Marketing iPhone apps shouldn’t just be a field of dreams

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I had more meetings than I can remember at last week’s Worldwide Developer Conference where some variation on the following exchange took place:

Me: “So what’s your marketing strategy?”

Developer: “We expect viral marketing to work well.”


Developer: “You mean outside of getting it on the App Store? Nothing, really.”

“Viral marketing” is a new media term for “getting people to talk about your product.” And while viral campaigns can work well, they’re very much hit or miss—it’s very hard to predict how well it will work.

The outcome of this scenario is sad and predictable.

Within weeks of the App Store’s introduction, some developers will be declaring native apps on the iPhone an abject failure because they haven’t sold the huge numbers they imagined they would. Or that the App Store is somehow at fault because they didn’t get the high-level placement they expected.

And their moaning and gnashing of teeth will be picked up by new media types and industry wonks, who will use their blogs and columns to say that the App Store isn’t working, or that Apple is keeping too much for itself, or that Apple is too cozy with some developers and not showing enough love to others.

What’s worse is that this outcome is totally avoidable with some careful planning and some effective business management.

We see this even today with Mac products. Too many developers think that advertising and marketing is a waste of time, or only consider it an afterthought to creating a product. They consider that sending a press release to assorted Mac news outlets is a viable marketing campaign.

Believe me, as one of the guys who writes the product news updates you read on Macworld, I’m delighted to get that information. But I also get a little worried when I hear from developers—as I do, on an almost daily basis—that what I do with their press release is the difference between people knowing about their product releases and not knowing, because they have no other way of letting users know. It shouldn’t be that way.

A focused, sustained marketing effort to build awareness of your company’s products needs to be a cornerstone of any successful developer’s efforts to create a brand. Yeah, it costs money. And it’s the kind of money that makes some people who see the world in black and white a bit nervous, because it’s not always easy to track how well it’s working. Web page ad click-through rates and magazine reader surveys and circulation numbers don’t always tell the whole story.

It’s sadly easy for a company with a lousier product to come in with some strategic partnerships and a better ad campaign and clean your clock, even if you’ve built the better mousetrap. Just look at Apple and Microsoft. There may be chinks in Microsoft’s armor, maybe even some big holes these days, but the company is still the market leader in operating system sales.

Many of the developers with whom I spoke last week are under the misapprehension that the movie Field of Dreams is a viable business plan. It most assuredly is not. “Build it and they will come” worked great for Kevin Costner to summon the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson, but it isn’t a viable alternative for a company looking to build a customer base, brand and product awareness.

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