Marketing your iPhone Application – A Starter’s Guide

So, you have created your first (or tenth) iPhone app and want to start selling it. Well according to Apple, all you have to do is upload it to the App Store and wait for the cash to start rolling in.

But wait, you just noticed the other 500,000 apps in the App Store!

Where is your app?

Why is no one downloading it?

Well, just like in all other aspects of business and marketing if no one knows where to find it, or they don’t even know it exists why do you think they are going to buy it?

Selling your app is all about exposure (marketing), but marketing does not have to mean dollars, if you use a bit of common sense and are willing to put in some effort you should be able to get your app noticed and convince a few people to download it. Don’t fool yourself though, if your app sucks people will figure it out and then all the marketing in the world will not earn you another dollar.

Provided below are some helpful pointers here to help get your app noticed, and hopefully turn that interest into sales.

The first step though is building the app correctly and that requires…


Focus, can’t say this enough. Keep the app focused to a specific function. Mobile computing, including the iPhone, is all about casual usage and impulse purchases. No one sits down to use the iPhone for two hours, or even 10 minutes. They bounce in and out of apps, games, texts, phone calls. One function at a time, easy, immediate access to the function is key, no searching through menus will be tolerated.

The mistake some developers make is in trying to differentiate their apps by adding extra features, hoping those extra features make their app more appealing to the end user. But remember how the iPhone is used, if your users have to search for a feature inside your application they will get frustrated and stop using it (the Settings app created by Apple is a perfect example of how not to develop something).

Hint: If you have 10 distinct functions in your app why not build 10 apps, which will create 10 times the exposure to your users, 10 times the chance they will buy one or more of the apps.

Buff don’t polish

Developers smarter than me have proposed the idea of putting just enough effort into an application to allow it to be useful without pissing their users off. I whole heartedly agree with this, especially given the other advice we provided earlier to the iPhone developer regarding focused functions.

Draw the line in the right place though, make the app professional and make sure it works. Nothing turns people off more than an app that crashes or loses data.

Hint: Be careful not to over polish; you do not need to be a perfectionist. As long as it does what you say it does you are good to go, get it into the market and see if anyone cares. If it is really popular then you can add polish.

That being said, make the app complete; help pages and about screens make the app look professional and provide extra information that lets your users know you are serious about maintaining the app. It also provides a location to advertise you, your development company and your other apps.

Make sure your graphics and icons are professional and clear, especially if this is a game or graphic application. Be inventive; many users make decisions simply by looking at the icon or the promotional images and screen shots in the app store. Make them flashy but also representative, no one likes to be misled. When users have choices (and the likelihood of yours being being the only app of its type in the app store is almost zero) they will go with the app that looks more professional, even if it is not as good.

Release Early; Update Often

The final piece of advice in the buff don’t polish vein deserves its own heading. You are releasing your app early to get feedback from your customers (exposure), use it. They are a fickle bunch and demand attention, give it to them.

If good ideas are suggested incorporate them and release an update. If there are bugs reported, fix them and release an update.

If the bug (or bugs) are a show stopper and you take too long to respond it could kill the app forever, it will drop in the ratings and it will never recover.

By updating often your users will develop loyalty that you can use when you release the next version or your next app.

Quick Note: Updates no longer take your app back to the top of the Release Date list, so you cannot use this as a way of getting more exposure, but you should respect your user base and make the appropriate changes.

So your app is ready now what?

Getting Your App Approved by Apple

Apple is fairly clear in their instructions about what they want you to do before you submit. They control the process, there is no use fighting the system. Do what they ask and make sure all of their criteria are met.

Here is the biggest one…no crashes.

There is zero tolerance for crashes and I am sure this does not need explanation.

That being said your app should also do what you say it does. The testers are not stupid and have seen lots of apps, if your app does not perform the function it is designed for, if there are buttons that are not connected, if there are links that do not work it will get rejected.

Another big one…read the Developer Program License Agreement (Linked Here) and make sure you are not violating anything in it. Apple is very clear; if you violate anything in the license agreement your app will be rejected.

Follow the Human Interface Guidelines (Linked Here). Apple is all about user experience, if you try to do anything that deviates from the expected usage of the iPhone they will reject your app. You are investing a lot of time in the development of your app, take the time and read the guidelines, make sure you follow them. If you are concerned ask Apple the question, they would rather tell you in advance than waste the testers time and reject your app.

Fill out the device list; as part of the app submission Apple asks you to identify the device list and the operating system versions that are compatible with your app. Make sure you fill this out properly and make it as inclusive as possible. You want to be exposed to as many devices as you can.

WARNING: Don’t stretch the truth, if your app isn’t tested on a platform assume it doesn’t work. Apple will test it and will reject your app if it fails on a platform you say you support.

Apple actually provides a FAQ detailing important tips to remember when submitting your app, read them (Linked Here). Remember even if it only take a few days to get your app approved, each time it gets rejected is a delay in getting into the market and results in lost revenue.

Here is a short summary of some of the other items that will get you rejected:

Keywords: Part of the submission process is providing keywords to assist in the search for your app. The keywords must be accurate and applicable. You can not use copyrighted or trademarked names from other games.

Sexual Content: ’nuff said, if you really want to go there you are treading on thin ice with Apple.

Easter eggs: Apple understands the appeal of hidden gems within your app, but they insist on the developer identifying them, if you do not and they stumble upon them they will reject the app.

Error Messages Make sure you tell the user exactly what is happening at all times, if something fails, tell the user, if the network is offline, tell the user, if there are any erroneous conditions, tell the user. This goes back to user experience, Apple does not want the user frustrated in the use of the “Apple” device.

Copyright Infringement: This is not just an approval issue but a legal obligation. Make sure you are not using copyrighted images or ideas. Make sure you are not using trademarked names. Even if it slips through Apples filter you do not want to be served with a cease and desist order. The easiest place to get caught out is images and sounds, if you are not sure where you got the image or the sound assume it is not yours to do with as you please. There are plenty of locations on the web (Creative Commons is a great one) where you can get free content, use these resources.

Linking to private frameworks The Apple API does not give you unlimited access to the internals of the iPhone or the iTouch. You may find yourself scratching your head wondering how to do something, and in some cases Apple may have decided that you just aren’t allowed to do it. There are plenty of “private frameworks”, libraries that provide access to the lower layers of the iPhone hardware. If Apple detects that you are using these they will likely reject the app.

If you are interested, there are web sites that provide a forum for venting about reasons, real or imagined, justified or unjust, that apps were rejected by Apple. Check them out, it never hurts to find more information (

Free versus Paid Versions

One method that developers use to attract attention and to get people to try their app is a free but limited version. Traditionally this has worked extremely well, especially in the PC gaming world.

The theory goes like this…get your customers to try and enjoy the free version and they will like it and then pay for the full version. This still doesn’t solve the problem of how to attract the customers but it does remove the reluctance to try the app in the first place.

We will discuss the marketing of the app in the next section but I wanted to provide a few pros and cons of using free version before we started.

– Allows your customers to try the app and determine if they like it.
– You can advertise your paid version and other apps inside the app.
– You can upgrade them automatically with in-app purchases.
– If they like your app they will upgrade to the paid version.

– They may decide they don’t like it and not upgrade.
– You may put too much functionality in the free version and they don’t have to upgrade.
– Your customer didn’t have to pay for it, they may not even have tried it properly, but they are allowed to leave comments and ratings, and they may decide to trash your app in the ratings.
– You may actually reduce your paid sales.

The decision to do a free version may very well hinge on the cost of your paid app. One dollar (or $0.99) is not a huge barrier to entry and most people will just pay the dollar and try your app. In this case you are better off forgetting about the free app and just hoping for the casual sales. On the other hand if you intend to charge $5 or $10 for you app then you should seriously consider a free version, most people will not spend $5 on a whim and will want to get a sense of the capabilities of your app before paying.

Apple puts limits on what you can and can’t do in the free version. Basically it must look and act like a real app, no grayed out buttons, no obviously restricted functionality, no nag messages about upgrading. You can do the in-app purchase of the paid version but you can not do this with annoying pop-ups. Make it a nice experience and your customers will want to upgrade.

Where Do I List my app in the App Store?

I am not sure if you have ever looked but finding new or specific apps in iTunes is a brutal experience. The main sections on the front page are all controlled by Apple. Unless your app is on one of the top charts (and if you are you don’t need this article anyway) you will never show up on the front page. Navigating to the various categories is hard, so assume user will have to stumble across your app and act accordingly. They might find it in Search so make sure your key words are good.

List your app in the App Store category that makes sense. Apple will not let you list in an invalid category (i.e. putting a game in the GPS section) but they do let you move things around a bit. Try placing your game in a sub-category that has less items…Dice Games is always a good choice. There are fewer apps there and you might end up on the front page, the down side is that fewer people bother to look in that sub-category, so on average you will likely see just as many views regardless of were you are listed.

On the iPhone and iTouch App Store you will be visible on a front page for a bit longer. One page in each category is sorted by release date, so for at least a day you will be on the front page. Apple use to move your app back to the top of the list every time an update comes out, but they found they were flooded with updates, so they now only list the app on the top of the list the first time. this causes an interesting side effect, program options being used to create different apps. As of the writing of this article there are 20 version of Tic-Tac-Toe, each in a different colour or with different icons. Each one got to the top of the list the day it was released. Did this help sales of the app? Only the developer knows, but I assure you Apple will close that hole eventually as well.

Some people claim that you can “game” the system. Manipulate your app, your preferences, your keywords; change the price, make the app free one day, paid the next, run holiday specials; all in hopes of getting a different place on the App Store lists. I am not a big fan of this, go ahead and try it, doesn’t really hurt, but do your homework and try the various viral marketing ideas shown below, you will get much bigger return on your time investment.

OK, so your app is approved, now comes the hard part, how do you let people know about it?

Create a Web Presence

You are going to be telling people about your app (advertising) so you need a landing pad for them. The App Store is an obvious choice for this landing pad but it is embedded inside iTunes. It is good to have as many other locations for your customers to find your app as possible.

Create a web page to advertise your app. Depending on how prolific you are (how many apps not kids) you may decide to create a web site dedicated to all of your apps, your choice, but create a destination for your app, somewhere to send people when they ask about it, somewhere you can post information and notices.

Every little bit of extra exposure helps and it makes you look that much more professional. Submit the web site to be crawled by your favorite search engines, do not assume this will happen automatically.

Create a Facebook Page for your app, it doesn`t cost anything and provides a different location to advertise the app. Open all the privacy settings, you want everyone to know about it. Use this as a destination for all of you in-game status updates (see below), in addition to posting on your users Facebook pages.

Same goes with Twitter, if you are going to integrate Twitter updates into your app (for games especially) then create a page where people can go to see all of the information. Create a Twitter feed for all your apps, allow your users to post information there, helpful tips, upgrade requests, create a community around your app.

If you are creative, or know anyone creative, create a marketing video and post it on YouTube. Using iMovie and a simplescreen capture tool and the iPhone simulator you can easily create a video that highlights the features of your app and make it visible to everyone who wants to stumble across it.

Tell People

You have created the marketing presence and now you need to tell people about it. I am not going to talk about banner ads and other traditional marketing mechanisms. If you have a marketing budget that is definitely the way to go, you need to get your app in front of your potential customers, banner ads and google ad words is a fairly normal avenue. If you don`t have a budget then you need to be more creative.

Tell your social circles about the app, Facebook, Twitter, MySpace (does anyone use that anymore?). Send them links to the your web page, your web page, your twitter page. Encourage them to tell their social circles. Tweet about your app, invite people to become friends of your Facebook page. Don’t be afraid to post links to any reviews that are posted online, be proud of your app, tell your friends about the success.

WARNING: Don’t become annoying. Your social circle will be happy to heard about your app once. But if you spam them every day they will tune out

Get your App Reviewed

As much as you might be reluctant to submit to someone else’s review, comments and critisisms get your app submitted to specialty app review sites. Each one will require you to fill in a submission form talking about your app. Be aware it might not get reviewed so submit as many as you can. Even though the iPhone is geared towards casual usages and impulse downloads some users will always read the reviews to learn about new apps and new ideas.

Be happy with any review you do receive, read it, absorb it, take the comments and update your app if required. All publicity is good publicity. Each time the app is mentioned it will generate a few more hits and a few new downloads. If the app is good it will slowly become popular.

Every time you get reviewed Tweet about it, post to your Facebook status, let people know.

Here are some of the more populate review sites:

Touch Arcade (for games obviously)

The Portable Gamer

Slide To Play

148 Apps

Reaching Out from Within Your App

In keeping with the mantra that you need to keep telling people about your app and your happy users it is possible to automatically, from within your app, allow people to post to their own Facebook or Twitter pages and tell their social circle about your app. This is what eventually generates the exponential interest that makes the app highly successful.

Both Facebook and Twitter have APIs that allow you to embed this capability in your app. For example, I have posted high scores for various games to my Twitter page as well as posted a GPS description of my lunch time run. Maybe no one really cares where I ran at lunch but they know what app I used to track it and I am sure that generated a little bit extra interest in that app.

For a little bit of extra work in building the app you can add in the “Post to Facbook” button and allow your customers to reach out and do your advertising for you.

Facebook API
Twitter API

There are no guarantees that your app will be successful, especially if you are doing this as a hobby but with a little bit of extra effort you can make sure at least some people know about it and maybe put a few dollars in your pocket.

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