Thursday, November 08, 2012

Getting People to Use Your App

Chances are, someone has already thought of your app idea. Whether it's ridesharing, travel guides, ordering food, housecleaning, shopping guide, video discovery, photo editing, action game, puzzle game: I guarantee you're not the first person to come up with the concept.

Instead of focusing your effort on what your app is going to do, think about distribution first. How are you going get people to use it?

The big guys have a big advantage. If you already have a brand on the web or offline, people are going to find and use your app. Everyone has the Facebook, Twitter, and Yelp apps installed.

Without this advantage, and without millions of dollars in financing, two strategies remain.

The first is to make your app extremely high quality. Hike up production value. Make it really good. Apps like Paper by Fiftythree, Where's my Water, Squrl, and so on fall into this category. The effect you're looking for is that you get featured in the App Store and Google Play, and hopefully the press will sing your praises for long enough for early adopters to install the app, and that the app will then spread through word-of-mouth.

Don't underestimate the importance of word-of-mouth. I am a fairly well-informed mobile customer. But the last two apps I installed - Photosynth and Letterpress - were both apps I heard about though friends over brunch.

Still, this is a high risk strategy. Developing a high quality app is expensive, so you'll have to start with building a small number of screens, and hope that those screens are the right ones.

The second strategy is to make your app viral. Users create content with your app, and then share it with others who don't have the app yet.

This worked pretty well for Snapchat, an app that lets you send self-destructing photos to other Snapchat users. An even better example is GroupMe and other group messaging tools - the spread through the power of SMSes sent by friends. An app I wrote with some friends, DrawChat, works the same way. Viral content worked amazingly well for Instagram: Photos with filters didn't solve a stated user problem, but Instagrammed photos started popping up in feeds around the world, leading to brand recognition and ultimately a large install base.

The takeaway: When brainstorming your app, don't just come up with a vision of what it will do. Come up with a strategy to get user adoption.

Either chop away until you have an small feature set that you can implement at very high quality. Alternatively, come up with a way for users to create content they're proud to share with others.


This is my latest in my series of posts about the app ecosystem - see also:
  1. Every Step Costs you 20% of Users
  2. The Biggest Problem in App Discovery
  3. Rethinking the App Model
  4. The Two Hurdles of App Adoption

Reactions from my Twitter and the discussion Hacker News:

eloquence writes on Hacker News: "It seems like the simplistic ideas are the ones that go viral the most quickly."

I could not agree more. People have limited attention spans and the elaborate app install process already strains it. Simpler app means easier to understand means higher chance of getting people to use it.

potatolicious writes on Hacker News: "The devil is in the details. I think a lot of devs realize they need a very polished app and substantial viral value - the trouble is that you can't just will either of those things into existence, or even buy them.

Executing a good app is really hard, and people who can do it consistently are very rare still. Getting a really cohesive, well-built app done is more than just hiring the most expensive ObjC coders and designers you know."

NeoNacho responds on Twitter: "I don’t agree that being high quality is optional."

Of course. A crappy app won't get you anywhere. It's about how you spend your chips. When I write about the "quality strategy" I mean making something that would look great in an Apple keynote. Think Paper. I don't mean just well done and pretty and and no bugs.


PS: Timed perfectly to prove my point about how you're not the only person to come up with your app idea, there is a DrawChat clone on TechCrunch today.

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