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Failure to prelaunch: Why apps need early buzz

It usually begins with an e-mail invitation to an event, whose contents are dissected and interpreted by media and bloggers about a possible product announcement. Speculation builds over a series of weeks until, on the appointed day, TV news shows around the world feast on every moment leading up to and following the grand unveiling. By the time consumers can buy whatever's announced, they are ready to line up around the block.

This is how it tends to work for Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) when it launches, say, the iPhone 5. But even Zynga (NASDAQ:ZNGA) and Rovio Entertainment don't enjoy this kind of pre-launch buzz, leaving the average developer to wonder how he or she could ever generate advance interest in his or her apps.

Could this be changing?
Last month, PreApps, a small Boston-based startup, said it would soon be offering the first platform on which developers could use social media techniques to attract consumers before their products hit app stores. Like Ooomf and others, the firm will hold ongoing contests to solicit ideas for apps. However, its core offering will include apps listing services, tips and tricks for early marketing campaigns and the ability to have interested consumers sign up to offer feedback during the development cycle or to get an app the moment it's released.

Sean Casto

     Sean Casto

"I've made multiple apps. I've learned the issues that the average developer faces," said Sean Casto, PreApps' founder. "Most [developers] don't have a background in marketing or publicity so they don't really see the need. We're trying to bring the same tools that the app stores would offer but before you would actually put anything in the store."

When PreApps goes live in early January, Casto said it would include pre-launch user downloads, polls and surveys to determine how much consumers might be willing to pay for an app and exposure to reviewers. Developers would pay a one-time charge for the initial feature package, while an "elite" feature package with more in-depth advice and white papers could come later.

The prelaunch phase of app development is becoming something of its own industry, as more agencies offer a wide range of services. Consider Appspire.me, which offers a set of marketing services that begin at $1,500. Carson Barker, its CEO, said all developer needs are a little different, though.

"Even though we offer packages, all of them are customized," he said, ticking off infographics, ad campaigns, social media campaigns, app trailer videos and live events like SXSW Interactive and Techcrunch Disrupt. "We're frequently getting more contacts from developers who are still in development phase, which is a good thing. App marketing campaigns that start at launch still need to be designed and approved before launch."

Is marketing pre-launch a waste of time?
Not everyone sees prelaunch as the right phase for developers to start their promotional engines. Take Jeff Rutherford, the co-founder of APPetite PR, which has managed campaigns for Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) and Corbis, as well as many smaller clients.

"I counsel clients to not do a ton of pre-launch publicity. I'm aware that this advice flies in the face of many app marketers strategies," said Rutherford. "We think it's extremely important that if and when you do break through the info clutter and pique someone's interest in your app, it's vitally important that the app is available for download immediately. Otherwise, in this frenetic media culture, you're asking someone to bookmark or set a reminder on their calendar to check back and download your app once it has been related. And, we all know, that the number of people who will take that action to set a reminder is incredibly small. So, in our opinion, spending tons of time on pre-launch publicity for your app can actually be wasted effort."

Rutherford noted that developers who have already created a hit may want to alert users about a sequel before its release.

Above: Rovio teases another installment of Angry Birds.

Obviously there are exceptions to this rule, Rutherford added. A developer who has already released a successful app with users who are begging for a sequel will want to alert his fans early. "The same could be done for a major upgrade or new content, not just a sequel or new app," he said.

Making the best use of your resources
If a developer decides some prelaunch buzz is achievable and worthwhile, he should think carefully about who will be doing the buzzing, according to Chris Mohritz, who sold an app development company earlier this year and is writing a book about app marketing.

"I spend quite a bit of time helping people with marketing, apps or otherwise, and nine times out of 10 they are missing the most important ingredient--picking the right target market," Mohritz said. "It's human nature to avoid limiting options, so most people try to market to everyone, but getting the correct message-to-market match is critical when it comes to rising above the noise. You simply can't do that with a broad audience."

Appspire.me's Barker noted that identifying the needs of that niche audience means more than just guesswork or anecdotal conversations. "For pre-launch the best metrics are testing and market research," he said.

Whether they use a third party like a PR firm or marketing agency or go it alone, it may be hard for most developers to give prelaunch promotion their full attention, Mohritz said.

"I also think many developers get frustrated with the amount of time and effort required to effectively market an app," he said. "(It's) time they'd rather spend creating a new app."