How Do You Sell Apps When Advertising Doesn’t?

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According to a great blog post by TapTapTap principal John Casasanta yesterday, advertising your iPhone or iPad application is useless. TapTapTap has created and published some of the App Store’s greatest successes, and it says at least one of those apps, Camera+, did it without spending any money on advertising. That begs the question: If you can’t sell apps by advertising them, then what does lead to sales?

First of all, let’s go over the main points of Casasanta’s very convincing argument. He comes out against advertising on the basis that:

  1. Returns, if any, don’t come anywhere near justifying the investment.
  2. Brands don’t matter for small companies; products do.
  3. Ads are terrible for short-term profitability.
  4. The App Store is a dramatically different place (busier, with more expensive ad options) compared to what it was when ads were an effective strategy.

In general, advertising is a model that’s found it hard to gain purchase in the contemporary digital marketplace, and that’s not becoming any less true in the growing mobile market. Om talked a bit about the shortcoming of advertising in digital media in his predictions for 2011, and those statements ring true with Casasanta’s point: Your money, and your attention, is better focused elsewhere.

Other developers I spoke with echoed Casasanta’s thinking, too. Ken Seto, co-founder of Endloop studios, said this about his company’s advertising strategy:

The only ads we’ve ever tried was [sic] for iMockups.  We did a 1 month targeted ad on a design blog ad network.  I think we saw a little bit of a sales improvement for a couple of days (about 15% more sales) then sales went right back to normal. Needless to say we did not recoup our ad spending.

Saying a definitive “no” to advertising doesn’t mean shutting down marketing efforts altogether, however. Even if you have an amazing app, just dropping it in the App Store and turning your back will never be an effective strategy. Instead, the most successful apps I’ve seen have done a great job of doing what ads very rarely seem able to accomplish: generate real buzz and enthusiasm from the user community.

It’s not an exact science, but there are some ingredients common to strategies that manage to do this. The first, and most essential, ingredient is a quality product. That apps that gain lasting success don’t do so by being poorly designed and hastily thrown together. Angry Birds wouldn’t be the ongoing, massive success story that it is if its developers had settled for “good enough” when working on character art, animations and gameplay mechanics.

The next most important thing, and the place where most seem to get lost, is to foster the support of the Apple developer and user community by being an active, worthwhile participant. Casasanta’s blog post is a perfect example. He’s not just resting on his laurels, even having achieved a high level of success with his titles. Instead, he’s using his experience to give back to the community that made his company a success, even going so far as to actually share insight with potential competitors. EA and Gameloft can get away with plugging their apps into the system and moving on to the next, re-invigorating attention on occasion with bargain-basement sales. Independent developers most definitely cannot.

Community engagement has benefits beyond just getting your name out there, as it can actually help you make better apps. Look at Bolt Creative, the studio behind Pocket God. They’ve managed to consistently stay in and around the top 50 paid apps and spun off multiple products (comics, an iPad app) just by paying attention to community requests, and engaging with other developers to deliver value-packed updates to existing customers.

Being an active part of the community of users and creators surrounding the App Store may not be easy (definitely more time- and energy-consuming than handing a check to an ad agency), but unlike with app advertising, at least you’ll see a worthwhile return on your investment. But don’t take it from me. Check out the devs behind your favorite apps, and see how much they blog/tweet/generally engage with other devs, blog writers and users. It shouldn’t take long to see what I’m talking about.

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