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The Indie Dev’s Crash Course Guide To Mobile App PR

Posted by on 07/14/2015

Mobile App PR: You’re Doing It Wrong

When it comes to PR, mobile indie devs have one major thing in common: they do it wrong.

There are over 1.2 million apps in the Play Store alone, and devs upload hundreds more every day. The large majority of them sink to the bottom of that ocean and rot.

Indie devs in their garages are often brilliant artists and programmers who don’t know jack about self-promotion. Their PR efforts are scattered, piecemeal, and uninformed — or, worse, nonexistent.

You aren’t Rovio. Art of the just-released Angry Birds Epic

You aren’t Rovio. If your PR strategy consists of Build It And They Will Come, you have another think coming.

Working at Appszoom means one of my goals is to catch the best of what’s just been released. Definitely use the store tools at your disposal (developer description, icon, screenshots, title). But that doesn’t touch on developing a comprehensive PR strategy to make sure your app gets downloaded by relevant users.

  • How soon should devs start doing PR for a mobile app? What steps can they take?
  • Are freelance PRs better suited for indie devs’ needs?
  • What do talented devs hidden away in garages out there need to know about PR?

To find out, I went to these three mobile PR wizards:

  • Luis Levy of Novy, who quit a giant, well-known PR firm in order to work exclusively with indie devs.
  • Ryan Holowaty of Noodlecake, which is both a porting and publishing entity and an indie game studio itself.
  • Emily Morganti, who used to work for Telltale before morphing into a freelance PR consultant, working as such for the past five years.

By the way — I don’t have any affiliation with these folks, just great respect. I’ve seen them work their magic with mobile indie devs again and again.

Screenshot from 80 Days, upcoming iOS game. PR: Emily Morganti.

How soon should devs start doing PR for a mobile app? What steps can they take?

EM: Here’s the sort of schedule I recommend for an iOS game launch:

• Somewhere between 2-6 months before release, tease that it’s coming. Have an ad-hoc preview build that you can send to press via TestFlight. Think, Would I be comfortable showing this build to a journalist who’s expressed interest in my game? When the answer is yes, it’s time to let the press know your game exists.

 Keep track of any coverage you get and start making a list of the people/sites who covered it for future announcements. Don’t assume they’ll remember your game or keep following the development.

• Actively reach out to the types of people and sites you want covering your game. This includes people who have covered similar games, as well as people who cover indie games or games in your specific genre. Also, reach out to mobile sites like PocketGamerAppszoomTouch ArcadeAppSpyPocket-LintPadGadgetModojoPocketTactics, etc. This is work you can do a little bit at a time for months alongside the game’s development. Don’t get discouraged if it doesn’t seem to pay off right away, but do hold onto the contact info for future announcements. Sometimes it takes more than one email to get someone’s attention.

• When you’re about ready to submit to Apple, start gearing up for launch PR. This might be a good time for a “big announcement” so you can get press interested in review copies.

• When your game gets approved, don’t go live immediately. This is so important, and I think it’s where a lot of developers go wrong. Set the app to hold for developer release in iTunesConnect, and start distributing promo codes to people who have expressed an interest in reviewing your game, as well as to the big mobile sites and good prospects from your outreach who didn’t write back initially. When you send these out, make it clear why you’re sending it, especially for someone you’re cold emailing (e.g. My game is launching in two weeks and I thought you might like to review it, since it’s similar to [this other game you reviewed for X site].)

• Around this time, you should announce your release date. Ask reviewers to hold their review coverage until that date (then any reviews you get will be concentrated around when people can actually buy your game). But if someone’s really eager to cover it sooner, don’t discourage this—you could suggest they do a hands-on preview or a “first look” video, make yourself available for Q&A by email or Skype, offer them some screenshots or video you haven’t previously released, etc. It depends on the game, but you should plan to give reviewers 1-2 weeks with it (maybe longer if you’re having a hard time getting interest, to give you more time for outreach).

• On launch day, announce that your game is on the App Store with a press release that includes game details, pricing, store links, and screenshots/trailers for the press to include with news posts. Send this announcement to the list of contacts you’ve been building up, as well as to GamesPress and mobile gaming sites. PRMac is an inexpensive service you can use to supplement your mailings, but it’s not a replacement for that contact list you’ve curated.

 In the weeks after launch, keep track of coverage and thank people who post reviews (even if the review is negative—never get into an argument with a reviewer!). If you’re friendly and easy to work with, they’ll remember that when it comes time to promote your next game. A couple of weeks after launch you can follow up with people you sent promo codes to but who haven’t posted anything, to see if they have plans to cover it.

Bottom line: the window around launch is *super* important. I do think some lead-up is helpful during development, but those efforts don’t have an obvious payoff until your app is available to buy. With mobile games especially, there’s a lot of competition, and people have short attention spans. Personally, I think it’s a better to hold off on releasing your finished app while you do the work of generating interest, than to rush this.

Devs understandably want to get their game out there as soon as it’s done, but if the tree falls in the forest and no one’s around to hear it, you’ve wasted your most obvious PR opportunity.

Screenshot from Combat Monsters. PR: Luis Levy (Novy).

Are freelance PRs better suited for indie devs’ needs?

LL: My partner (Jeannie Novak) and I founded Novy in May 2011 to work exclusively with indies — whether they’re on mobile, PC, or console (I actually quit a reasonably well-known PR firm to do so). The idea was to charge less than big PR firms… but deliver more.

The truth is that indies must be willing to spend at least $6,000 for a small-to-medium PR firm — which is quite a bit of money. Since we are an “indie” PR firm ourselves, we use technology and a low headcount to keep costs well below that of the average agency — and this translates into more affordable rates.

In addition to budgetary concerns, small PR firms and freelancers provide indie devs with more attention than larger firms do. The truth with larger firms is that they often assign interns or less experienced employees to indie developers, because the higher-ups cannot justify the time required to service a client that isn’t paying the big bucks. The result? The campaign often lacks the quality of other campaigns in that same firm.

At Novy, my partner and I are hands-on with every single client. In fact, we also recently began providing development and production consulting for clients that aren’t quite ready for a PR campaign; perhaps their games need polishing — or they’re still in the pre-production phase, and they need guidance from people who have a wide background in game development that covers everything from game design and interface design to production and QA.

The bottom line is that a small business such as Novy — or a talented freelancer — is definitely a better choice for an indie developer!

EM: I didn’t go to school for PR; I figured out how to do this stuff on my own, first in my job doing marketing and community management for Telltale (which morphed into me being their PR contact during the company’s early years), and then over the past five years as a consultant. If I can do it, an indie developer can too.

Of course, a PR professional is in a better position than an indie developer who’s never done any of this before to know what succeeds and what doesn’t, how to write a press release or a pitch letter, who to reach out to and when, etc. It is work, and someone who does it for a living is presumably good at it. But lack of budget should never stand between an indie developer and a PR campaign.

If you can’t afford to hire someone (or don’t want to!), what you do on your own will always be better than no PR at all.

If you’re planning to hire someone to help with your PR, I think it’s most important to find someone you have a good rapport with and who’s excited about your game. My niche is adventure games—they’re what I like to play, I get excited sharing them with the press, and the press I regularly work with have come to expect those types of games from me. That’s why I’m more likely to say yes to an adventure game than to another genre, and it’s probably why the adventure games I work on tend to get good exposure. (Of course, the quality of the game matters, too! The best PR in the world can’t turn a bad game into a good one.)

So if you’re going to pay someone to do your PR, you want them to be as passionate about your game as you are (or at least *very* good at faking it). And it’s important to find someone you like talking to and trust because PR isn’t a guaranteed formula, and the things you think are going to work don’t always pan out.

You and your PR rep (whether it’s an individual or a firm) need to be able to strategize, talk about what’s working and what else to try, etc. Remember that whoever you hire could put in a lot of effort and still not have a good outcome, or they could even have a great outcome that doesn’t result in a lot of sales. Keep your expectations reasonable, and don’t spend huge amounts of money that you don’t have.

Screenshot from Super Stickman Golf 2 (Android, iOS). PR: Ryan Holowaty (Noodlecake).

What general tips would you give to talented devs hidden away in garages out there?

RH:

– Don’t be a robot. Make your emails, message, and marketing personal.

 Find your players and talk to them. Don’t sit idle and think the “game will speak for itself.” Only on very rare occasion has this worked. Build the hype machine.

– Create relationships with influential people, be they other game devs or media members. For example, go to GDC, track down some editors of gaming sites, and say hi, or have a beer with them. It is their job to cover games, so anyone who pushes you away probably isn’t worth talking to anyways.

– Don’t be afraid to fail. When games that [Noodlecake] has released haven’t done so well, we learn and move on from it. The more you stay at it, the bigger your brand and following might become. Though we are known now, that wasn’t always the case.

LL:

– Make the best possible game, period — without rushing and without cutting corners.

– Start marketing at least two months before launch and hire a PR firm or freelancer one month before launch.

– Make sure both studio and game have their own pages and accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Google , and even LinkedIn.

– Create a Reddit account and learn how to use it. Lurking for three years without ever making a single submission is not allowed.

– Respond to press emails within 24 hours. Being known as a responsive studio is always a plus. Respond to emails from your PR firm/freelancer as soon as humanly possible. If you take several days to respond, you’re effectively sabotaging your own game.

– Allocate some money for PR. At the very least, set aside a few thousand dollars (at least $3,000). Most PR firms don’t do revenue share or work for free.

– Create high-quality assets. Superior trailers and screenshots could be the difference between being covered — or being left behind.

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