you bought because you researched the site and made a business decision to advertise there, right?) write down what exactly you're expecting as a result of that ad space. Stuff like “20 new Twitter Followers”, “50 more hits to my website a day”, “10 new sales of my game in Italy”, etc. Whatever's appropriate. Then track what the actual outcome was. If you bought $100 for a month worth of ad space, and your goal from that was 100 new sales that month, and you made 5 sales, you have to consider that either that ad space isn't something you want to renew, or that you might have to change up your ad design for that space, etc. Basically something isn't working the way you expected, so don't pour more money into it until you figure out what isn't working and why it isn't working and how to try fixing it.
Don't Get Hooked
We were warned about this in the business course I took: Remember that while your job as someone marketing your game is to market your game, people selling advertising space have a job too - to sell you advertising space. So you'll run into situations where you buy some ad space, it doesn't really do anything, but the person tells you “You have to give it a little time, sign up for another month or two and you'll definitely see results, that's just how marketing works”. And it's not necessarily untrue, but this goes back to making business decisions. Do YOU think it's a good idea? Do you have any reason at all to expect things to turn around with that ad space? If you do, awesome, that's fine. The key factor is that if you decide to stick with it long-term, don't do it because you feel guilted or pressured into it, but because you have business reasons to stick with it.
I want to talk about Touch Arcade because everyone knows they're basically the top dog popularity-wise of iPhone game stuff so I would imagine a lot of iOS Developers are curious about TA. TA is expensive compared to some sites, but they have the traffic and targeted demographic to justify it and I've had nothing but a great experience working with them so far. They answered my questions promptly, sent me the information I needed, helped me schedule my ads for the specific time I want, and for the exclusive spots they allow things like rotating through or scheduling different banners, animated banners, etc.
I've actually purchased an exclusive ad space for mid-September, a banner in the top of the side column for $600 a week, for two weeks. Steep for an Indie, hey? I don't actually KNOW what this will do, but let's look at my business reasons for spending this $1200:
1) They have a massive amount of traffic.
2) That traffic is my exact target demographic.
3) The spot is exclusive so I know my banner will be shown 24/7.
4) The spot is in a prominent location so I know it'll be seen.
5) The above points are always true all year round, but this is the most important point: I scheduled my banner for September 12th...what's also happening around September 12th? Everyone is going back to school. What happens for the first month of every school-year? Students are still coming off summer and adjusting to being in a boring classroom, teachers are just starting the curriculum so they aren't assigning any massive homework and there aren't any tests to study for, so you've basically got a ton of my exact target demographic held hostage for 8 hours a day fiddling with their phones bored out of their minds. Odds are they'll be txting and gaming on their phones like crazy. On top of that, everyone being in the same class, school, etc., is prime Word-Of-Mouth advertising time since it's as simple as whispering to eachother “psst dude check out this game” or seeing eachother playing it, etc.
6) With all of that going on, I'm going to probably drop the price to $0.99 for the first week as a “back to school sale” which should drum a little publicity my way when sites are announcing the games on sale for back to school.
7) I might even throw in some kind of high score contest just to encourage people to play.
8) I'll hopefully have the HD version of Elusive Ninja done in time for this, so I'll be able to advertise both the current version and the HD version together, and announcing the HD version will let me cross-promote the current version.
So those are my main reasons for doing this. Now it may not do anything at all, I may have just thrown away $1200, I won't know until it all plays out...BUT, in terms of the prime time, prime strategy, prime location, etc. to BE spending $1200 in advertising, this is about as optimal as you can get so I'm comfortable with the decision I've made. I could spend the exact same amount on the same ad space right now, but I wouldn't have as many business reasons to do it now (school year starting, HD version done, etc.).
I'm expecting to pull a minimum of 1200 sales from those two weeks because right now I'm just happy if my game covers its own development and marketing costs since I'm looking at this as a learning experience. And I don't think that's an unreasonable number of sales, going by the stats of the site. If my sales stay terrible, then I'll look at how I did things and try to figure out what went wrong. If my sales do well, I'll look for why exactly they did well and try to repeat that success in the future...that could involve buying more ad space on Touch Arcade or expanding on a marketing campaign or running more contests etc., I'll have to figure it out when the time comes and I have data to make my business decisions with.
Marketing is ALWAYS going to be a crap-shoot to some extent...that's just the nature of trying to tap into the psyche of mass crowds of people. But when you know you have solid reasons for what you're doing it's a lot less stressful and confusing and doesn't weigh on your mind 24/7 and that peace of mind can be worth a lot in terms of allowing you to focus on your next project and not second-guess the decision you made or panic day-to-day over the money involved. I'll be covering this more in Article IV of this series which covers the psychological side of marketing as an Indie.
Reviews are the big one. Everyone knows they're important, and a few solid reviews from the right sites will skyrocket you into fame and fortune...in theory. What doesn't get as much mention is the sketchy side of game reviews that you'll run into as an iPhone Developer.
Keep in mind that I'm not endorsing any “pay for review” or “pay for download” or “incentive download” systems. I'm also not saying Reviewers don't deserve a financial compensation for their time and work. I'm just explaining what these systems are, how they work, and what you can expect to be approached with, as a new Developer so that you can make informed decisions. The final decision to use or not use these services is ultimately your own to make, but you should keep in mind that Apple is against people cheating in their App Store so while paying for reviews is no big deal, you could find your App has been rejected or banned if you do something like paying for downloads.
Paying For Reviews?
I suspect that when the iPhone was new, Reviewers were eager to review games and it was exciting just to be a part of the whole new App Store craze so reviewing a sweet new game brought a bunch of attention to your review website...but as time has gone on, things have sort of flip-flopped to a point where Reviewers know that reviews can be the difference between a game collecting dust in obscurity or being thrust into the limelight. From that flip-flopped perspective a review is valuable, and as a logical conclusion of that there are now a LOT of Reviewers charging money for reviews.
On the fishy side, you'll get contacted by people with sketchy sounding E-Mail accounts saying “Me & my friends will give u 5-Star reviews on the App Store 4 cheap let me know if u want 2 know mor” I'm exaggerating a bit, but only a bit. I don't see a reason these wouldn't be legit, there's not really potential for a big rip-off here...it's some kid who realized he could make a few quick bucks by contacting small new Developers (odds are he's not sending that E-Mail to Rovio or Capcom) and it only takes a minute to write an App Store review.
But if you're going to buy App Store reviews, you might as well go with a little more above-the-table service. Like you can find people who will give you 5-Star reviews for $5 - $10 on UpHype and Fiverr as a microjob and doing it via those websites let's you cancel the contract or leave a bad review of their service if they try to rip you off. Likewise, you can use a more professional promotional agency site like ComboApp which offers services like “10 App Store Reviews by Independent Reviewers”.
Usually these “buy App Store reviews” services come with guarantees like “all reviews will be 4 or 5 stars, if the Reviewer gives the game less than 4 stars, we ask them to instead submit their constructive criticism and feedback to the Developer so the Developer can make the necessary changes to bring their App up to a 4 or 5 star rating.” If you're going to go this route, then this is actually a pretty good guarantee to look for...why pay for reviews that might be bad? You're already crossing into an area some people would consider sketchy, so you might as well get your money's worth.
Keep in mind that there ARE Reviewers out there who don't ask for money, and oddly enough from what I've seen it looks like it tends to be the big sites that don't ask for money and the little sites that do. So don't freak out and assume every good review you read about a game was bought by the Developer. Also, some Reviewers that charge promise to legitimately review the App, good or bad, and look at the payment as just paying for their time...they don't guarantee 5-Star reviews or anything (though they may give them). I'm not trying to paint Reviewers as a whole as some unscrupulous lot.
In fact, I don't really have a problem with Reviewers asking for money, so I'm not casting any judgements here...writing a decent review takes time and there are hundreds of new Apps out on the App Store every day and I'm sure they get sent dozens of E-Mails a day asking for reviews, so I don't think it's unreasonable for Reviewers to want some compensation for their time and work. I mean, we're game Developers and the gameDev industry is notorious for people doing unpaid extra work...you can't really have a problem with that and then turn around and say “But a Reviewer should come home from their day job and put in a few hours that night to write a review for me for free!”
So this section isn't to whine or complain about how the current review structure works, it's just to say “Here's what you should expect to run into as a Developer” because a lot of it caught me by surprise and as a Developer you should be aware of the pros and cons.
App Store Reviews
People want what other people want. This gets into some psychology stuff, but basically we want what everyone else wants. That's why we read reviews of things before we buy or watch them. That's why the App Store has a Top 10 list and a lot of the Apps IN the Top 10 list stay there forever. That's why people buy 5-star reviews for their Apps. That's why the McDonalds sign says over a billion jillion people served. That's why celebrities get paid to endorse products. That's why movies quote “Ebert gives it two thumbs up!” in their trailers. There's exceptions to this of course, but in general we like to go into things knowing that other people have gone into them already and approve of them because it makes us feel safer with our decision, especially when it involves money.
Now picture this: You're surfing the App Store and you come across an App that looks decent. It's nothing incredible, but it seems like it might be fun. But it has literally NO reviews, ratings, etc. It's like no one has ever downloaded it. Underneath that you see another App that looks about the same quality, but it's got 10 5-star reviews raving about how awesome it is. Which one are you probably going to feel more comfortable spending your money on?
The same concept can apply to a Facebook Fan-Page. Buy a couple hundred Fans for your Fan-Page for $5 off a microjob site and now your Fan-Page looks popular to people passing through, instead of super ghetto. Personally, I don't care much about my Facebook Fan-Page so I don't feel bad about buying some Fans for it because I'll pretty much never use it for any real purpose haha But be careful because you can get into a slippery moral slope here.
Jumpstarting Your Rating
App Store reviews are probably the most important reviews of all because they affect your game's App Store rating, and since the App Store is heavily “impulse buy” based, the stuff on your actual App Store page is going to play the most influential part in people's decision to buy your game or not. Get your friends and family to review your game when it first goes up...yeah, everyone knows the first handful of reviews are obviously the Developer's friends and family, but everyone does it and it affects your rating (if you have 10 5-Star reviews from your friends and someone throws up a 1-Star review your game will still look decent VS having no friends review it and someone throwing up a 1-Star review). This isn't necessarily deceitful, your friends and family probably DO like your game, but like I say EVERYONE does it so you might as well not handicap yourself right off the bat.
Here's another fun category. First up, Apple has apparently cracked down on these types of services but for the sake of completeness and since some of the sketchier services might ignore the Apple warnings and pitch their services to you, I'm going to describe them here...plus the concept of “paying for installs” comes up again later in more acceptable forms.
The jist is that you pay $X per download. So say your game is on the App Store for $0.99. You could sign up for a service and say you'll pay $3 per download. What happens then is a bunch of Gamers registered with the service see that if they download your game they'll make $3. The end result is you're paying a ton of people to download your game. This bumps your App Store ranking, which puts you higher in the list on the App Store, which lets more random normal customers see your game, and can help you boost up into the higher rankings. I know of at least one large professional game development company who paid $2000+ to one of these services (their game ended up in the top 10 for a few weeks).
Logically, I figure the key time to use a service like this would be to supplement a big boost of exposure. So you release a new Update, or you get mentioned on a major site, etc. and your sales go up, that would be when you'd want to boost them even higher, VS using a service like this when you have consistently low sales. It's sort of like throwing sticks on a small flame to turn it into a roaring bonfire VS throwing them on when there's no initial flame yet.
This is basically a more round-about version of buying downloads. The jist is that instead of exchanging actual real-world cash, Gamers who download your game earn virtual currency (“Install Elusive Ninja and earn 25 BananaPoints!”) that they can spend in other games registered with the service, or on services and products their website offers.
Morality and Ethics
There's two perspectives to look at this from: The perspective of the game industry types (Developers, Reviewers, etc.) and the perspective of the Gamers buying and playing the games.
For the game industry types, paying for boosting your ranks and reviews can be appealing if you have the money. You can justify it all sorts of ways like “It's just giving me a fair chance because there are too many crappy Apps on the App Store and my game is good but it's lost in the shuffle so I'm just getting it its deserved foothold in the App Store ranks!” And the “guaranteed 5-Star” Reviewers can justify it with “The Reviewers get paid for their time and the Developer either gets valuable feedback from their target demographic about their game, or they get a 4-5-Star rating on the App Store so it's win/win for everyone involved!” and I'm not saying those aren't valid justifications...it all comes down to what you're comfortable with.
One downside to consider as a Developer is that it'll be a lot harder to keep track of your success when you're supplementing it with paid-for success. Sure you have 50 5-Star reviews, but were 40 of those paid for? Sure your game made it into the Top 10, but did it really deserve to get there? And if the game is no good and it just drops right back down off the charts after you paid to boost it up, did you really gain anything besides half a day in the Top 50? If quick money is the bottom line (and that's fine, I'm not judging), these probably aren't questions that concern you. But a lot of iPhone Developers are small one or two man studios where the Developers just love making games and want to build a reputation, and those are the people that should think about these kinds of questions before they go this route.
On the flip side are the Gamers who buy and play the games. Downloading a 5-Star game only to find out the 5-Star reviews were all bogus is not only going to make a Gamer feel ripped off, but it's going to make them more likely to leave an even lower star rating than they would have left if everything was on the up-and-up. It becomes harder to trust reviews when you know someone paid money for it. It also casts shadows over the success of some games, where the fact that services like this even exist can make Gamers go “Why is this crappy calculator App in the Top 20?? They probably bought their way into it!” when that may or may not actually be the case.
The catch to bring us full-circle on this topic is that at least they SAW the game, and they might not have seen it if you were at the bottom of the ranks in obscurity. Plus spending a day in the Top 10 might pay off what it cost to boost it up there.
Personally, I haven't paid for any reviews for Elusive Ninja yet. I just don't feel like I need to, I think my game is pretty solid and I'm willing to chance it. Plus I'd rather put my money into other forms of marketing. And I like to track my own success (even if there isn't much, that tells me I have stuff to work on and kinks to iron out), so skewing the results doesn't do me much good. Also I'd rather spend money developing my next game than buying reviews and sales for this game since this is only my first release.
But at the end of the day, this all comes down to personal choice on your part as a Developer. You're going to get E-Mails approaching you with offers for these kinds of services once you get your game up on the App Store and pop up on everyone's radar. So decide how you're going to handle things, and if you DO decide to go the route of paying for reviews, downloads, etc. do yourself a favor and set “What do I expect as a result from this?” goals and keep track of whether those goals were achieved or not so you don't dump all your money into services that don't even actually help you out.
I'd just like to take a moment to mention that I think Apple has done a good job in trying to snuff this kind of “tilt the pinball machine” App Store rigging out as much as possible. Cracking down on the buying downloads services, not allowing Promo Code redeemers to review the game, showing you daily stats instead of up to the second stats (so if you get a huge boost you can't tell until the next day, which makes it harder to time when to boost the system), changing the way ranks are calculated so it's not just based on number of downloads but also based on playtime, etc. I think these are all ways Apple is trying to level the playing-field of the App Store so that Developers all have a fair chance.
I'm sure there are still ways to improve things, but kudos to Apple for trying, since on their end it really doesn't matter, they'd make money no matter how fair or unfair the ranking system is but they're trying to even things out for us Developers. Also, if you choose to try one of these “buying reviews” services and Apple bans your App, you're not in any position to complain. You should know that Apple is against you trying to cheat the App Store.
These are often hailed as the holy grail for getting noticed. Elusive Ninja has been reviewed by a couple big sites, a couple tiny sites, and hasn't made it onto the super big sites (Touch Arcade, Gamespot, etc.). So here are my experiences so far:
Getting reviewed by a larger site creates a big spike in your stats. It's not just that the site itself is popular and all its users hear about your game, but because of how connected the Internet is now a review on a large site will get automatically reposted to a ton of other sites, Twitter feeds, etc. I have a column on my TweetDeck that searches for “elusive ninja” so whenever those words are mentioned in a Tweet, it pops up on my radar. When I got reviewed by tipb.com there were suddenly dozens of Tweets and Retweets popping up and all day long I got to watch that column fill up and was super excited. Someone told me the review got “syndicated”, which as far as I cared to figure out basically means “posted friggin' EVERYWHERE”. My sales jumped to an “astronomical” 12-15 sales for about three days (July 5th in the Sales Chart in Article I – Social Marketing), which was a big step up from the 0 – 2 sales a day I was getting before. Visions of skyrocketing upward into millionaire-status and buying a golden speedboat danced through my mind.
A few days later I was back to 0 – 2 sales a day and all the Tweets mentioning the words “elusive ninja” had stopped. :( This is a pattern that happens repeatedly in App Store related stuff. Whether it's your first day sales, attention from a review, contest promotion, Update releases, controversy, etc. The basic pattern is a sudden spike in sales that quickly vanishes if it's not nourished with more spikes, sometimes leaving you at a better day-to-day number than before the spike but sometimes not by much. I think it's best to strategize around this pattern and prepare yourself for it to drop instead of psyching yourself up with visions of golden speedboats (I'll talk about this more in Article IV – Psychology).
As a Gamer and a guy who's run tiny sites in the past, I love them. But stats-wise, these tend to not really do anything, honestly. Like, it's awesome to have a review of your game out there, any mention is good mention when you're building a name and brand and a lot of tiny site Reviewers are cool people who just love to talk about games and you can make some good friends out of it. But realistically in the day-to-day sales stats, a review on a low-traffic website doesn't have any impact. Down the road when you DO drum up publicity for your game and people do some Google searches for reviews, those'll be handy if they're positive reviews, but they generally won't cause massive exposure on their own.
In terms of paying for reviews, if the site is offering to review your game for $30 - $80, do a little research like I outlined in the Banner Ads section and find out what that site's traffic is like. How much “clout” does a review with them actually hold? If the site isn't a huge one, it probably isn't worth the money. If you pay $100 for a review and it really only bumps your sales up by 3 or 4 sales a day for a couple days, was that really worth it? Again, keep track of your results, especially if you invest money.
Because of the spike-based nature of reviews, it's better to have a bunch of reviews hit the net in a short period of time VS a good review popping up here and there. The App Store rankings are heavily influenced by mass amounts of attention in a short time, which result in getting more attention, which results in getting even more attention, etc. as you climb the charts. In Article V - Optimal Marketing Plan I'll talk more about this with relation to reviews.
Sending Promo Codes
As I mentioned in the Promo Codes section, don't send Promo Codes unless the Reviewer asks for them or you're risking just throwing them away and they're a limited resource. And keep in mind that even if you DO send Promo Codes to someone who requests them, that doesn't necessarily mean they'll review your game (I lost a few that way). I even had a little bait 'n switch where someone requested some Promo Codes, then after I sent them they gave their “Cool thanks, so have you considered purchasing ad space on our site...?” where they didn't flat out SAY “if you want this review to happen, buy some ad space” but that was the feeling I was left with from that interaction. The lesson here is just to go in understanding that you're not going to get as many reviews as you might hope for, thus my warning to be frugal with your Promo Codes instead of throwing them around all willy-nilly.
Skip The Personalized E-Mails
This next part might sound kind of bitter, but I swear it's not meant to be haha Basically when you're new, and you have no contacts in the Press at all, and don't know much about marketing services or have money to spend, you're going to probably default to thinking “I'll just E-Mail a bunch of the sites that come up when I Google for iPhone game reviews, and I'll find out the name of the Editors and write a really personalized E-Mail that shows I've read their stuff and include my Press Kit and a Promo Code and offer to help in any way to make this review happen, etc.”
Don't waste your time! I heard back from maybe 2 or 3 sites out of personally E-Mailing a solid 30 of them, and have read similar if not worse stats from other Developers. I spent a long time writing and sending out those E-Mails and it's no beef against the Reviewer...they can't respond to all their E-Mails because they get so many every day and a lot of games get lost in the shuffle or aren't good enough or high-profile enough to warrant doing a review. Hell, they might just not like my game and not want to bother doing up a bad review, and that's cool too. It's totally understandable, but knowing this, consider that if you're going to get the same amount of response from a cut & pasted E-Mail that you will from a customized one, you might as well cut & paste and use the saved time for something more productive.
Down the road you'll know more people in the Press and have more of a presence, and personalized E-Mails, especially to Reviewers who've reviewed your other games, will be worth the extra effort because your name and reputation will hold more weight. Imagine a random new Developer E-Mailing Hideo Kojima saying he likes Metal Gear Solid...then imagine Hideo Kojima E-Mailing a random new Developer saying he likes their game. Which person is going to be more excited at getting the personalized E-Mail?
Different Sites, Different Forms
So you've decided to do all these E-Mails yourself, and you're going to save time by just cutting & pasting a form E-Mail to all the sites. Super! Except you start looking for E-Mail addresses and find some sites have forms to fill out instead of E-Mail addresses. And one site's form is structured in Such And Such A Way, while another site's form is structured in Some Other Way. Suddenly what you thought would be a half hour of shooting out E-Mails has turned into a few days worth of filling out various forms and following different submission guidelines.
This can be a huge pain in the butt and even after a week of doing this you'll probably only have submitted to under 100 sites. So how can we make this more efficient?
I found a few services that, for a fee, will send out your review request to a bunch of different review sites. The one that sounded the best to me was iSpreadNews. It's got pretty low prices compared to other sites, and you can customize what exactly you want them to do. Also their response time and customer service were great. I suggest reading their FAQ because they make some good points in there, especially in the “Do you have plans to expand to the US as part of your submission services?” section. Their submission system is also pretty awesome. I discovered them after I had already E-Mailed a bunch of sites by hand, and found that their features like the “1000 char version of your description”, “100 char version of your description”, etc. forms addressed the common differences I ran into when I was submitting by hand.
I went with the $149 “Western Europe” package (303 sites in 9 languages). I felt like I didn't need “All” because I'm angry at China for pirating my game. haha, no, just kidding. But I figure the 5 review sites in Arabic and the 1 Icelandic site, etc. were probably okay to leave out to save a few bucks since I don't imagine there's a huge market of iPhone Gamers in some of these places. The top places are in the “Western Europe” package and that jives with the “number of users” stats research I had to do for my business course back before I started Bulletproof Outlaws. I submitted my request on July 6th, and I attribute the not-instant-decline of my sales after July 6th to this...plus over the next week I was receiving E-Mails from review sites (around 10 total) asking for Promo Codes and such when before that I wasn't getting any so I know they did actually send out E-Mails. I just wish I had found this service sooner.
I look at it like whether I submitted through the service or whether I submitted by hand, I'd probably get about the same amount of review requests out of it...and I'd rather drop some money and then not have to worry about it anymore and focus on other stuff (like other marketing or designing my next game) than spend a week+ of my time and sanity doing it all by hand. Plus I figure a professional service that focuses on doing this has better contacts and relationships with the sites they're contacting than I do at this point. Like if I were a Reviewer I'd probably pay more attention to a review request submitted by a professional service than by [email protected] haha
The Absurdity Of It All
I'd just like to take a second to point out how silly this all is because what I'm describing isn't even paying for reviews...it's PAYING for the chance TO PAY for reviews haha Pretty absurd concept when you think about it, but that's where the industry is at right now and all we can really do is figure out the best way to work efficiently within this absurd system.
It's important to build relationships with Reviewers and the Press in general. I'll talk about how to do this more in Article V – Psychology, but I think that the personalized E-Mails are more beneficial down the road when you have a little publicity and a game or two under your belt and you've had a few conversations with various Reviewers and Editors. Those relationships will also start to build themselves naturally over time and as you gain experience and your name becomes more well-known. But at the start when you don't have any relationships at all, you might as well use these distribution services because nobody knows you from a hole in the wall anyway and isn't expecting more.
Think of it like the feeling you'd get receiving a generic company-wide Christmas card from the boss of a company you just started working at VS down the road when you've been to the boss' house for dinner a few times and the next year he sends you a personalized Christmas card. You didn't really expect a personalized one the first year, but it'd seem cold if you got a generic one after you two built more of a relationship.
I got these tactics from a marketing document by Mike Amerson of WET Productions (Developer of My Virtual Girlfriend and My Virtual Boyfriend). I set up a Google Alert for “elusive ninja” and “bulletproof outlaws”. If a new review goes up, Google will shoot me an E-Mail saying “hey, there's some new sites with these keywords you specified on them, check it out” and I can see when I get a new review or mention of my stuff. This has been pretty cool because I get to keep tabs on how wide word-of-mouth is spreading, and I can go to these sites and thank the Reviewers for checking out my game and answer comments and questions. It's great for building up relationships.
Another tactic is to set up Google Alerts for games similar to your game. If you make a game about fishing, and you know there are a few other fishing games out there, you might want to set Alerts for the titles of those games because sometimes the sites that reviewed those games will be interested in yours since it's similar. You may see another fishing game reviewed on some fishing enthusiast website you didn't know existed but has a bit following, and the Alert brings it to your attention so you can E-Mail them and send them your game to check out. If you're too lazy to set up Alerts, you can just do Google searches every week and just specify to search by “Past Week” or “Past 24 Hours” etc.
I bookmark all the reviews I get. It makes grabbing quotes and links a lot faster than having to Google them out every time. I use the quotes on my App Store blurb and if I made another trailer I'd use them in that. It also gives me quick access to a list of people I might want to contact directly if I came out with an Update or sequel for the game...or if they dig Bulletproof Outlaws in general, I'd contact them directly to let them know about my next project or send them exclusive content.
I covered this a bit in the Reviews section, but there are a number of services out there to handle some of the common marketing needs a game Developer has. Some of them are pretty cryptic as to what exactly they offer and use a bunch of buzz-words and don't list what exactly their prices are...they'll “create a holistic target-specific synergistic marketing plan customized to your needs”. Hell if I know what that's supposed to mean! I didn't bother contacting any of these companies because I like efficient straight-to-the-point sites.
A site like ComboApp is more up my alley. This lists flat-out a bunch of different services they offer, describes in detail what you can expect for a result, and lists the price. I dig this setup as a Developer...I'd love to have a customized synergistic marketing plan and all, but the reality is I have X amount of dollars, so tell me flat out what can I get for that?
Going through some of the services in their list that I've found are commonly offered by marketing agencies, here are the things I take into consideration just glancing at the descriptions and comparing prices and experiences with other similar services:
The App Release combo package sounds like a good deal just going by their other services. You're getting a Press Release written ($183), 10+ App Store reviews ($98), and get submitted to 50+ review websites ($427) for $499. But if you wrote your own Press Release, and hit a site like UpHype or Fiverr for App Store reviews, you could just get the 50+ review request submissions for $427 and save yourself $60. And even then you could use iSpreadNews to submit review requests to 300+ sites for $149, as mentioned earlier. So then it comes down to figuring out if ComboApps is submitting to any better sites than iSpreadNews would, but since these services don't post up their contact lists (understandably), we can only guess. ComboApps may focus more on North American sites, but if most North American sites expect money for their reviews, you're back to that absurd “paying a service for a chance to pay for a review” situation.
I'm not saying it's not worth it, I haven't used ComboApp and they look professional and are popular and everything and a branded Press Release from a popular site probably holds more weight with Editors than a self-submitted Press Release through a free PR submission service, but these are the kinds of questions you want to think about as an Indie Developer with a limited marketing budget. This comes back to the “make Business Decisions” concept. It's okay to spend money, as long as you do your research and have Business Reasons for spending that money, and you set goals and track the results of spending that money to make future decisions.
I've found that Twitter is generally a flash of exposure. Getting a single mention on someone's 30,000 Follower Twitter is alright, but often the big sites put out so many Tweets that no one really pays much attention to what they're Tweeting and your mention gets lost in the shuffle. And then it's gone within the hour. Something like a Facebook mention stays around for a couple days, and a blog entry or article gets attention for like a week. So if you pay for a Twitter mention from someone, don't get massive hopes up...if 80% of those 30,0000 Twitter Followers don't happen to be checking their Twitter feed at that exact moment, they'll probably never see your mention. How useful would a Twitter post to 30,000 people at 3am on a Tuesday really be? Or a Twitter post at 9am when everyone has 50 new Tweets to go through having just started their day? Or at 2pm when everyone's busy working and not checking their Twitter feeds?
Guaranteed Major Reviews
This is one I would read closely for detail or ask for more information on, but I could see this being decent. Odds are they're just contacting the paid review sites and paying them to review your game, and you might save some money if you do that yourself, but hey, it's time and work off your hands. I'd say the only reviews worth paying for are the ones by major sites with tons of traffic...but even then, it's a big chunk of money so if you're going to invest that, keep track of your stats and determine if it was worth it for next time. And share your findings with the rest of us. ;)
This is basically what I described above with buying downloads, except this sounds more similar to Admob and Flurry App Circle (which I'll talk about in a moment) where you're not paying the people who download your game, you're paying for a higher priority of your game's name or banner being displayed in their marketing system. So say there's a website with a banner spot these guys own, if you pay $1 per download your banner comes up 0.1% of the time, but if you pay $10 per download it comes up 50% of the time. Over time you're likely to end up with a bunch of sales or downloads out of it, but financially you're probably losing money. Do the math before you try something like this.
I didn't see much point to using Admob as an Indie Dev with limited money. Basically you put some money in, state how much you're willing to pay per banner click (this is your “bid”), and the amount that you're willing to pay determines how likely your banner is to show up in that Admob pop-up lots of Apps use. I put in $50, set my bid to the lowest possible (4 cents per click) just to see what would happen. Within a day I had my 1,250 Clicks (1,250 x $0.04 = $50) and 238,000+ Impressions (how many times the banner was displayed). Awesome.
...Except Clicks aren't the same as downloads and there was zero increase in sales that day. So it seems like you're basically paying for people to load your App Store page. If you've got a ton of money to burn, this might be a good way to use it, you can definitely get people to your game's page, but if you have limited funds there's just not much guarantee that this'll pan out into sales to be spending your money on it. Granted my App Store description might just be terrible and someone with a better one might see results, but going by other people's results that I've read, I'm skeptical.
I'd say save your $50 and skip trying Admob if you're a small dev. I can't imagine what the results would be if you dumped in like $5,000, but I'm sure not going to be the one to test that out, losing $50 was enough for me haha
If the main problem with Admob is that Clicks don't necessarily equal sales, then what about a service that only takes money from you each time you get an actual guaranteed sale? That brings us to:
Flurry App Circle
Reading up on Flurry App Circle, I was digging the concept more than Admob. It's the same idea, you put some money in (though you have to put like $250 minimum in, instead of $50) and set your bid (the higher your bid, the more likely your ad is shown). The difference is that App Circle only takes that bid out of your money per actual sale of your game. They determine actual sales based on something like if the user buys your game within a day of that user seeing the App Circle ad it counts as a sale as a result of that ad. Needless to say, this is a lot more reassuring. You could put $500,000 in there and if your game doesn't sell any copies, that money stays un-touched.
Another safe way to play this is that if your game is on the App Store for $1.99, and Apple's cut is 30% leaving you with like $1.40 per sale, and you set your bid to $1.35, you're still netting a $0.05 profit on each sale. So in theory, you could dump in $500,000 and even if all of that goes, you've netted a 5 cent profit on every sale so when you get your money from Apple and balance it out with what you deposited into Flurry, you won't actually have lost any money...that's a pretty fool-proof system. The problem, of course, is that $1.35 is super low on the bidding scale. The average bid is $1.50 and the highest bids exceed $4.00. As of this writing, the “Flurry recommendation engine first generates ideal application recommendations to be displayed to users, bidding is then used to determine the order in which applications will be shown.” So if you're only bidding $1.35, you're probably not going to be shown that often. But if you're not losing money on each sale, who cares?
One important thing I want to mention is that you can set a Daily Budget limit, which if you put any money in, you better make sure you've got this section filled out. I set mine to the full $250 to see what would happen and didn't have any problems, but you don't want to run into a situation where you fluke out and get 50,000 sales but you didn't set a Daily Budget and end up having to owe that money. From what I've read, it looks like you can contact Flurry if you run into that situation and they're pretty cool about it, but don't be dumb, protect yourself just to be safe!
So I threw in $250 for Elusive Ninja, with a bid of $1.35 per install ($1.99 on the App Store, so a 5 cent profit with each install). Over the past month or so I've had 52,000+ Impressions and 6,499 Clicks, and 6 total installs via App Flurry and because I'm only paying per install instead of per Click my $250 has only dropped 6 sales worth (and Apple will be giving me that money back with a 5 cent profit when they pay out).
The end verdict on this one is that there's no real down-side to using App Circle if you set a Daily Budget and make sure your bid is low enough to make sure you're still making a few cents profit on each sale...but don't expect much from it if you're using that strategy. If you bump your bid up to like $4.00+ I'm sure your sales will shoot up fast, but if you have a $0.99 game you'll be losing $3 per install...if you have a ton of money to spend on marketing and you're trying to boost your sales to pull off a Super Combo, this could help you climb the charts which would hopefully pay itself off, but if you're a poor Indie this might not be an optimal marketing avenue.
If I had a bunch of money to burn and caught a big bump in sales from some event, and I was trying to boost it up further with a Super Combo strategy and it came down to choosing between App Circle and Admob, I'd go with App Circle because you're only paying for legitimate installs.
The Almighty Apple Feature
Everyone knows this is the big one. It's a magical wonderful mysterious instant sales boost that propels you into fame & fortune (for a few days at least), and nobody really knows what the criteria for being Featured is or how it's determined which App will get the golden ticket. The unfortunate news is that I don't know how Apple's Feature system works either, so if you're reading this hoping to find out how to get Featured, I can't tell you that. But I can tell you a few things related to it, based on what I've researched:
What MIGHT Affect It
This is based on reading about the experiences of people who've been Featured, and some basic logic. The jist seems to be that Apple tends to Feature games that make their system look good. Whether it's that you use a bunch of the device's features (Game Center, multiplayer, accelerometer, etc.), or that you're showing off phenomenal graphics (Infinity Blade anyone?), or that you're doing something totally new with your game design or control scheme that no one has done before (Pocket God, etc.).
On top of that, it seems like a large number of sales in a short period of time gets Apple's attention. If a game is catching on with the masses, Apple is likely to show it off. It's possible that a lot of 5-Star reviews may get a game to show up on Apple's radar, but I couldn't begin to guess how many you'd need or what ratio of good to bad reviews you'd need. There's also knowing someone at Apple or getting a specific Apple employee's attention directly, but if you can do that you're probably not reading this article. :)
You can find a lot of people's tips and advice on how to get Featured by doing a simple Google search. There's all sorts of theories on it that go into way more detail, like creating niche Apps, releasing them on specific days of the week, etc. So just as a final note: E-Mailing Apple directly and asking to be Featured, or reminding them of how awesome your game is doesn't seem to do anything. I don't know if it hurts, but it definitely doesn't seem to influence them positively, going by what I've read from Developers who've tried it.
New & Noteworthy
When your game first goes live, you'll automatically get mentioned in the New & Noteworthy section so for a day you get to feel awesome and get a chance for your game to fluke out and catch on before it gets pushed down the charts by all the other New & Noteworthy games. This is a big part of why Developers try to focus their marketing and sales on Day 1, you've automatically been given a slight foothold on a silver platter by default that you'll probably never get that easily again so that's the time you want people checking out your game.
Prepare In Advance
From what I've read, when Apple IS planning to Feature you it can be pretty out of the blue and mysterious. You basically get an E-Mail from Apple saying “Send us a bunch of art at such and such sizes.” and you're not sure what exactly is going on. But you send what they request off to them and next thing you know, bam, you're Featured and your sales are spiking like crazy and you sail off into the sunset on your golden speedboat.
...actually, Apple asking for more artwork is NOT a guarantee you'll actually get Featured, as a few super-disappointed Devs have found out the hard way (ouch!! What a kick in the nuts hey). But either way, it's good to have this stuff ready to go. Check the iTunes Connect Developer Guide (the “Promotional Artwork” section specifically) for what sort of stuff you should have ready to go.
Plan a Super Combo
So you've just been Featured by Apple. All you do now is sit back and watch the money roll in and look up which model of golden speedboat you want to buy, right? Well, you CAN do that, but like I stated earlier, everything in the App Store tends to follow the same pattern of a sudden spike followed by a steep drop-off and back into nothingness. A Feature isn't necessarily any different aside from being bigger in proportion. Sure, if you get Featured and it dies off you're probably going to still be doing better on a day-to-day basis than you were before the Feature, but when Rovio, Chillingo, Halfbrick, etc. get Featured do you think they just sit back and relax? Or do they do stuff to help boost their game even further up the charts?
Whether it's buying a visual revamp of the Touch Arcade website's background, using a marketing agency to spread massive word-of-mouth, Launching Press Releases announcing the Feature, holding contests for prizes, creating merchandise, adding updates, etc. try to have a general plan in mind for what you'll do if your game gets Featured. You'll really only have anywhere from a couple days to a week max to put a plan into action before the magic of the Feature wears off like the Invincibility Star in Mario and you're back to running away from Goombas...so a little planning ahead of time could be the difference between the Feature boosting your rank to 60 on the charts and then you drop back down to 150 after a week, or the Feature boosting your rank to 60 on the charts and your Super Combo secures you a place in the Top 20 for a couple months.
This is a relatively new concept the Internet has created. The jist is that you put up a page announcing you need money for your project, and thousands of people interested in it all donate a few bucks (and often get something from the Developer in return, whether it's their name in the game or a free copy of the game when it's done, etc.). The person posting the project ends up with the funding they need, and everyone is only out a small amount of money. It's a fascinating concept and I might dabble in it myself if I get financially tight and can't fund a project with my own money.
Here's a blog with a list of 9 crowdfunding websites. Be sure to do your research before you sign up with any of them.
This seems to be the most popular service for crowdfunding right now. The FAQ on the Kickstarter website explains everything pretty clearly, so I won't re-hash it all. Here's a link to Robots Love Ice Cream's Kickstarter page that you can use for an example of how to present your project, rewards you can offer, etc. This one made the rounds on Twitter and got some blog mentions and has successfully achieved its $18,000 funding.
And with that we conclude the main ways to blow all our rent money on advertising haha They say you have to spend money to make money. Huge corporations like Pepsi, Nike, etc. invest a ton of money into their marketing every year, not even to get instant results but just to keep their brand in the public eye. As Indie Devs we generally don't have a ton of money, and when we DO make money, we're eager to hold onto it with an iron grip or invest it into the development of the next game etc., instead of investing some of it right back into marketing to keep feeding the fire. The main thing is just to make sure you do your research and track your results. Have definite goals and if you're not achieving them, fiddle with your formula. There's no shame in making mistakes, unless a little research could have prevented them. :)
Coming up: Article III – Game Related & Maintenance, where I'll cover game related marketing like what to put in a Press Kit, writing and sending out Press Releases, the benefits of keeping a development blog, and some guidelines for maintaining all the marketing I've discussed, like keeping your social media presence up, and handling and responding to negative reviews of your game!