Pre-launch marketing, in-app chat and other tips to create die-hard mobile gaming addicts

Sauropod Studios, Indie Game Girl and others on ways to pull in users

You have to admire the work Sauropod Studios has done to market its flagship gaming app, Castle Story. Over the past year the Montreal-based firm has managed to attract nearly 12,000 followers on Twitter and 17,000 Facebook followers. Sauropod also has a regularly updated development blog that generates feedback about Castle Story features, and it offers a number of videos that demonstrate what the game is all about.

Sauropod Studios, in other words, is doing everything a smart developer in the mobile gaming space should do. There's only one thing missing: the Castle Story game itself, which has yet to be launched.

While many experts advise developers to think about marketing early on, Sauropod's approach was somewhat accidental, according to its co-founder, Germain Couët. The studio released an early gameplaying video that attracted much more attention than expected, he said, and that prompted the company's decision to capitalize on early interest.

"We realized that if we wanted to keep the interest going on, we had to be as vocal and transparent as possible. As they say, 'out of sight, out of mind.' So by posting blogs, videos and updates often, we stay in people's mind for longer," he said. "It's always hard to maintain an active community with an unreleased game, but by posting dev blogs and having a community forum managed by the fans, we were able to maintain the interest until the Kickstarter (campaign) was ready to launch."

Sauropod's fans include Emmy Jonassen, who runs an online resource for developers called Indie Game Girl. Jonassen was recently the featured guest of a Google Hangout hosted by in-app feedback software provider Apptentive. The event focused on the things developers can do to convert early adopters into Angry Birds-style addicts. She cited Sauropod as an example of doing the right things.

Early, tailored marketing is key to app launches
"A lot of people are looking for an easy answer, like, 'Start 72.5 days before launch,'" she said. "It's just really important to start marketing from initial concept. As soon as you get an idea of what your game is going to be, you should start marketing. And tailor it towards your target audience so it becomes more engaging and addictive."

Emmy Jonassen, who runs an online resource for developers called Indie Game Girl

Emmy Jonassen

Setting up a blog and the appropriate social media channels is just the first step, according to Jonassen. The real work involves competitive research around the demographics of your target audience and what blogs and social networks they already follow. That way you can ensure you have a presence there, either as a commenter on posts or an advertiser.

Jonassen said many developers also don't set up a proper product roadmap for their apps.

"The marcom (marketing and communications) plan depends on that roadmap," she said. "Having that, even if it's just a rough draft, is really important because then I know that if I'm launching on X date, I want to begin blogger outreach on X date, allocate the budget to advertising and so on."

Developers also should start thinking about the kind of messages that will inform their marketing activities. That's been key for Morten Skrubbeltrang, who helped launch a mobile game called Pentapuzzle late last year. Skrubbeltrang said he and his team came up with three "stories" that they can target in various marketing channels. One is that Pentapuzzle is not only fun but also a good way to improve your spatial skills. Another is the fact that the game's music was professionally composed by British electronic musician Matthew Herbert, which allowed the team to pitch the game at music magazines and blogs. A third story revolves around Pentapuzzle's navigation, which opened the door to tech industry magazines.

"We use these three punchlines prominently wherever possible," he said. "We started blogging about the game app eight months prior to launch, and followed up with Twitter and Facebook two months later. We currently gain the most traction from a combination of Twitter, website and press releases, but we expect Facebook to catch up when we integrate competing with Facebook friends in the next update."

In-app chat and other community functions could retain users
All the initial marketing and publicity may help attract interested users, but converting them into die-hards is, of course, another matter. Scott Weller, CTO of app loyalty program provider SessionM, said fans become super-fans only through significant efforts around personalization.

Scott Weller, CTO  sessionm

Scott Weller

Weller said many mobile gaming apps offer some degree of personalization by allowing users to upload their own avatar, connect to their Facebook account, or pick and choose elements of a character in the game. He suggested another way to build a more personal relationship with users is to reward them for what they accomplish in a game.

"Once they ... understand how the game works, if your game monetizes through virtual currency, now is the time to give them some currency they can use on the next day," said Weller. That will make it more likely for them to come back to the game--which is the first step in developing a more loyal user, he pointed out. Users who get rewards are also less likely to be annoyed by push notifications, Weller added.

The same kind of thinking should inform the use of in-app advertising, according to Jonassen. Though it may represent the only revenue developers of free games will have, you don't want it to be disruptive. That's why it's better to have ads come up between levels of a game or as another screen loads. "Another idea is building the ad into the UI--you could have a character that announces the ad coming up or pointing up to the banner ad so it doesn't seem so out of place," she said. This is another, subtle form of personalization that creates a deeper relationship with users.

Weller emphasized the need to share in-app experiences with others. "This is more than adding a 'like' button or dropping in Game Center. Those integrations aren't enough," he said. "It also reduces the need to socialize outside of the app. In-app chat can be powerful, not just for customer service but because it allows other players to start coalescing with each other. Users start forming guilds, teams, and it allows conversation to happen within the context of the experience."

While some players are more likely to become addicts than others, developers stand a better chance of getting more active fans if they design their app with repeat behavior in mind. Jonassen pointed to foursquare, which is known as a social networking channel but in some ways could also be seen as an elaborate game. "The whole point is to keep coming back," she said.

And when all else fails, come out with frequent updates to your app. That will work for die-hards like Jonassen. "When I look down on my iPhone and see that little red circle and I see two updates, I can't live with that."