Why no one cares about your app and what to do about it

Arnold Kim, of MacRumors, listens as a developer explains her app at the AltConf Journalist Pitch Lab in San Francisco, CA, June 3, 2014. Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac

Tara Zirker shows the StayAtHand travel app to MacRumors’ Arnold Kim during AltConf’s Journalist Pitch Lab. Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac

SAN FRANCISCO — You created an app. You think it’s awesome. Your friends say so too. Something nags at you, though: You have zero reviews, your downloads don’t outnumber your Facebook pals, and you need to make rent.

There’s a fancy name for your problem: “discoverability.” Millions of good apps face it, gathering dust between bogus fart apps and Flappy Bird clones.

“It’s hard to make a living in the App Store,” says Michael Yacavone, founder of Individuate, which makes personal-development apps Ace It! and Affirmable.

But there is definitely money to be made in the App Store, to the tune of $15 billion Apple has paid developers so far. Apple recently vowed to improve discoverability by adding an “explore” tab to the App Store, but whether users will search for new and exciting apps remains to be seen. The basic problem remains for most developers: Nearly everyone is ignoring you. Journalists can help, but you have to know how to deal with them.

At AltConf last week, developers like Yacavone got a chance to chat with tech journalists (including me) about how to garner the kind of coverage that can make or break an app. Billed as a Journalist Pitch Lab, the session felt a bit like speed dating. Some devs hit us with the equivalent of, “Hey what’s your sign?”; others just wanted to talk.

“It’s always great to get face time with journalists,” said Tara Zirker, director of social media and engagement for Imagine If, who was at the AltConf event to talk about her company’s travel app, StayAtHand.

Problematic pitching

While chatting with developers for three hours straight during the AltConf session, I noticed several problems that bubbled to the surface repeatedly.

You don’t know what your app is

You need to know how to get your product across in a sentence or two. Sometimes, people jumped straight into a demo, forcing me to half-listen, half-interpret: “So, this is a Skype/Instagram/eBay killer for the business market?” You don’t want the press wondering what it is you do, especially while you’re rocketing ahead to show off the extra-cool features. This happens all the time in email pitches.

Also, do it simply. You’re a regular person, not a carnival barker. We’re regular people too. Aim for colloquial English, the kind that lives far, far away from PowerPoint presentations. Jargon sucks.

You don’t know who it’s for, or what it’s for

Who would use this app? Why would they want it? This isn’t always as obvious as it seems. And, if you’re touting features like social sharing, be able to answer why your users would want to do that — just because you can include a feature doesn’t mean you should. Or that someone would want to use it. Most journalists avoid buzz-features du jour with the same vehemence that they would steer clear of a “mocktail” hour.

You don’t know what goes into (or should be left out of) a press release

If you’re reaching out on your own to journalists, keep it simple. Don’t link to a “press kit” or point them to a video if your concept can be explained simply.  Avoid terms like “exclusive” and “embargo” (it’s gone the way of the CB radio) — they will only increase your chances of getting ignored or into trouble. Make sure you cover the 5 Ws (who, what, when, where, why and how) and include your preferred contact info for quick follow-up. Then forget that it’s a “press release” at all and write like a normal person. Proofread it. Hit send. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

Mark Gurman, of 9to5Mac, chats with a developer at the AltConf Journalist Pitch Lab in San Francisco, CA, June 3, 2014. Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac

9to5Mac’s Mark Gurman, left, chats with Individuate founder Michael Yacavone at the AltConf Journalist Pitch Lab in San Francisco. Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac

You don’t know that you’re part of the story

If your personal life/background is relevant to your company story, use it to hook interest. Are you a former Apple employee? That’s worth mentioning sooner rather than later. Did you spend 20 years in the food industry before teaching yourself to code a cooking app? Bring that to the table when you’re pimping your story.

It can be a simple sentence or two in a short email — depending on whether your focus is getting product coverage (new release, you just won an award) or a less timely, profile-type piece. But if you are the story, know that going in.

You think of yourself as a product, not a source

No app is an island. You may want blanket coverage when you’ve got news, but that’s a numbers game where the odds are against you. You could send out hundreds of emails and get zero coverage in return. A week later, you’re not news anymore, and no one knows you’re out there.

Know the hot-button issues and the seasonality of your industry. Think about your App Store category — fitness? health? dating? It’s easy to pitch marriages sparked by dating apps in early February but an uphill climb to pitch any news about a ski app in the summer.

Consider yourself a source. If you’re an award-winning, cross-platform indie developer with something to say about Swift, we want to hear it when news breaks. Or maybe you’re a designer having to tweak iOS 8 for your clients because of legibility issues that you haven’t read about anywhere yet.

Go to the publications that you regularly read, search for the topic (or your competitors) and fire off a short email to the reporter. Tell them you know they cover the topic, what your point is, why you think your point is interesting/new/different and end with the best way to contact you for a follow-up. Proofread your email and consider anything you write a quote – in other words, it could end up published.

Monitor coverage of your competitors. (Google alerts are perfect for this.) Mainstream media is a great place to look for big ideas: Did USA Today just run a piece on the next generation of travel apps? That story will be passed around in more ways than a nimble young lass at a square dance competition. Find a way to be a part of it.

If you have a company or personal blog, write about that article and put your own spin on it. The same day, if possible. And get it out using the names of your biggest competitors in the social media blast. It might get picked up in the blogosphere – that endless hall of mirrors reflecting publications of varying size and slant.

Also, write that USA Today reporter a short note, telling them either what you liked or what they got wrong (gently, this last one), how you fit into the picture, and what makes you stand out from the pack. Ask that they consider you a source for future stories and provide the best way to contact you. Freelancers may be able to get you into a different publication as they re-spin the story. Also, journos switch jobs frequently. And they also help each other out by trading smart sources who respond quickly.

If you develop relationships with reporters at other publications, write them about it, too, finding a way to push the story forward. An incisive sentence or two about what the implications are or what may happen next given the upcoming legislative hearing and bam! You’re quoted in a post and become part of the echo chamber.

App developers meet with tech journalists in the hope of gleaming a few tips on how to get their apps noticed at the AltConf Journalist Pitch Lab in San Francisco, CA, June 3, 2014. Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac

App developers meet with tech journalists at AltConf in San Francisco in hopes of gleaning a few tips on getting their apps noticed. Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac

You don’t know if you need a PR firm or not

Should you interface with the press yourself – or do you need a public-relations person to help you out? Consider this: If you are easily hurt, clueless about all of the above, have no time and are super-nervous about the way you speak or write, get a publicist. They can help you determine where you fit into the news and make you look good until you get the hang of it. Ask them how they will position you and what they think your story is — it will help you to get an outside opinion. Caveat: They cannot (and should not) guarantee that you will get massive coverage. However, they may cut down on the wear and tear to you in the process.

Otherwise, it may be better to go solo. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, public relations professionals outnumber reporters about four to one. Journalists are being slowly suffocated under the weight of press releases, many of them not better (and certainly not more personal) than you could write yourself. I can count the number of interesting, relevant emails from actual people sent to me, personally, without taxing my brain as much as calculating a restaurant tip does. And I’ve ended up writing about almost all of them.

You don’t know the answers to six difficult questions

Any reporter worth that title will ask you something you’d rather not answer, sooner or later. Think ahead about what you’re going to say. Keep it simple. Jargon sucks and, in the face of a tough question, it’s easier to see through than Kim Kardashian’s blouse.

Some standard toughies:

“Why should my readers care?”
“Who are your competitors and why are you different/better?”
“Where’s the money coming from?”
“What’s your business model?
“Is this really anything new, after XYZ already did it?”
“What about privacy/legal issues/data, etc.?”

That’s basically it. If you have more questions about how to deal with the press, ask me in the comments or email me directly. And know that at Cult of Mac, you can always hit the “Send” button top right to blast the entire staff with your news.

Additional reporting by Lewis Wallace.

Batman was spotted at Jillian's in San Francisco during AltConf's Journalist Pitch Lab. Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac

Batman is spotted at Jillian’s in San Francisco, where the the Journalist Pitch Lab was held. Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac

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About the author

Nicole MartinelliNicole Martinelli heads up Cult of Mac Magazine, our weekly publication available on iTunes. You can find her on Twitter and Google+. If you're doing something new, cool and Apple-related, email her.

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