How to Soft Launch Your iPad App

Note: this post is republished from Ben’s personal blog.

In the first few days of our app, Interactive Alphabet for iPad, being available on the app store it soared up the charts peaking at #2 in Education and #124 Top Overall in just three days. Now, no one can really say what truly contributes to an app’s success in the tumultuous sea that is the app store but we have to think (hope) at least some of it was due to our unique marketing plan and carefully scheduled weeks leading up to the launch. We’ve had a lot of people ask us how we did it so I thought I’d try my best to document and explore our approach to the “soft launch.”

1. Get a group of beta testers together

As you’re developing your app you should be testing it constantly, obviously, but what’s even more important than that is to have other people test it. In our case we were developing an app for very young kids so it was even more important to have as many kids as possible try it out to see what made sense to them and what didn’t. The best way to do this is reach out to your friends, family, and the app dev community and get people to try your app. Send out ad hoc versions of your app to as many people are willing and keep open communication with them. It’s very important to get every bit of feedback from them and keep them involved in the development process. If you get some good quotes from your testers, ask them if you can use them in your app description. Keep them updated on everything and make sure they know, and are looking forward to, getting their legit copy of the app for free when it hits the app store.

2. Pick a date

As the finish line draws close on your development, it’s time to start thinking about when you’re going to release your app. Many developers just go for as soon as possible but we’ve found that a careful choice can make a big difference. Give yourself about 2-3 weeks of padding from when you think you will be done with your app. When you’ve got a date in mind, research it thoroughly and see if there is anything happening on that event that could take attention away from your app. Is there an Apple event that day? Is a highly anticipated app scheduled to come out? Are kids going back to school? Whatever date you choose, make sure it’s at least 2-3 weeks out from right now. This date is based on our experience with the iPad approval process which takes about 1 week, it may be quite different for the iPhone approval process. Once you’ve got your date, lock it in and center everything around this date.

3. Submit and Schedule

When you submit your app make sure the availability date is set to your chosen date or further out. Remember that once your app is approved by Apple you can go in and change the availability to whatever you want so it doesn’t hurt to pad that initial date just in case approval takes longer than expected or some unforeseen factors pop up.

4. Plan your marketing

You should’ve been thinking about this long before but now is a good time to really give it some attention. It will help kill the time between being done with development and your app being available. You need to think about four things:

  1. Review sites – Make a list of app bloggers and reviewers, especially in your specific category. There is no shortage of app sites and there are plenty of app sites dedicated to specific topics that are likely related to your app category.
  2. Topic sites. – Also search for sites that write about your category but are not specifically app sites. A lot of sites have a tech slant or like to mention tech and often have large audiences.
  3. Advertising – If you’ve got an advertising budget, look into the sites you found in 1 and 2 and see if they offer advertising and a good audience. Ad networks and sites all have different schedules and price ranges so make sure you know what these are in time to get everything scheduled correctly.
  4. Press releases – Press releases are a good way to get in front of media and get some potential reviews or coverage. They are also proliferated through the internet and listed on a lot of app sites so it’s a good way to get a lot of links to your app and site out. Our personal Press Release service is prMac.

5. Post-Approval Marketing Madness

One of the fundamental things we learned that is a huge game changer is:

If your app is approved by Apple and you’ve scheduled out your availability date, you can give out useable promo codes before your app hits the store.

As soon as your app is approved it’s game on. Go through your list of sites and contact as many as you can. Send them a promo code and ask if they’d like to do a review and if possible publish it on your specified date. Since they can download your app at that moment they can test it out and write a true review ready for launch day. Also let your contacts know there might be promo codes available for them to do a giveaway for their readers. Also send promo codes out to your beta testers and thank them for the awesome job they did. Don’t underestimate how much time this takes, you will feel like you’re emailing everyone in the world all day long, but it will pay off.

6.  The Soft Launch

Now that you’ve got everything coming down on your launch date, make the app available the day before. Now don’t freak out that your app is available and no one knows. Take this day to update your website from “coming soon” to “buy it now”, check all the links in your marketing and make sure everything works correctly. Also take this day to contact your beta testers, friends, and family and tell them the app is on the store and would they please leave an honest* review or rating. What this means now is that a) No snafu’s with your marketing or materials, you’ve checked everything over and b) you’ve got ratings and reviews in the app store ready and waiting for all the new customers instead of that lame “there are no ratings” blank spot. This gives your app some traction while it’s new and getting new potential customers from your marketing efforts.

*make sure they know they can be honest. One thing we discovered is that too many 5 star ratings plus glowing, marketing speech reviews can make your profile look a little spammy. There’s been a lot of press about fake testimonials lately and you definitely don’t want to arouse suspicion.

Another caveat, this worked for our app which was for iPad only and in Education. The education category in the iPad app store only gets about an average of 5-6 new apps a day. So on that second day of being in the app store, we were still on the list of newest apps in Education. With the iPhone store I’m sure things move much more quickly and you will likely not get that second day of “newness”. How important that “newness” factor is, I can’t say for sure.

7. Launch Day

Now on launch day you can rest easy knowing that everything has been checked over, you’ve got ratings and reviews in the app store, and the marketing machine is in motion. You can focus on watching for your reviews and press releases to show up and you can begin tweeting and facebooking them. Have some fun, obsessively check your rankings, and do some celebrating.

So there you have it, the Pi’ikea St. patent pending Soft Launch technique. Let us know what you think and if you’ve tried similar or completely different approaches and how they worked.