These days, you can create an app for just about anything. But so can someone else. How can you go about differentiating yourself from the competition while making sure that your app will be viable in the long-term?
Are you a sucker for social networks? If you're a heavy user of these services or work in an industry that requires heavy social media interaction, you're undoubtedly familiar with third-party applications. In using the term third-party application or third-party client, we're referring to apps designed to work within the infrastructure of an existing platform. If you're a developer or simply someone with a novel idea for the next hot start-up, you may be interested in the idea of bringing an app such as this to market. However, before jumping the gun, you need to make yourself aware of a few details.
First and foremost, you need to differentiate your product from what the competition is offering. The app market is saturated in certain areas and rife with opportunity in others. There's no need to face unnecessary competition when you can take the road less traveled. "An example of that would be what HootSuite did. They're kind of like a business Twitter client. So that was a good way to differentiate from the mainstream users' specific clients. So just make sure you have a unique offering," says Martin May, co-founder of the location-based Brightkite and the soon-to-launch restaurant-finder app, Forkly. "If you were to come out with a Twitter application now, it's a massive uphill battle," says Invoke co-founder Dario Meli, also the creator of HootSuite. "That battle's been largely fought and won by a handful of people," says Meli. As an alternative, he suggests launching a product that has the potential to appeal to a specific niche of the enterprise market.
In addition to sussing out an untapped market, you will need to make sure that you're taking all of the necessary legal precautions with respect to using an app that connects to an existing platform. Usually, this process is as simple as reviewing the Terms of Service that can be found on the company's website. There is a reason that Facebook has fewer third-party clients interacting with their interface as opposed to a company like Twitter – Facebook's API, or application programming interface, has a Terms of Service that restricts the activities of many of these third-party applications. May also warns that some companies have rate limiting controls for their APIs. That is, a restriction on the amount of operations that can be done via a third-party application within a specific timeframe.
Once you've evaluated the legal ramifications of your app, it's time to foray into issues surrounding marketing and social relevance. After you have a clear understanding of where your app fits into the grand scheme of both, you may very well have a useful and sustainable application at your disposal. The following tips will help you to bring a viable third-party app to market.
Tip 1: Exploit the weaknesses in your competitor's product.
What is the competition missing? If you can answer this question and find some way to effectively integrate the answer into your app in the form of a streamlined feature, you may very well have stumbled upon your pot of gold. "It's always good to design an app that works for you as a developer, or you need to be very close to somebody that you're designing the app for that can give you feedback, whether it works for them," says May. "And I think if you do that, you probably have a good idea of why the competitor's apps are not working for you and what you can do better."
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Tip 2: Make sure your client is multi-API based.
Seesmic founder Loic Le Meur told Business Insider that Twitter is liable to clone the services of third-party clients, thus rendering the client useless in the market. While this is smart business sense from the perspective of the platform, you obviously want to avoid being shutdown by direct competition. Also, should the API go down, you want your app to be able to run via alternate channels. While your app may be designed to work primarily with a single API, make sure that it is compatible with other services as well. TweetDeck, though designed with Twitter-compatibility in mind, can actually sync with other social media clients including Facebook and Myspace. Another prominent example is Instagram, a photo-sharing iPhone app that allows users to share photos to Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr.
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Tip 3: Decide on a free or paid model.
HootSuite started with a freemium model and later added premium features in an effort to monetize. Meli says that, for developers looking to introduce a third-party API to market, introducing a paid model upfront is fine as long as free options come along with it to help the service gain traction. Other options for monetizing your app include running advertising. According to May, Apple now provides advertisements via iAd and Google has an in-app platform as well. In addition, there's also the option of offering the app for free for a limited time as a way to pique the interest of your customer-base. "What I see a lot of people do is they kind of go for a paid model and to boost their ranking inside of the App Store, they will make it free for like a week or so. People download it whether they have an interest in the app or not because they think, 'I can get it for free this week so I might as well download it even if I don't necessarily use it right away,'" says May.
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Tip 4: Make your app compatible to the appropriate devices.
Tablets are hot right now, but contrary to popular belief, you don't have to make an app for that. For instance, Instagram only runs on the iPhone right now due to the fact that it's designed to be used with a smartphone camera. "You can't even post any photos to the web or any other phones or tablets or anything. I guess it really depends on the app – whether the app would benefit from being accessible on multiple mediums," says May concerning Instagram. "[Brightkite was accessible] on the web and on your smartphone, but you could also access it using text messaging if you wanted to, if you didn't have a smartphone. I'm not sure if that's useful for every app. On Instagram [for example], you've got to be able to take a photo, so I don't know if it makes a whole lot of sense to make it available on the web," says May.
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Tip 5: Avoid a copycat design.
Many of the popular apps out today have a similar interface to other apps in their market. While it may be tough to brand amongst competition, make sure that your app clearly follows the design guidelines for the API(s) through which you intend to integrate. The Terms of Service will list the appropriate copyright and trademark restrictions when it comes to design. "For Twitter, for example, they're very protective of how a tweet looks when you display it. They have some guidelines for how you should be displaying tweets, where the date should go, where the name should go, what the colors should be, and so on," says May. As far as the functionality of the integration goes, be prepared to face copycat competition, as software isn't proprietary. "That's just [the nature of the] competitive landscape when having your business related to a third-party API," says Meli.
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These are mere step stones on the path to launching an eye-catching, user-friendly application. However, from inception to implementation, make sure to keep the customer in mind and avoid the pitfalls of redundancy by building an app that is, above all things, both easy to use and useful to your potential client-base.