The launch: It is your initial public offering, Super Bowl, and D-Day all rolled in one. Every process needs milestones, something to strive for.
The app is your baby. You conceived of the idea, dressed it, and helped it grow. Puberty may have been tough, but you and your idea got through it. Now, it’s graduating college.
The first launch is what you have been working towards, and it seems like the be-all and end-all. If you build up that moment in your mind too much, you will fail to see possibilities beyond it.
Success or fail, life will go on. No matter how ingenious your idea, there will be criticisms levied at it and necessary improvements that must be made. Just as there were unpredictable obstacles pre-launch, there will be unpredictable obstacles post-launch.
Plan for it. If your launch marks the end of your five-year plan, keep an eye downfield for the sake of your ten-year plan.
11 Steps to Launching Your App
Here are a few of the traps to avoid pre-launch…
1. Don’t Fish for First Launch Users
Lots of app developers over-emphasize first launch user acquisition. Will people like my app? Will people use my app? It’s a natural, valid instinct. You are making this app to improve someone’s life. They must like it, and you only get one chance at a first impression.
However, you can go too far down this road, so much so, that it dilutes your vision. It’s true for almost every creative process. If you pander to the audience too much, you end up people-pleasing, instead of trusting your instincts.
It’s the Don Draper or Steve Jobs savage school of thought: my uncompromising vision trumps whether the consumer is pleased right away. They have one eye towards the way consumers will grow to use their product.
Both are extreme examples, but there is validity to that outlook. Investing heavily in the first launch to win over users can be misguided. You should remain adaptable.
Nancy Hua, CEO of Apptimize, suggests a wax/wane, catch/release, rinse/repeat roll out for your App.
“You’re not going to get everything right the first time, so you have to have a plan for how you’ll improve the app as you start to get user feedback and analytics.”
Everything needs revisions. Books need editors, screenplays need re-writes, and software needs updating. By investing less in the first launch, and leaving resources for the subsequent rollouts, you can fine-tune your app.
It may be tempting to pour all your resources into the first impression, but there will be things you haven’t thought of brought to you by the eyes of others. The key is to trust your vision, that core function of your app is worth revising.
2. Avoid the “So, what’s next?” Moment
The first launch has come and gone, and people are into it. The app has fans. The movie had a great opening weekend.
You are sitting around a table with your collaborators, excited, thinking: my vision has been vindicated and my future is looking bright —wait…
My future?! I hadn’t thought that far. Now I’ve got an app to run, people to hire, profit margins to hit, trademarks to file, competitors to out-maneuver…where do I begin?
You want to avoid this. Before your first launch, you should plan for success. Once your app is gaining momentum is not the time to plunge into uncertainty.
This takes confidence, assurance even. Devoting time to anything but your app’s first impression takes faith. You will likely feel overwhelmed pulling everything together for that one milestone, nevermind allocating an ounce of time for the after-party.
You have to put in that time. When embarking on this journey to success, you need to map out the whole journey.
Once your product is on the market, there will be a host of new considerations, and from those considerations, problems like branches on a tree. Just because people like your app off the bat does not guarantee its long-term success.
One way to frame long-term approach is by committing to continuous delivery. This is the same type of logic used in the first point. Having a long-term outlook will allow for adaptability as the moments to come certainly surprise you.
Continuous delivery means adapting, tweaking, and adjusting in real time. It requires being fluid to go with the flow. With apps, that typically means adding or removing features as needed.
Sanjay suggests four pre-launch questions for a post-launch world:
A. What can we do post-launch to give us a competitive edge?
This is thinking like a chess player. It is an essential question. Even though we are prepping for our big game, the first launch, what is one thing we can prepare today so that the first moves we make set the course for our next milestone, becoming the leaders in our segment.
B. How will maintenance and crashed be handled?
Power outages are never convenient. You never know when you are going to have to revive your phone in a bowl of rice. Your laptop is stolen when you have a big assignment due.
You need to put some early thought into crisis management. It is going to happen, you are going to curse the gods, and you may panic. This app has been your life and the longer it is not working, the fewer users will favor it.
Putting troubleshooting procedures in place, or at least considering the first step for these contingencies, will allow you to keep your composure when disaster strikes.
C. How will performance be measured and assessed?
Statistics can be a chore to learn about initially, but when you leave school, you learn quickly that the right metrics are a game changer. How are you going to know you’re doing well? Will you read a review online? Listen to your significant other?
It is a significant question: what’s your Key Performance Indicator (KPI)? Determining that depends on the type of app you’re creating. If you’ve made a gaming app, your KPI might be something like average session length or average revenue per user, while a SaaS app with several freemium users will have to concentrate on getting those users to move up to a paid subscription, i.e., free-to-paid conversion rate.
A successful app is a new brand, and underneath that brand are the people who represent it. Employees come and go. Some are with you from the beginning until the end. Some go their own way. Some are bad hires, while others never get the credit they deserve.
Accurately measuring performance means optimization. Knowing both how your app is performing in the market, and how your team is performing during day-to-day operations are essential.
D. How will we improve upon, or introduce new features?
Once you’ve launched your app, adjustments take the form of features. Either your users request changes, or your team thinks of improvements. Just as the process is fluid, your app must be fluid.
Your users will demand changes. People grow bored with the status quo, or they want improvements. Just as you conceived of the idea for the app, you may think of a game-changing feature that will enrich your idea.
Thinking about this pre-launch can be a way of thinking about growth potential. It will be difficult to consider future features while you are still tinkering with the prototype, but by doing so, you will be able to gauge your app’s sustainability.
Build a Game Plan
If you are preparing for a big game, a piano recital, or a college exam, the fact is that it is hard to think about the future. It is all you can think about, worry about and handle.
If I can nail this first launch, then everything will fall into place. Unfortunately, that logic is a bit of a fallacy.
By exhibiting grace under pressure and allotting time to think about future feedback and strategy, you will be playing chess. You will thank yourself later.
You can even thank yourself during the uncomfortable moments half your mind is on the first launch, knowing that you will thank yourself later when your instincts are vindicated and your app gains a following.
Launching Your App’s Story
Marketing is the creative side of the business. Whereas most of the business can be broken down into hard number crunching, marketing is as much an art as a science.
You can compile demographic data, identify needs, and establish a target market, but you still need to capture the imaginations of those you are marketing to.
Like Mad Men’s Don Draper selling nostalgia in the Carousel, or the Wolf of Wall Street’s unscrupulous Jordan Belfort telling an audience member to sell him a pen, marketing comes down to a story.
Can you tell a compelling story about your app? Who are you trying to serve, and for what purpose?
Take Uber. They are trying to supplant taxis as the lift of choice. Instead of selling their service, they create a narrative around their business model; that the way they are doing things leads to more convenient, less expensive service.
They identified their internal strengths, and how those strengths can help who they intend to help and created narrative to forge that connection between them.
Here are some ways to enhance your story:
3. Get Marketing Involved From the Ground Floor
Often app developers launch their app, acquire users, then hire marketing to bring their finished product to a broader market. The developer feels confident they have something to sell, and that developer consults with marketing experts, so they can figure out what you are trying to convey to the broader market.
The problem is the marketing experts are coming in cold. They do not truly understand what went into developing your app; they know what you have shown them, and what you have told them. Many marketers can do a lot with that.
However, having a marketing presence during the sausage-making phase, as ideas are being thrown around the room, as people are disagreeing, lets these marketing specialists observe the process. As you and your company form your idea, the marketer has an eye out for the story behind this idea.
With their expertise, the marketer may see something you miss. As your team is ironing out the technical details and other logistical issues, the marketer’s purpose is to think ahead and use their perspective as an outsider to understand what will resonate with users.
Having a marketing presence from the ground floor is like allowing an ethnographic study or having a documentary filmmaker on-hand. Some outsider goes to the rainforest to document and learn about a pre-modern native culture; some filmmaker watches as Metallica falls apart.
While the culture is busy living naturally, the outside presence is noticing things the culture takes for granted.
In this analogy, the culture that went into developing your app will inform the marketing presence on a deeper level. They will have seen with their own eyes what went into this app and will be able to pull out of that a narrative that will lead to your marketing campaign.
4. Relate to Different Segments of Your Target Audience
The better you know who you are trying to reach, the better able you will be to convince them that your app can help them. Depending on your app, people may need it for the same reasons or different reasons.
Everyone needs a safe, fast, and affordable ride when they use Uber. Your seventy-year-old grandmother and sixteen-year-old nephew want the same thing and don’t care about much else.
Conversely, everyone uses Tinder for different reasons. Some people want to find a casual hookup, some people want to find love, some people use it as a way to enhance their self-esteem. Their socio-economic background is different, their physical needs are different, and that makes their psychology different.
If you know who you are talking to, then you will know how to frame your app’s service.
A Tinder marketing campaign for those seeking committed relationships may find other testimonials of people who found committed relationships. A campaign for divorced singles trying to get back into the dating pool may try to make single-life less intimidating through humor.
The better you understand what you have, and how your users will use it, the better you can tweak your narrative for different segments of your target audience.
5. Take Free Advice From Your Users
You should have part of your team dedicated to parsing through and analyzing feedback on your app. It is highly important you start collecting, organizing, and sequencing that data.
People are eager to tell you their opinion — just look at Twitter. Some people have put more thought into their opinions than others, and those are the users worth listening to.
Every creator has a love and hate relationship with their fans. People who put on Broadway plays wince when they read the New York Times review, films get torn to shreds, and YouTube Videos are inundated with hate.
The creator can either feel personal or impersonal about it. Within those comments are common themes, and if reliable voices repeat the same themes, then it may be worth it to the app developer to accommodate those themes when they produce new features.
After all, the users are the people using your app on a day to day basis. They are busy people doing what they need to do to get by and become rightfully frustrated when the app doesn’t do something that it promised it would. Think of your users as your eyes and ears on the ground, the people that will help your app evolve and adapt.
6. Incentives and Influencers — Outsourcing Your Marketing
Sure, marketing is necessary from the get-go and throughout the life of your app. Knowing exactly who your target audience is paramount to success. Achieving that success through marketing doesn’t have to only happen on your side of the business, however.
First, use incentives to increase user growth and loyalty — something like a referral program does wonders for an app’s user base. From Airbnb with its travel credit for referrals (both people involved), to Paypal with its cash rewards for opening an accounts, to the previously-mentioned Uber with referral credits for new users (also for both people involved), companies have used this strategy time and time again to significantly boost their user base in a short amount of time.
Second, use influencers to get the word out on your app. However, rather than concentrating on ultra-expensive celebrities and athletes, aim for “micro-influencers.” They can be the key to expanding your user base quickly and in a targeted-fashion (as micro-influencers tend to have a more targeted audience).
One good example of utilizing influencer marketing to its fullest potential is the Daniel Wellington watch brand, which took an investment of $1,500 and turned it into a $220 million juggernaut of a business in just six years. Six short years.
The key takeaway here is that not all marketing has to be done by the marketers you’ve employed/contracted; some of your most important marketing comes from the very users you wish to attract.
Build a Narrative
Do not underestimate the power of story to promote your app. It takes imagining how something will be used to help people see how something might help them.
Just as having a marketing presence on hand as you are developing your app may help you see things you couldn’t see when you were busy living in the moment, your users may be so busy living in the moment that they fail to take a step back and see how your app may help them.
It’s your job to create narratives people can relate to. How does your app fit into that person’s life?
Launching Your User Life Cycle
Anyone who has been in a long-term relationship knows it is subject to change. Nothing stays the same. Expectations from partners change. As time passes, all these changes have to be re-negotiated.
This analogy can be applied to your users’ relationship with your app. As an app developer, you are going to be managing many relationships your app grows popular. There will be users who were there from the ground floor, users who were referred by existing users, and users who will be consistently hard to please.
The more you understand this complicated web of expectations, the more prepared you will be to satisfy your user’s tastes. Like any good relationship, you’ll have anticipated the other’s needs and how to fulfill them. You’ll know what to provide, through what channel, for those at different stages in the cycle.
People have studied this cycle, including David McClure; he is the founder of the business accelerator 500 Startups and has created a five-stage model for understanding user relationships. These are the stages of his life cycle model, explained:
7. User Acquisition, AKA Sparks Fly
User acquisition is that initial spark that attracts a user to consider folding your app into their lifestyle design. It is like you are at a bar, eye a hot single, flirt, and consider meeting up later in the week. There are no commitments, just a passing interest. You have demonstrated some fleeting value.
In this relationship, the pertinent question is who are you and what do you provide. Laws of attraction are at play here: Are you boyfriend material? Are you an exciting one night stand? Do you provide a unique opportunity that sets you apart from the rest of the field?
Your app is designed to provide a service: it’s going to make someone’s life easier in some way. The user may come to your app from anywhere. It can be through marketing or by random, just as with a relationship, you can meet through your Plenty of Fish profile or you can reach for the same book at a library.
All of your marketing outreach, whether it be SEO, social networking, or targeted campaigns, is going to have to peacock your app. You are going to have to strut your best stuff to attract users to your app. You need to understand your market segments and how to stand apart from your competition.
8. User Activation, AKA The First Date
So you have attracted a user by demonstrating value, in other words, you have piqued their interest. Now, expectations change. Your first impression is no longer good enough, you have got to set the groundwork for your lasting impression.
Having acquired a users interest, them choosing to spend time on your app is like you designing a first date. You will be judged on everything; from what you wear, to the restaurant you choose, and the topics you bring up. You are under heavy scrutiny. You will either become something they forget or something they see a future with.
From the colors on your apps template, it’s ease of use, through to whether it delivers its proposed life-aiding value. The first user landing is going to need to be a stimulating showing of lasting value. Users are going to come away with a feeling.
They will ask the same first date questions: Was I comfortable? Was it fun? Was I impressed with what it had to offer? They are going to judge their first use as the precedent to judge further use. This is a critical moment for turning a user into a lifelong fan.
9. User Retention, AKA You Are Dating
The user’s instincts at the bar were right; they enjoyed their first date. They have opened themselves up to future dates and the possibility of a long-term relationship. They are looking at their life and seeing how you fit in it.
Again, the expectations change. You can not be the guy or girl who insists on the same restaurant every time you go out. You need to keep surprising them and sustain their interest.
As an app developer, you are going to have to employ methods to gauge the user’s temperature. Are they consistently happy or are their needs changing? Your app needs to deliver what it promised to deliver consistently so that you build a reputation with your user.
A user may need your app for some cut and dry service whereby your app has to provide it whenever they visit. Or your app needs to employ special features or updates, to anticipate your user’s needs and pleasantly surprise them when you enhance their experience.
Regardless, retention comes through demonstrating value consistently. Enough that, the user becomes confident that you will deliver.
10. User Referrals, AKA Meet the Parents
You have turned that first date into a lifelong fan. It took time, you had to meet their changing expectations, but you did enough times that they trust you. They reasonably expect you will deliver when you are in their company.
To get to that user referral stage, they need to be able to stake their reputation on recommending your app. If you recommend a bad movie to someone, they judge you. Their taste is a reflection of themselves, and people are hesitant to refer something that may not reflect well on them.
That is why getting to the user referral stage is a lot like meeting your significant other’s parents, the most judgmental potential users of all. The user you retained believes that you will leave a good impression — so much so that they are willing to introduce you to others, despite what judgments they may have.
The expectation of the original user is that you will remain what they have come to expect, reliable. If you are not reliable, and new referrals are let down, then your core contingent of original users, say first launch users, will be gravely disappointed.
11. User Revenue AKA Adjusting Your Own Expectations
At this point, you have done a lot for others. You have satisfied the original users you acquired, and those whom they have referred, your app has a loyal following. Every time expectations changed in your relationship, you adapted and demonstrated consistent value. You have become part of their lives.
Now, it is time to adjust your expectations. To keep satisfying changing demands from a growing base of users, you are going to need more resources. As they expect more of you, you are justified to expect more of them to have a symbiotic, growing relationship.
In terms of app development, this is where you need to enhance your revenue per user. This may take the form of having subscription-based features, or advertising revenue.
Having ads on your app interface, or things users have to pay for, may aggravate users initially, but because you’ve developed a reputation as a service they can trust reliably, they may be open to your own need to grow as a company.
You need growing revenue to compete, and if your users have a stake in your continued success, they will understand that you need more resources to have continued success.
Build a Long-Term Relationship
The user life cycle has a lot in common with sustaining a long-term relationship. As an app creator, you are in a constant, fluid relationship with your app users.
You are in a different stage of your relationship with each of your users; some are ready to refer while others need to be activated. There are a lot of expectations to manage.
That is why you need to understand the constitution of your user base; who is at what stage and what will it take to get them to the referral stage. Once you get to the referral stage with a user, that momentum will sustain itself.
You will no longer have to spend time attracting users at the bar; you can focus more on retaining users by upgrading what you offer. The stages blend, but the beats remain the same: you need to reliably demonstrate value before you adjust your expectations of what you are worth as a product.