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App Best Practices: Follow the Leader

Following App Best Practices will save time and money in both mobile app development and app marketing.

While a variety of sites have put forth “mobile app best practices,” most of these recommendations are vague at best. Distimo's recent blog post on Apple's App Store, for example, clarifies the number of downloads necessary to make the top 25 list for the paid and free versions of all app categories. Making such lists is helpful, but there are many other successful strategies to consider. Here are just a few:

Community Matters
The numbers are grim: Most developers gross $5,000 or less from their best, most polished apps. Creative genius and programming chops aside, what you really need is an effective marketing campaign to land a hit. Apart from Google+, Facebook and Twitter, where exactly do your prospective customers spend their time? Invest some energy to explore influential web sites, blogs and even forums where your audience exchanges thoughts, ideas and reviews. You can also save some time by seeking the assistance of a marketing professional, PR firm (like Novy PR), or intern. If you can’t find a suitable web site, forum or community anywhere, you may need to reevaluate whether a market for your app actually exists.

Once you find your community, work on establishing an official presence. Find a way to contribute. Respond to other people's questions, discuss your app's features, and ask for feedback. (Avoid asking people to download your app, which could mark you as a “spammer.”) Your involvement may lead to recommendations, downloads, and ratings. Gamasutra is a very effective (and free) resource for blogging--with informed commenters and plenty of opportunities for engagement.

While it is wise to capitalize on social media, talking about your app on social media platforms should not be the central part of your marketing plan. If your business is new, it's unlikely that you'll have enough followers--a strong component of a successful launch.

Know Your Foe
Becoming familiar with your competitors will not only provide value, but could be the difference between success and failure. Download and study competing apps to get a feel for their strengths and weaknesses. Consider adding and improving your app based on these strengths, but avoid feature creep—and resist being a “copycat”; if you’re tempted to borrow others’ ideas, be sure to hire legal (app) counsel to guide you in the right direction. Remember: Ideas cannot be protected; only the fixed expression of ideas can be protected.

It's also wise to gauge the public’s response to your competitors. Sift through both blog and customer reviews for criticism and suggestions. Learn from their mistakes so that you develop a superior app.

You should be familiar with your competitor’s apps before even going into pre-production; this familiarity will allow you conduct a competitive analysis, know your target market, and become informed of associated media outlets.
   
The Price is Right
You should determine your monetization approach early in the app planning process. Knowing how to make money from an app before development starts is crucial because it will define features, marketing, and post-launch content creation.

A popular alternative is to give your app away so that players can try it and come back for more. Eighty-six percent of app downloads are free, so charging customers for access will limit your exposure. That said, you shouldn’t ignore the desire to recoup your costs and make a profit. Paid apps generate steady revenue and are considered more worthy of attention by the press--one reason why Rovio sells Amazing Alex for $0.99 for iPhone and iPod touch and prices the HD version at $2.99 (iPad).

Of course, the freemium business model does have its advantages. This approach lets users download and “test drive” your app for free with access to the core game. Those interested in the full experience can pay for additional content through In-App Purchases (IAP). You can offer different upgrade packages--each requiring a payment--or a full set of upgrades for one price.

The freemium approach can increase your game’s download figures, help it climb the charts in the associated App Store category, and even generate revenue. As your app continues to rise in popularity, it will get more downloads and even snowball into a hit!

Memorable Trailers are a Must
Potential customers should know what they can expect from your app. A trailer is a great tool to show what your app does, but it also lures in potential customers. Ideally, your trailer should build anticipation. At a minimum, it should generate interest.

The trailer should have studio quality sound. Make sure you have the proper license if you use music or sound effects that you do not own—whether through a sound library or permission from the sound recording owner and publisher/songwriter/composer. You should hire an actor if you want your trailer narrated. If you can't afford to hire an actor, a cost-effective alternative is to use captions instead of voice. (Using captions with or without voice is recommended, since it allows for audio accessibility compliance.)

Keep these seven ideas in mind when developing your trailer:

  1. Leave the viewer wanting more: A 30-second trailer is long enough. Don't test viewers' patience.
  2. Focus on your app: With few exceptions, your trailer should focus on material relating directly to your app (preferably in game)--not on talking heads or footage from your awesome beachfront studio!
  3. Highlights: Show your app's two or three best features—such as gameplay, visual style, music or physics.
  4. Cost: Clarify whether or not consumers will have to pay for your app.
  5. Availability: Platform (Android/iOS) and a solid release date should be included. (If you can’t say “February 2013” say “Q1 2013.”)
  6. Basic info: Be sure to include your app’s title, website URL, download URL, and links to all social networking profiles. (These can be shown as annotations on YouTube.)
  7. Contracts: Don’t forget to execute all necessary agreements (including work for hire and assignment documents) with everyone (e.g., actors, musicians, producer) who helped create your trailer.

Lust for Feedback
Positive user feedback helps drive downloads. To date, only the Amazon Appstore provides suggestions based on purchase habits. This means you need sales and feedback to move up to the top of the list.

Instead of asking users to provide feedback, make it easy for users by linking your feedback page within your app. Include a prompt timed to appear after a player enjoys your app for 30 minutes or whether certain features are triggered (e.g., multiplayer).

To encourage feedback, provide additional content for those who provide it. Do not require positive feedback; you don't want to become targeted by the FTC or an aggressive attorney for misleading consumers. Similarly, don't engage in “astroturfing” (asking employees, friends, and family members to write reviews saying that your app is the greatest thing they've ever seen); not only is this misleading since they aren't typical consumers, but it screams desperation--and people can smell this from miles away!

In Closing
The gold rush is over. If you want your app to stand out, you’ll need to prepare yourself for the fight of your life. This means allowing for plenty of pre-production, investing in market research, engaging your audience wherever they are, and pricing your app properly. It’s not uncommon for great games to vanish into thin air--or for mediocre games to become hits. The key is to never lose sight of the end goal: Deliver a unique app to the masses and reap the rewards of months of hard work!

*I'd like to thank Sabrina Narain for helping me draft and revise this article.

Jovan Johnson is a California licensed attorney who focuses on SEO, mobile games, and apps. He is passionate about mentoring students and steering dollars to scholarships, and speaks regularly about career opportunities. He is a principal at Johnson Moo, FurzyPaymaster.Co, and 320 Instrumentals.

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