Marketing an App from Scratch

Marketing an App from Scratch: Building Pre-Launch Interest

For those of you unfamiliar with my journey, I’m building (well, outsourcing) and marketing an app from scratch. The app is called Digital Detox, and it allows people to block all apps except for calls/texts for a particular period of time.

My goal has been to share my learnings. I wish I could eloquently describe all my efforts and make it seem like I know what I’m doing, but the reality is that I don’t know what I’m doing. That’s the fun though; this is a huge learning process, and I hope you learn something too.

Here’s what I’ve been doing so far.

Reaching out on Twitter

A popular hack is to favorite tweets based on keywords. I hate this, but I need to proactively reach out to people, so I just started tweeting at people who mention something along the lines of taking a digital detox. Here’s a few examples:

I ended up reaching out to both of these people over email, and Alex was super helpful and promoted it on his project Twitter account (and Facebook.) Thanks Alex!

Side note: I setup Twitter cards on my website as I know I only have their attention for a few seconds. I’d rather pitch them in a Twitter card, as opposed to trying to get them to click the link. If they like what they see in the Twitter card, they can always click-through. I also started asking people if they were interested in beta testing it. I ended up getting a few people on the list, which is certainly better than nothing :)

Email List Update

Last week I took a vacation (yes, I used the app to detox), so I haven’t had an opportunity to build up interest as much as I wanted. The long story short is that I have 60 email subscribers on 270 users. I’m not going to sugarcoat this – I need more email signups. That’s a 22% opt-in rate, which I’m happy about. I just need to drive more traffic.

Digital Detox

I’d be happy if I had 300 email subscribers before launch, and I’d be ecstatic if I had 450. Assuming the conversion rate stays the same (which it won’t), I’d need approximately 1100 more unique visitors. I’ll make 1500 uniques be my pre-launch goal.



The reddit crowd can be tough. They can also be extremely helpful. I submitted the concept to r/entrepreneur and asked for feedback. I was surprised that people were helpful; I expected more people to be cynical. A common reaction is to get upset by cynicism, but I don’t think this is a bad thing. It’s a roadblock that you can address in your messaging/copy. Here’s a comment to explain:


I’ll add something that addresses this mentality on my app landing page shortly. I’ve heard a similar feedback from other people, so this should definitely be addressed.

I also got feedback on feature requests, but I’d prefer to get that from paying customers. It means a bit more.

Organic Search

Keyword data has been gone for a while, but certain queries slip through the cracks, giving me a tiny bit of insight about whether content marketing is worth it or not. At first I discarded SEO as I thought the keyword was too niche (plus the app is on the 3rd page of the SERPs), but I’ve noticed some glimmers of hope.

Screen Shot 2014-08-28 at 6.39.35 PM


This was over a span of several days, but if I can rank higher, I might be able to get some sales on a consistent basis.

I also have a beta user interested in writing a post on his digital detox experience (he’s writing a book on it.) It might be worth exploring asking people to write about their experience taking a digital detox.

This leads me to my next point.


Right now, the press is eating up the notion of having a digital intervention. The Wall Street Journal recently released a story saying that 70% of smartphone users don’t take a unplug on a weekly basis. This is exactly what my app tries to solve.

Digital Detox - BBC

For some reason, the digital detox is very popular in the UK..maybe they have a better work-life balance than the US?

I believe PR will be one of my best channels (let’s be honest, an app to limit apps is bizarre), so I’ve decided to double down and focus on my pitch. It’s because of this reason that I signed up for PressFriendly. I know Joel the founder, and the product saves me quite a bit of time prospecting contacts at various news outlets.

Also, it has a built-in tool to help me format the pitch. I spent $99 for this, but it has already saved me a ton of time. My total cost to date (app development + PressFriendly) is $1100 dollars.

I’ll share specifics on my PR outreach later in the series (so we can see what works and what doesn’t).

I’ve also started warming up reporters – I have a local news outlet that is interested in covering it. I’m pitching to the smaller news organizations, and refining the pitch before going after the “top-tier” publications. Typically the most interesting news bubbles up to the top-tier reporters, so my efforts are best focused on the smaller publications.

In addition, if I can land a few write-ups, it will send valuable link-juice for any content marketing efforts I do in the future (news outlets typically have a good page/domain rank.)

Virality in the App?

Some of you may wonder if I have intentions of introducing “virality” into the app. To be honest, I do, but I’m not going to show you just yet (subscribe to my email and I’ll share the screenshots in a few days.)

This is something I’m testing. I have a hunch it will work, but I’m working with beta users to refine it. It’s pretty basic, but I think it has potential. We’ll see!


This app will not be free. Right now, I’m thinking it will be $1 during the launch period (first few days), and then I’ll increase the price to $1.99 – $2.99.

I’ve been asking beta users what they would pay. Potential first customer?

Digital Detox - Pay

I asked him to Paypal me $2 to see how serious he was. Either way, it’s great to hear that the app is delivering value. This is why beta users are valuable: they can find bugs, provide insight, and give you motivation to keep going. Update – first paying customer:


What’s Next?

I’m going to keep testing stuff. Like I mentioned earlier – I don’t know what will work, but my main goal is to get more email subscribers, and build a foundation for the app launch.

Other things I’ll be doing:

  1. Make sure the app is approved by Google (tentative launch – Sept 19th)
  2. Finishing touches on the app (find & squash more bugs)
  3. Keep working on building the email list
  4. explore guest-posting or other content marketing opportunities.


Upcoming articles I’m going to write:

  1. The outsourcing process. I’m going to try to get the developer to give feedback on where I can improve (plus share the specs)
  2. If PR takes off, I’ll share a post-mortem on what works and what doesn’t.
  3. Post-launch marketing tactics.
  4. ?




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  • What I need is an Android app that will convert and lock my smartphone into a dumb phone anytime I’m using the phone. Very often my one of my calls gets lost or interrupted by some stupid feature taking over the phone. It’s even worse when I’m trying to drive at the same time. The time period would automatically be the length of the phone call. It’s so simple, but I can’t find that kind of app.

  • Thanks for sharing Thanks for Sharing Luke. This is perfect timing for me – I am looking to launch an app in Nov – Dec so your notes are really helpful. Ironically Your app could have come in handy last night – I am based in New Zealand (still sleeping while you guys are working) and all night last night I was getting Twitter notifications!

  • It would be great to learn more about the tools you used for some of these things – eg., keyword planning, twitter keyword tracking etc. For somebody who is just getting started, its very helpful – all the material on the web is “overwhelming” since there’s so much out there.

  • I was just thinking about the concept of “silence” over the weekend. When I upgraded my iPhone to iOS 8 last week it turned off all my on-screen notifications from Twitter, and for a few days I had virtual silence. I turned the notifications back on a couple of days ago and after an hour it was so noisy I turned it back off. It’s just not productive being interrupted so many time and you can not get any work done. So I definitely see a use case for your app.

  • Sounds like a “neat” app idea but it wouldn’t appeal to me I don’t think. What I do appreciate is the info you’ve shared about your marketing approach. I wish you success, Luke!

  • What a wicked idea! Love it… I like how you’ve thought about how it just blocks app but not calls and texts. I’d love to spitball some advertising ideas for it now or when it launches on

  • Thanks for the interesting read..Just a quick question – I’m looking to develop an app – if the best way to build in HTML5 so that is it cross platform? or build specifically for Android or Iphone?

    • Depends primarily on the time you have .
      If time is not a factor go head to toe in creating a native app else you might be better served with a html5/hybrid app.

    • It’s actually more the functionality than time that will determine this. If you can accomplish the functionality with a mobile web app (HTML5) it is simpler to build and less expensive, generally. It can also be a good test for you and used as the mockup for building native apps if you decide to do that later. Of course there is a cost associated with all this so you might want to build the web app with json endpoints so the native apps will mostly be like the front end UI and much faster to build later on.

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