The mobile app marketplace has become increasingly crowded (both on iOS and Android), which means that it's becoming increasingly more difficult to make your app stand out from the 500,000 others available for consumers to choose from. Developers can use paid advertising to drive demand for their apps, or use cross-promotional tools like those provided by PlacePlay. Unfortunately, reaching critical mass through CPC/CPM/CPI mobile advertising campaigns requires significant financial resources.

The good news is that app developers do not have to rely solely on in-app advertising and other mobile advertising to build an audience and drive demand for their apps. There are many cost-effective and free options for using social media to make apps more successful.

Social media matters for app developers

Social media levels the playing field to some extent. Instead of spending upwards of $2.50 per user to acquire app users, social media gives all developers, regardless of their size or financial resources, the ability to build an audience over time. If used correctly, social media can help app developers create an army of fans whose promotional strength and word-of-mouth can rival even the largest mobile advertising campaign.

How app developers can use social media to make their apps successful

Make social media a design priority

Social media is not something to be tacked on after the fact. The best way to acquire a social media following is to integrate Facebook and Twitter directly into your app. At a minimum, give users the opportunity to like or follow your product through the most important social networks. Allowing users to share achievements and other information on Facebook is also a good option. The easier you can make it for your users to talk about your app and share their experiences with their friends and followers, the more likely you will be to attract extra eyeballs and get extra clicks, often with no extra effort or investment on your part. Milkman Games provides a GoViral Social Media native extension for Adobe AIR to help AIR developers do exactly this.

Reward users for connecting with your product

If you use virtual currency or items in your app, consider rewarding users who connect with you through social media. You won't always be able to track actual conversions from social media, but this doesn't matter: the engagement and additional audience reach that you get from users on social media is still valuable and is worth "paying for" with virtual currency, even if you don't know which users bought/downloaded your app as a result of social media. The important thing is to give people an extra reason to connect with you. Ask yourself: what's it worth to you to get an extra Facebook fan or Twitter follower, especially if the expenditure doesn't require any "real" money?

Make a long-term commitment to your Facebook community

Social media requires long-term engagement and connection and an investment of time and attention from an app developer. Once your community of Facebook followers starts to grow, keep people engaged with a continuous stream of valuable content, sneak-peek information, provocative questions to generate discussions and ideas, and co-created content (such as sharing users' photos, screenshots, and other contributions). For example, the Tap the Frog Facebook page has inside "sneak peeks" at new levels and new versions of the app, special offers and incentives to get people to "Like" the page, and photos from users sharing their decorated Frogs. Keep in mind that you don't want to bombard people and clog up their Facebook feeds with too many updates, but you should try to post something valuable every day or two. 

How app developers can use social media to promote apps

Keep your tone personal and human

Many app developers are nervous about managing Facebook or Twitter communities because of their lack of formal marketing training; they often wonder if they have the communications skills and writing ability to handle these tasks themselves. Even if you're not a natural wordsmith, don't feel intimidated by the prospect of speaking to your users via social media. App developers' lack of formal marketing experience can actually be a benefit: social media success often goes to people who are good at "being real" rather than being a silver-tongued spokesperson. Instead of trying to pick the right words or trying to sound "bigger than you are," embrace the fact that you are a small developer. Be yourself. Share your passion for your app, be generous to your audience (by thanking them for following you and by promptly responding to their feedback, questions and ideas) and make clear that your social media efforts are in service of creating better apps for your customers, not "getting famous" for its own sake.

Automate where and what you can

You need to have a human voice and respond to your users' questions and ideas promptly and authentically—but you don't have to allow social media to take up too much of your time and effort every day. A lot of great tools are available to help you automate your social media activity. For example, Hootsuite is a social media management tool that enables you to schedule your Facebook and Twitter posts in advance. If you get a bunch of great ideas for social media content, you can save them and space them out in Hootsuite so they publish once every day or two. Tools like Hootsuite are a great way to stay on a regular publishing schedule and maximize your time, without having to log into Facebook every single day while still giving your users a consistent flow of new content.

Take a "value first" approach to content

Many app developers make the mistake of using social media as just another way to make a sales pitch and solicit more downloads—but people didn't join your Facebook community to be "sold to." They joined your community because they have a genuine interest in your app and what it represents—most likely, FUN. If people take the time to "Like" your Facebook page, that's a big deal: they want to interact with you and your app's "brand," beyond merely downloading an app. So cherish these relationships and maintain people's trust—instead of trying to "sell, sell, sell" all the time, focus on adding value to your audience's experience with your app. Content that adds value and helps users solve problems and entertains them is the way to go; for example: tips and tricks, relevant articles about your app or your subject matter, jokes, video content, contests, funny photos, and anything else that might educate, enlighten and brighten people's day. It's OK to use Facebook to make requests ("please download this," for example) but you should only make requests sparingly. Make sure to "give" more than you "get" from your social media community.

Experiment with Facebook advertising for your community

Once you have set up a Facebook page for your app (or your app development company), you can experiment with Facebook advertising for as little as a few dollars a day. Facebook advertising works on a pay-per-click or pay-per-action model (where you only pay every time someone new "Likes" your Facebook page). The biggest thing to keep in mind with Facebook advertising is that you need to make sure to target your ads. For example, you can target your Facebook ads so that people only see your ad if one of their friends has already "Liked" your page, or by targeting people with specific interests (if you make an app that is a sci/fi or fantasy game, you can target fans of these genres who have expressed an interest in these topics as part of their Facebook profiles). Facebook advertising for mobile app developers doesn't have to be expensive; if managed properly, you can achieve a cost per connection as low as $0.10 for many apps. Remember, the goal here isn't to acquire a bigger Facebook audience just for the sake of being "famous." The goal is to find people who are predisposed to engage with your app, and eventually to convert them to paying customers from your community.

Embrace and encourage user-generated content

One of the first rules of social media marketing is that "it's not a monologue, it's a dialogue": you don't have to create all of the content yourself. Reduce your workload by encouraging your users to post their own fan art, videos, comments, reviews and other content. You can run contests and offer incentives to get people to participate in sharing their ideas and creating content—but be aware of Facebook's content rules to make sure that any competitions that you run comply with the site's terms and conditions. Read the Facebook Page guidelines, section III E., "Promotions."

Tell people what you want them to do

Community members have a tendency to follow your lead. After all, they chose to "Like" your page for a reason; chances are that they respect your judgment and want to be part of your "movement," whatever that may be. So, if you want your Facebook fans to take action, go ahead and ask them to do so. If you want them to "Like" a post, say, "Like this post if you love the new features we've added to our app…" or "Do you want us to release a new level sometime soon? Tell us more!" If you want people to share a post with their friends, say: "Please share this post to help spread the word about our new app, coming out soon…" If your audience likes you and trusts you because of the ongoing value that you provide to them, they will be happy to help you—but you need to ask.

Where to go from here

Here's a quick review the actionable steps that any app developer can take to create and engage a community around their app:

  1. Create a Facebook page for your app or company.
  2. Build viral hooks in to your app and reward your users for connecting with you.
  3. Take a long-term approach to building your community.
  4. Be "human," but automate where you can with tools like Hootsuite.
  5. Provide value to your community with unique content, sneak peeks, and more. Give more than you get.
  6. Experiment with Facebook advertising.
  7. Encourage user-generated content, which engages and extends your community.
  8. Make it clear and easy what you want your community members to do: use simple calls to action!

Here are Facebook pages for existing apps that have done a fantastic job of engaging and growing their communities:

The market for mobile apps is competitive; but, just because you are a small app developer and probably can't afford increasing user acquisition costs, it doesn't mean all is lost. You just have to work a little smarter to grow and engage your community. Your users love your app—use them to promote it and increase demand for your app!

You can learn more about tips and tricks for how to market your mobile app at Mobile Advertising Hub or the PlacePlay blog.