5 Phases Of App Marketing Research

By Matthew Lutz on September 13, 2015

Before you develop even a single line of code on your next app, I’d like I’ll illustrate why adding a lot more firepower to your market research recon mission is so critically important.

Let me share with you a quick snapshot I recently ran across while scouring the net for on my latest industry fact-finding mission. On August 27, 2012, The Wall Street Journal published The Technology Report dedicated to mobile apps, which reported the following statistics:

  • There are 650,000+ apps available in the Apple App Store
  • There are 600,000 apps available in Google Play
  • 36 billion mobile apps will be downloaded in 2012

Now I’m sure you’ve probably heard some of those stats, or similar. And at face value it seems like these numbers are great! It means that apps are popular and it’s a rapidly expanding market, right? Well, yes and no. You see, the flip side of that coin means that the competition is swarming the market at breakneck speeds with no signs of letting up–and to be honest, by the time you’re reading this, those numbers are probably already laughable, because of this rapid growth.

Put another way, our grossly over-populated sea of apps is going to continue to flood over at an exponential rate. And this can present a bit of a hurdle for the current appreneur who’s thinking about how to get their app to stand out from the other nearly 1.3 million apps out there on the collective app stores.

So, what’s an app developer to do? Market research. And lots of it. At every step of your app’s lifecycle.

Let’s start with the first stage of Market Research…

Phase 1: Idea Exploration

Okay, so you’ve got an idea for an app you think will become the next Angry Birds meets Instagram meets Draw Something, right? So let’s check out the market viability and see if your amazing new app idea holds any water.  It’s time to break out your trusty smartphone and conduct the kickoff of your market research.

Start by searching out competitors to see who the players are. This first piece of data is a doozy. If the developers of a similar app are one of the big boys like Zynga, Rovio, EA or similar, you might just want to tuck that idea away for a while. At least until you have a Kajillion dollar marketing and advertising budget (give or take) to go head and head with those 800 pound gorillas. However, if your only competition is just a handful of indie developers, that won’t present the same uphill battle for you, and you can feel free to proceed with your idea.

The next step is to download a handful of the competitor’s apps and examine them with a fine-toothed comb in order to find the areas upon which you can improve and differentiate your own app.

Then, you’ll need to drill down even further and check out the reviews. Sure, take a gander at the 5 star reviews, but make sure to pay even closer attention to the 1 and 2 star reviews. Ultimately, those people are your new unsuspecting, unpaid focus group. They’ll provide you great insight, and I’ll bet you a dollar to a donut that as soon as your app hits the market they’ll jump ship and hop on board with your better new and improved version of the app.

And last, but certainly not least, make sure you check out and analyze the icon, screenshots, graphics and user interface (UI). You can even study the apps you didn’t download, as chances are they’ve uploaded up to 5 screenshots, which should give you a pretty good indication of the look and feel of the app. You’ll then know where the bar has been set, and you’ll know how to proceed when fleshing out your app’s icon, screenshots, graphics and UI.

Now that you’re finished exploring the competition, take out a notepad and jot down all of the things you think you can do better, record all of the gripes and complaints from dissatisfied users, and make notes on how you can set yourself apart graphically. Then, it’s time to validate your idea.

Phase 2:  Market Validation

The next market research tool to consider is the App Charts. From the App Stores themselves to resources like TopAppCharts.com, AppFigures.com and a handful of others, there are no shortages of resources for you to go and gather some great intel.

So, what should you be looking for? Simple. Check and see where your competitors are on the charts. Are they top 25? 50? Are they lost in the great app store abyss? They are all things to consider when researching whether your app idea will be a success or not.

For argument’s sake, let’s say you found an app that’s similar to your new app idea that’s ranking top 25 in your particular category, and it isn’t from one of the big studios. Well tip of the cap to you, you’re one step closer to validating your idea.

However, at the end of the day, creating apps is a business. And as with any successful business, economics plays a key roll. So the next questions that are begging to be asked about your new app idea are, “Will it make money? And if so, how much?”

Well, only one way to find out… time for more market research 😉

 Phase 3:  Revenue Projection

During a recent podcast interview I did with Taylor Pierce, author of the brilliant book Appreneur (which I believe should be the official handbook of the app development business), I asked him the following seemingly complex question, “Is there any way to predict potential revenue for an app idea to determine whether or not it’s worth moving forward on?” And with a slight cheshire grin on his face, like he was about to reveal the holy grail of insider secrets, Taylor answered with, “yeah, just go into forums and ask.”

Wait a minute? That’s this über successful appreneur’s revenue projection tactic? It seemed too simple to be worth its weight. But just as Leonardo da Vinci so famously said, “Simplicity is the ultimate form of sophistication.”  If it works, why make it more complicated. No software to learn, no scripts to run, no analytics to study. Nope, just some folks to talk to. Easy peasy. Taylor then revealed to me his secrets of how exactly to do it… and now I’m going to pass them along to you (I don’t think he’ll mind).

Say for instance the competitor’s app that you’re thinking about creating is hanging around the top 25 spot pretty consistently for a certain category, all you need to do is get on a good development forum like iPhoneDevSDK.com (if you’re an iOS developer) and ask around what people in the same category ranked in the top 25 are making every day. If they come back and tell you they generate around 500 sales per day, then you know to some level of degree that your similar “new and improved app” can do as well (if not better) than they are doing.

Also, while you’re in the forums, you might as well ask other categories what they are also doing in sales. That way, when you come up with your next genius idea in another category, you’ve already got the revenue projection research done!

Okay, now your app idea officially has the green light and it’s time to pull the trigger on development. While the development process is underway it’s no time to relax, there’s still more research that can be done in tandem.

Phase 4:  App Store SEO Preparation

One of the things I love so much about app marketing is that there is a direct set of carry-over principles from the online marketing world, where I’ve spent a good portion of my adult life. In particular, the fundamentals of Search Engine Optimization (SEO). This is one of the most under-utilized and over-looked powerful marketing strategies that can literally make or break an app. Keyword research plays an enormous role in every app’s success, but to do it right takes the right tools and strategies.

Think about this fact for a second, 80% of all apps that are downloaded are found by simple keyword searches. What this means to you as a developer, is that even though there’s a mountain of apps to compete with out there, the majority of them are found by people doing a simple search – not because of other fancy, more expensive marketing tactics.

Take for example that fact that there are roughly eighteen million flashlight apps in the App Store (give or take). Some of them rank among the top 25 in the App Store categories, but the lion’s share don’t. Why? Because some developers respect the fact that discoverability is key. And since so much of this planet’s smartphone users find their apps by simply searching keywords inside the App Store, the proof’s in the pudding that great keywords out of the gate will give your app big organic download numbers. And them’s be my favorite kind of downloads… FREE!  But that’s just because I’m a cheap son-of-a-gun.

If you can spend just about 3-minutes a day tracking and tweaking your keywords, you’ll slingshot past the 99% of developers that don’t. Simply continue to track your keywords, research others, tweak, and repeat.

App Store Optimization (ASO) is one step you can’t afford to skip or only give little thought to. ASO includes your app’s keyword rich name, title and description. Technically, full ASO also includes your graphics, UI and reviews, but that’s for another day.

A couple notable tools to mention are Appcod.es  – The Swiss Army Knife for App Store Optimization (I love their tagline), and SearchMan.com. Mind you, these are not just market research tools, but also tracking tools and marketing weapons as well. After all, good SEO research ultimately leads to great App Store Optimization. These tools help you feel less like a blindfolded monkey throwing darts, and more like an App Store Optimization pro!

By utilizing these tools, you’ll be able to plug in some keywords and find out quickly where you’ll rank for them and how many results there are for each, which should give you a good sense of which ones to use and not use. A good rule of thumb is that if the keywords you’re thinking about using aren’t going to put you into the first 50 spots on the charts, then move along little doggie and choose new words. There are 25 spots on each page, so if your words won’t put you into contention for the top 50, you’re dramatically decreasing your chances of being found. Similarly, think of this as doing a search online. When is the last time you’ve made it all the way to page 3 while Googling something? Well, searchers on the App Store operate no differently.

Okay, development of your app is complete, and your keywords have been chosen and are locked and loaded. It’s finally time to hit the big read button and deploy that bad boy… Almost. 

Phase 5:  Monitoring & On-Going Optimization

It’s important to note that some of the research tactics from phase 4 will slide over into phase 5. However, the distinct difference is that in this phase, you’re going to actually release your app into the wild and let it go head to head with the competition on the App Stores. But before you do that, you’ll need to do a bit of stalking of your competition first (but not in a creepy “checking out your ex’s Facebook page” kind of way). You’ll need to track their search results and category rankings like a hawk to see which keywords are working like gangbusters for them and which ones to avoid like the plague–and then swipe the winners and insert them into your own keyword mix.  After all, copying is one of the highest forms of flattery, and a great way to leverage existing knowledge.

Once live, you’ll need to take a regular snapshot of where you’re starting to rank, and pay attention to your position changes on each of your individual keywords. Search Man can give you this kind of data quickly, such as word X jumped to this position and word Y dropped to that position. And when you take this information and pair it with your app’s category rankings, you’ll be able to get a good indication of how your app is trending. By utilizing Search Man’s keyword comparisons, keyword suggestions and popular keyword query features, you can really start to optimize your efforts and take things to the next level. By seeing which keywords to keep or replace based on current performance, competition, popularity, you’ll be able to fix keyword under-utilization, analyze your keyword effectiveness and optimize them, thus setting your app up for maximum exposure in the app store.

More market intel that’s useful to know are things like where your traffic’s coming from and how your app is doing in various app stores across the globe. Learning your customer’s whereabouts, and knowing where you app is popular are both important pieces of information, as they allow you to beef up your marketing in those areas, and kill it in areas that aren’t so hot for you–saving you time, money and energy.  A great tool to help with this is Distimo.

One more thing to monitor is your own app’s user reviews. Remember how this feature helped you find all of the holes in your competitor’s apps? Well, by paying close attention to your own app’s user feedback, you’ll gather great intel to integrate into your app’s next update. Distimo can help collect those reviews for you too, instead of you having to spend your valuable time scouring multiple app stores one at a time.

And last, but certainly not least, pay attention to revenue. This is an obvious indicator if changes need to be had. If your revenue drops, make changes. AppVis is a Great Mac-based software platform that gives you a quick snapshot of all of your app’s revenue sources, under one virtual roof.

The long and short of it is, if you’re planning on making an honest go of this whole app development thing, you’ll need to really pay close attention as to how your keywords are doing. You’ll want to always be monitoring those words to see how you can climb to the top. But be warned, while getting to the top is one thing, staying there is a whole other ball of wax.

While this has been an overview of some really powerful market research weapons, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. I merely scratched the surface of available tools out there, and just as creative app developers will always find ways to out-innovate each other when it comes to marketing and discoverability of their apps, so to will the creators of these tools we use to optimize and monitor them. So try the tools out from this article, and try out some others, and pay attention to the new innovative ones hitting the market. And remember to always stay on top of  industry trends and to keep current on what app marketing techniques are working today from the appreneurs and app developers in the trenches who are actually making money at this game for a living. The point is, play around a bit and find out what works best for you when it comes to marketing research, then implement it.

When you pair all of these tools together, you’ll be able to look at the market, see how your app did, see how it’s doing, and most importantly, predict with a decent level of confidence where it’s going to go. And when you fold into the mix some marketing fundamentals and strategies, you’ll be able to amplify your results exponentially.