Lessons Learned Marketing an App (or all the ways I screwed up)

P.S – I have a new side project called Friday Feedback.

Six months ago, I decided that I’d outsource app development, try marketing it, and share what I learn along the way. Here are the posts I wrote before if you’d like to catch up:

  1. I’m building/marketing an app from scratch
  2. Building pre-launch interest
  3. Outsourcing app development

One of my pet peeves is that people tend to only write these recap posts when things go right, and while it makes the writer feel good to brag (I mean, let’s be honest, that’s primarily what it is), the reader doesn’t get an accurate glimpse of the true experience along the way. Here’s a screenshot of my experience so far:


I hope this post paints a different picture. To recap, I launched Digital Detach – it’s an app to help you take breaks from your smartphone by forcing you off distracting apps (i.e. – Facebook, Twitter, etc). My primary goal was to learn (and break even on the cost: ~$1000 + my time).

I’ll divide this post into what worked, and what didn’t.

What worked

This part is short.

Press as a distribution channel

The notion of taking a digital break had been making the rounds through the press when I decided to create the app. I thought press would be a good channel for awareness, and it turns out I was right. It’s not rocket science. If they’ve written about it before, and keep writing about it, I just need to get the app  in front of them. They will write about it again.


Above is an article on the front page of the Boston Globe (my mom was proud) mentioning Digital Detach. It also made a few other smaller websites listed below:

  1. New App Wants to Give You a Digital Detox, ‘Because Your Smartphone is Making You Dumb’ – BostInno
  2. If you need help limiting your smartphone use, Digital Detach may be your solution – Phone Arena
  3. Product hunt
  4. Need to unplug? There’s an app for that – Boston Globe

My goal with press was to be on the first page of the SERPS, as if someone searches for “digital detox” I wanted to show up as high as possible. There’s not a lot of volume, but the intent is pretty high.

I wanted to capture press intent too (when they write articles in the future and do research). I expect that there will be a long tail of press for the app, meaning I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up in another article or two.

Building a pre-launch list

I’m happy I built an email list before launching. It provided motivation to keep working on the app (as I knew people were waiting for it), and also helped with sales and reviews on launch day.

What didn’t go so well

I should preface the rest of this post with a screenshot of my app sales over the past few months. I’ve made $140 dollars. I need to make $850+ if I want to break even on the development cost. Being on the front page of the Boston Globe yielded about $15 dollars in app sales.

That’s not close to what I hoped I would make at this point in time. Bummer. Here’s what I blame it on:


I still don’t know how I’d be able to replicate the current app functionality on iOS, but I should have figured out a way to make this happen on iPhone/iPad/etc.

The input (development cost) in theory would have been almost identical, but the difference is that most of the traffic I was driving had iOS devices. I mean, seriously, the majority of people on Product Hunt are iOS owners.

Also, I had people in my pre-launch list asking if it would be on iOS. That should have been a sign.

Lastly, iOS owners are more likely to pay for apps compared to Android users (they spend 4x more apparently).

Trying to create a “new” market

It’s a lot easier to serve and existing need instead of creating a new “need.” The reason is because you first have to convince them that they have a problem, and secondly, you have to sell the painkiller. More effort is required.

In my scenario, I had to convince people that they should put down their phone (tough to do). I then had to sell them on why my app would help them accomplish this goal.

I didn’t charge enough

A few days after launching, I increased the price from $1 to $1.99. That was a good decision – I should have launched at a higher price point.

I will most likely increase the price again to $3 soon. The effort required on my part to convince someone to buy an app for $1.99 is not much different than convincing someone to purchase the app for $1. I put in nearly as much “effort” but I make less.

Side note, If I had more time & resources, I’d try to find a way to create a subscription service out of the app (this would require a lot more product work making the app more sticky). It wouldn’t be easy, but in theory revenue would be more predictable. I can’t see a way of building a sustainable app business with constantly fluctuated interest/downloads on the app store…unless you’re a gaming company.

Try before buying

Since PR was my distribution channel, I should have monetized the interest I received. Not everyone was going to want to pay me, but that doesn’t mean I can’t make a small amount of $ off them.

In short, I should have created a free app with limited functionality (example, you can only take 10 minute breaks), where I show how the app works, but upsell the “premium app.”

I then could stuff ads in the free version (like most developers on the Google Play store do), and make small amounts of money, while giving people the opportunity to try before buying. I’m not a big fan, but it would be an interesting experiment.

I have the source code now, and I’m going to hack away and try to create a free clone with ads. We’ll see what happens.

Development bloat

During development, I noticed on Twitter that certain people were tweeting about “unplugging for the weekend.” I assumed that therefore people may be interested in posting a precomposed tweet from my app. Some people did. Most people didn’t. This added unneeded bloat and development costs.

I should have started small, pushed the app, and then added features like this further down the road.

Wrapping up

I learned a ton from this project. I still have plenty I can learn. The best way to improve as a marketer is to do things, see what works, and learn from mistakes. You should do the same :)

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