YORK, Pa. (AdAge.com) -- Shayne Faerber is a realist. The creator of the "Mall Maps -- You Are Here" iPhone apps knew that getting noticed among 87,000 apps in the AppStore -- 18,000 alone in the reference category -- was going to take some work.
So once the app was launched by MEDL Mobile in mid-November, Mr. Faerber began reaching out to the influencers, both everyday iPhone users and the burgeoning class of professional app reviewers. Like many enterprising app developers, he recognized that in an increasingly crowded app market, these endorsements can mean the difference between an app snaring a coveted ranking in iTunes and disappearing into oblivion.
He wrote the first review for his app, and titled it: "Hello this is Shayne, creator of the Mall Maps App." In it, he invited comments, directed people to watch a walk-through video before buying and encouraged reviewers to come to him with issues he could fix "before you leave a negative review." He also included his e-mail in the app itself.
Then, the Naples, Fla.-based waiter, who spent six months working on the app with developer MEDL, sent out e-mails to reviewers and media members inviting their coverage. He scored an App of the Day feature on appadvice.com, a good review on IntoMobile.com, and another positive review and front-page story on iPhoneLife (which is also a quarterly magazine).
A week later, the app had an average four-star rating and was ranked No. 26 in the reference category. The positive attention also caught Apple's eye. On the Tuesday before Black Friday, Apple named Mall Maps an essential app for the big shopping day. Mall Maps then quickly moved up the charts and reached the No. 1 reference spot by Wednesday.
And all along the way, Mr. Faerber's hand turned a handful of dissatisfied customers into positive endorsers. One customer, whose initial review started with the opener: "SO FAR STINKS!" eventually wrote that he was "impressed with your customer service" and wished Mr. Faerber "the best of luck" after a series of e-mail exchanges with the developer.
While reviews may mean more to smaller developers like Mr. Faerber, any marketer who wants consumers to find their app -- or is just interested in some free feedback from those consumers -- should consider them.
"The name of the game for developers and brands is to get into the top 10 of the iTunes store as quickly as possible," said Alan Warms, CEO of Appolicious, an editorial and social-networking app-ratings site. "That means you want to go out early and get good reviews and get good buzz."
The mobile app review world, just like smartphones and the apps themselves, is still developing, and so finding the best experts and most-respected reviewers isn't a finite game. Industry insiders pointed to tech influencers such as Gizmodo, Engadget, Tech Crunch, CNET and MacWorld as respected sources of app info and assessments, but those sites also cover the entire tech industry -- while they all do app reviews regularly, apps are only one area of coverage.
In the mobile smartphone and iPhone-only coverage space, Touch Arcade was oft-mentioned as the best app reviewer for games, while others like Appolicious, 148Apps, iSmashPhone and the iPhone Blog were credited as good review sites.
"Third parties have a real opportunity to position themselves as credible external reviewers," said Raven Zachary, president of Small Society. "But essentially being one well-rounded blog that covers all apps is impossible. The volume is too high. There will never be an Ebert & Roeper [of apps] because they only have a minimum volume of movies every week. It's very different with apps."
One way marketers can reach out to reviewers is to invite them into beta review. Apple allows developers to distribute an app to 100 devices before launch. Mr. Zachary said he encourages clients to invite bloggers and press, as well as influencers in the marketer's vertical to join in that early stage. Building buzz and feedback for tweaking before launch, as well as potential press and media mentions on launch day, are all potential upsides to the strategy.
Everyone's a critic
Of course, it's not just professional reviews that sway people to download a particular app. Individual consumers often weigh in, particularly in the customer-review section in the App Store.
"It's not like a new TV on the market where everyone knows about that one brand and model because it's reviewed in The New York Times or Wall Street Journal," said Mike Wehrs, CEO and president of the Mobile Marketing Association. "Reviews can help, but for apps there are more user reviews than professional ones, and that's different."
User reviews, or just one customer, can skew ratings with irrelevant reviews, rants against the brand that have little to do with the app, or even competitor or phony critical reviews.
Mr. Wehrs equated the current rating system -- based on stars in the App Store -- to the one on Amazon where consumers simply post a personal experience with the product and often end up with a wide range of opinions depending on perspective. He suggested that brands turn to their customers or fans, give them the app or direct them to it to download, then contact them again and ask them to post a review.
The App Store star system should be taken with a grain of salt, said Small Society's Mr. Zachary, who gave an example of an app his agency did for the Obama campaign. The app got a bunch of five-star reviews from liberals who liked Mr. Obama, and it also got a lot of one-star ratings from conservatives who trashed the now-president's politics in their reviews.
"At the time, there were about two-thirds more Democrats than Republicans who had iPhones, so we ended up with an average three stars. But the content had absolutely nothing to do with the value of the app," he said. "Don't think you have to be a four- or five-star app to be useful in the marketplace. The star system is very overrated."
Tools for feedback
Reviews are also tools marketers can use for feedback, as Mr. Faerber did. They can add requested content quickly, respond to dissatisfied customers in real time or follow the threads and opinions for more general app direction or future updates.
In the case of Avis and its car-reservation app launched in August, reviews haven't led to changes in the app itself, but they have changed the priorities and timeline of the app development.
"You should definitely listen and respond to customers in some cases, but at the same time, you have to stay true to the overall brand plan," said Jeff Maling, president of RoundArch, which developed the Avis app. "What reviews did for us was help reprioritize the road map. For instance, local rental wasn't part of the first launch, but when you see 300 people in reviews asking for it, it's pretty easy to see you need to move that up on the timeline. ... Reviews have reminded us what's really important. In this case, local rentals and geo-location."
Avis' Reservation App was the first car-rental reservation app in the App Store and had to weigh the importance of taking its time to refine the product until the company was sure the first reviews would be glowing while still getting into the market before the competition. In the end, it decided being first was more important than being perfect. That meant going out with the basics, but missing some features that could be added later.
"We knew we were going to get judged and knew reviews would come out that maybe wouldn't be great," Mr. Maling said. "It's not a problem being first, but you've got to be committed to updating this."
Noel Sullivan, senior planner for TBWA/Chiat/Day, Los Angeles, on the Nissan account, said reviews can be invaluable sources of social media-like commentary that can continuously feed the brand and make the app better. He helped Nissan launched its driving game app, Cube Party Round-Up, this summer.
"There are two kinds of classes of reviews. One is negative about the concept and the construction of the app and they just don't like it -- you can't do much about that. The other reviews, though, are more like constructive criticism. ... You're not launching a product just once, but one product that can be optimized and improved throughout the lifecycle."
Tips for app reviews
- KNOW THE INFLUENCERS. The broad-based tech review sites occasionally review apps, but a swath of new reviewers have cropped up around the app ecosystem. Among those to check out: Touch Arcade, Appolicious, 148Apps, iSmashPhone and the iPhone Blog.
- REACH OUT TO REVIEWERS AHEAD OF TIME. Apple allows developers to distribute an app to 100 devices before launch, and this is a good time to reach out to bloggers and press, as well as influencers in the marketer's vertical.
- TAP YOUR EXISTING BRAND FANS. Sometimes the rating system in the App Store can turn into a rant against a brand or category. So reach out to your loyal fans first; encourage them to try out the app and post a fair, balanced review on your behalf.
- MAKE YOURSELF AVAILABLE AND ACCESSIBLE. Customer service is a valuable form of marketing and that's as true for marketing an app as it is for anything. Offer up contact info and reach out to dissatisfied customers -- pain points are also marketing opportunities.
- MINE REVIEWS FOR VALUABLE SUGGESTIONS AND FEEDBACK. They can direct product development and help you reprioritize your updates, based on what future features users are asking for.