Apple's App Store and Google's Android Market each have more than a million apps in them. So if you're launching a new one, you had better do everything you can to help it stand out.
That advice comes from Damon Brown who, in addition to being my friend and colleague on the ASJA board, is also an expert who's explored the intersection between intimacy and technology in books and a TED talk.
In the past year, Brown has led or helped to lead the launch of two different socially oriented apps. The first, So Quotable, an app that helps people capture and disseminate interesting quotes, had a low-key start and grew a small cult following--and that's fine, Brown says.
The second, Cuddlr, is an app that lets users find others in their vicinity who would be willing to share a (non-sexual) cuddle. Brown worked with the app's creator Charlie Williams and his team both before and after the app was released. Its successful launch was largely due to a mass of media attention Cuddlr received in its first days--media attention that Brown carefully cultivated. The app was featured on Live!, on NPR, in The Onion, and in Salon, among many other outlets. As a result, it was downloaded more than 200,000 downloads within its first month.
If you're going to launch an app in a crowded field, getting that kind of publicity is a great way to get on users' radar. Here's how Brown says he did it:
1. Define success before you start.
It may be tempting to just put something out there and see what happens, but you're better off deciding from the beginning which metrics mean the most to you. For Brown, part of the purpose in launching the app was to further the conversation about intimacy and technology. So he's especially thrilled that Cuddlr has tens of thousands of people using it every day, and that more than 20,000 people had met up and cuddled by the end of the first week.
2. Plan to launch an MVP.
As in Minimum Viable Product. The reason is not only so you can get to market faster--although that can certainly be a plus--but so that you can quickly iterate the app in response to users' desires or concerns. For instance, Cuddlr, which originally did not allow users to search by gender, will add that functionality in its next version. The company also added "Rules of the Road," notifying users what the boundaries are of appropriate behavior on Cuddlr, and warning them that crossing those boundaries could get them banned from the app. "We had made some assumptions that people would understand the boundaries," Brown says. "But we got some tweets and facebook comments asking how do we make sure everyone is on the up and up?"
3. And then some mini-launches.
There's a second big advantage to shipping an MVP, Brown says: You can keep right on launching. "Consider doing mini-launches of new versions after your original launch," he says. "It's lucky that apps are in a universe where you send it out, get feedback, fix it for the customers, and then get more feedback.
4. Choose your timing carefully. Very carefully.
"One thing that really hit me is that it's important not only to look at the landscape of competitors, but also the cultural landscape," Brown says.
Indeed, at Brown's suggestion Cuddlr delayed its launch in order to make sure to catch the cultural wave. Cuddle parties became more popular across the United States. Brown met up with a professional cuddler who makes six figures giving hugs to people. Cuddle: A Documentary began making the rounds of film festivals.
The timing was obviously right. "That's one of the reasons the media jumped in," he says. "A year ago there might not have been as much of an impact."
5. Target media sources carefully.
Brown recommends crafting targeted pitches to carefully selected journalists and bloggers rather than blasting out press releases. "When we launch, we're not going to be in every outlet, we're going to be in the ones that matter the most and are most vocal," Brown said. With that in mind, he reached out to specific journalists he knew who "talk about intimacy on a very high level," he says. "I said, 'This is something totally new I'm working on. Let me know if you're interested in checking it out or talking to the founder or me."
6. Don't expect to control the message.
One of the most powerful drivers of Cuddlr's success was an article that appeared in Salon on the day before the app launched. "What was fascinating is that she wasn't even sure she liked the app. She said, 'This app is not for me, but I'm sure it's for somebody out there.'"
The app's founders were a bit disconcerted, but Brown reassured them that this honest and thoughtful appraisal of Cuddlr was a good thing. "I said, 'Not everyone will like the app, and that's OK.'"
He took this appreciation for honesty to new heights when well-known sex and relationship expert Dan Savage commented "No sane person wants to cuddle with a stranger." "I said, 'You know what? Let's put it on the website,'" Brown recalls. And they did.
7. But get your own viewpoint out there as well.
This is important to do, especially if your app is in any way controversial, Brown says. And while traditional media outlets may have greater reach, it can be hard to predict when or how the content you send in will get published. So instead, the team used the open publishing platform Medium to publish an essay by Williams about Cuddlr titled "It's Touch Not Sex."
"We pushed it out on Twitter and it went pretty viral," Brown says. "The Salon piece quoted it a lot." It was especially helpful in that it gave anyone writing about Cuddlr a reference point so that no one would have to speculate about the app creators' intentions. "That allowed us to share more insight and give more clarity to our purpose than any coverage we got," Brown says. "If people didn't understand it, they could read our essay and then they'd understand."
8. Be ready for anything.
"You don't know what's going to happen," Brown says. "We didn't know if Cuddlr was going to take off and it blew up faster than anything I've ever seen. There were Google alerts going off every ten minutes and it stayed like that for a good two to four weeks." If any of the elements mentioned here had been lacking, he says, it would have been a problem. "If your launch becomes crazy, having these things in a row will it go smoothly," he says. "And you'll be able to survive the chaos."