Six Digital Strategies for a Happier, Healthier App

One of the things about working in the interactive space for a long time is that we've talked to tons of folks about their projects. When we talk about new projects that are launching, I ask a lot of questions about their digital strategy. Here are some ideas to address the most common mistakes and misconceptions that I see in digital strategies for app developers.

One of the things about working in the interactive space for a long time is that we’ve talked to tons of folks about their projects. When we talk about new projects that are launching, I ask a lot of questions about their digital strategy. It helps me get a feel for their level of commitment, their experience and familiarity with the market, as well as their business savvy. Below are some ideas to address the most common mistakes and misconceptions that I see in digital strategies for app developers. Polishing your digital strategy means a significant boost for your chances of success!

1. Refine your idea until you can talk about it really succinctly

When asked what you’re doing or to explain your idea, be succinct. It’s called an elevator pitch because you’re supposed to be able to say it in the time it takes to ride a few floors on an elevator (30 seconds to 2 minutes). The Internet has tons of advice on pitching, including amazing examples from the pitches of major startups. Even if you’re not sure or you’re experimenting with pitch formats and ideas, be aware of how long you’re talking. It’s rude to soliloquize.

2. Research your competitors extensively 

At least once a week, someone tells me that they’re doing something “no one has ever done before.” If I poke further, they often are unable to even point out products with some similar features.

You have competitors. I promise you. Are they doing exactly what you’re doing? Perhaps not. But if you’re making a digital product, do your homework. (I talked about some ways to collect intel on competitors before).

It’s not a bad thing to discuss competitors, if you do it smartly. Explain what strengths you hold over your competitors. That speaks volumes about your knowledge of the industry and also demonstrates that there’s a need in the market.

3. Learn the numbers

Sally made an app for $50,000. How many units does she need to sell on the iPhone App Store to recover that cost if she charges $2.99?

Have you ever watched Shark Tank or Dragon’s Den? It’s a television format where entrepreneurs pitch their products and services to investors. I love it. About once a month, an entrepreneur is pretty much slaughtered though for not knowing the numbers inside out. Knowing the numbers not only helps you look confident, but it also demonstrates your understanding of all aspects of the business.

I ask a lot of people what number of purchases makes them happy. The ones who have spent time looking at the bottom line respond with a number of caveats, ranging from budget, length of time on the market, platform, etc. In the end, however, they can still provide a basic number that indicates a moderate level of success. It’s a great shortcut to seeing if they understand the basics of developing a financial model for their app.

The problem is that most people have clearly never thought about their app in terms of cold, hard numbers. I’m not even looking for complicated financial models, I just want to see some understanding of the basics, like the above question.

Sally needs about 24,000 app purchases to recoup $50,000 development costs. (For $2.99, she’ll recoup $2.09 per purchase — Apple takes 30%. $50,000 divided by $2.09 = 23,924.)

4. Account for every single cost in development

If Sally budgeted $50,000, I’d expect that budget to include basic development costs, including programmer costs, art, and voice over. But what about legal? Marketing? Overhead for an office? Sally’s time? Apps are a business, which means every cost needs to be realistically accounted for, otherwise you’re fooling yourself when you determine the minimum number of purchases needed to break even. (At the same time, you have to be reasonable about your time. Another Shark Tank faux paus is giving yourself a six figure salary with the investment!)

5. Have a marketing plan 

Once upon an app, you could just release it into the world and Prince Viral Marketing would sweep your app away to purchases, profitability, and press. But with scads of amazing apps in every category, Cinderella stories like this are few and far between these days.

That means once you pour your heart and soul into creating the app, you need to pour at least another heart and soul into marketing it. Yet when I speak with aspiring and current app makers, I often ask about their marketing plan. I get a lot of “We’ll worry about that when we get there,” or blank looks, or I’m told they can’t afford marketing.

I can’t urge you strongly enough to have a marketing plan from day one. I spoke about some ideas during my iKids session Games Anatomy – Deconstructing Success in Children’s Games a few weeks ago.

In short, you need a social media presence, free or demo versions, app trailers and a channel on YouTube, partnerships that will help promote you (such as Kindertown), informational screenshots and rock-solid descriptions in the app stores, educational outreach materials, and reviews from commercial organizations as well as from users.

And marketing costs money, even if it’s simply your time. Make sure you account for that in your budgets and set aside $$ to invest in various marketing strategies.

6. Invest in technology (reasonably) 

I understand budgets are lean and you need to cut costs wherever possible, but it’s risky business to hope that you can cut your development costs by sourcing a developer who will work at a discounted rate or simply for equity. For developers, it’s like the Manhattan real estate market out there — programmers are a limited commodity and they come at a premium price, especially during boom markets like now. They see the massive number of apps in the app store and know that you’re project is very unlikely to recoup costs because the competition is so stiff. The risk of someday making money on the equity share may not be all that appealing.

That’s not to say that you won’t find someone. I know some folks who have worked out great deals with someone who shares their vision or a student looking for experience. But to hang your entire development strategy on this is overly optimistic.

If at all possible, prioritize money to develop a prototype, perhaps by hiring a team through eLance or another competitive-rate talent sourcing site. Creating a prototype goes a long way toward **attracting** technical talent. (If you build it, they will come…) A working prototype sets you apart from all the other people talking about ideas, shows you’re committed, and demonstrates that you’ve thought through the product.

All told, the reality of our market is that even a single, stand-alone app requires digital strategy. The points I’ve discussed today are largely good business strategies. Master them, and you’ll be in great shape!

On a completely different note, I recently published a piece on Slate.com discussing my experience as a video game developer as well as a victim of gun violence. You can read it here.

Otherwise, conference season is kicking in again. If you’d like to catch up, here’s some options

● Launch Festival, San Francisco (March 4-March 7)

● Game Developers Conference, San Francisco (March 25-29)

○ LINK: http://schedule2013.gdconf.com/speaker/fisher-carla.19799

○ GDC Microtalks: One Hour, Ten Talks, A Bazillion Ideas ○ Guidelines for Great Mobile Games for Kids

○ Child’s Play: Making Games for Kids Roundtable (If you’ve ever attended one of the breakfasts I arrange, we’ve made it a formal GDC event now!)

● Sandbox Summit, Boston (April 15-16)

○ LINK: http://sandboxsummit.org/agenda-2013/

○ Carla: Apportunity Knocks: Science + Games = <3 <3 <3

○ Anne: Play by the Book: Exploring classic stories in games

● NYC: Anytime we’re not elsewhere

● Twitter: @noCrusts

● Email: KidsGotGame@NoCrusts.com

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