Bobby Gill is the founder of Blue Label Labs, a mobile app development lab based in New York, and the editor of IdeaToAppster.com, the premier online resource for news, articles and tips for mobile app design and development.
Are you considering soft-launching your mobile app? How do you know if this strategy is right for you? In this post, you’ll discover the key lessons we learned from soft-launching Word Hack back in April 2014. We will use data that we gathered from our release in Canada, Australia, U.K. and New Zealand. With this post, we hope you will discover the key advantages and disadvantages of soft-launching your app and in the end figure out if this strategy makes sense for you.
Talking with Real Users (Not Just Friends & Family)
Who do we go to when we are looking for beta users? Typically it is our friends and family because we know that they will say yes. However, getting feedback from them may not be the best thing in uncovering the real nuances of your app. They have a somewhat vested interest in seeing you succeed (and not disappoint you), so they are more likely to sugar coat their feedback and say generalities like “I like it” or “It was really fun” or even “I love that idea!” What you really want are real users who have no clue who you are.
What we learned:
Our game was really difficult to play. In fact, only about 29% of the users correctly solved their puzzles. This is a huge problem because our game relies on in-app purchases for monetization and if people are not finishing puzzles that means their leaving the game and less likely to spend any money. So we decided to make the puzzles a lot easier in the beginning of the game, so users can learn the game mechanics as they play. This led to a solve rate of 58% with more users coming back to the app on a daily basis thereby doubling our retention rate.
Optimize for Scale
Another clear advantage to soft-launching is to see how users interact with the app. There’s only so much you can learn from giving your app to your friends and family. In a closed beta you only have so many users who can help you test. Opening up to a reasonably sized country gives you a more realistic sample to optimize the scalability and stability of the app.
What We Learned:
We grossly overestimated the rate at which users would play all the puzzles in the puzzle pack. However, we found out that power users were finishing all the puzzles and we learned that our original data model made it difficult to add more puzzle packs to the game. The soft launch forced us to fix this and now we’ve optimized puzzle pack size (level duration) for the mainstream user while also improving the back end that allows us to add more puzzle packs and themes down the road.
Evangelize Early Adopters
One the best things to soft-launching is seeing the number of users fall in love with the app. In fact, we have an average rating of 4.8 from 29 reviews in Canada alone. And the biggest surprise we received was an email from a user in Vancouver. One user in Canada emailed us from our company website saying that she “used up all of the puzzle packs and can’t find a way to access more. I now have almost 100,000 points and am rated #2 globally but can’t play another game!! First we thought there was a bug in the app, but we later found out that she finished all 1,000 plus puzzles within the app! As app publishers these are the types of emails we live for.
What We Learned:
Having real case studies makes for a more compelling story. More importantly, receiving good early feedback gives you the validation you need to continue striving and building on the momentum. Life as an indie app publisher is tough, and getting these types of emails makes it all worth it. Having real social proof also allows us to use this when pitching the press.
Refine Marketing Language
Soft-launching also allowed us to refine our marketing messages and overall launch plan. We initially launched in Canada and pitched our app to the Canadian press. This allowed us to see which types of subject lines and pitches were resonating with the press. It even landed us press on iPhone in Canada. Moreover, soft-launching allowed us to refine our app store optimization strategy. From keywords to screen shots to app icons, we are testing what versions work the best.
Press Coverage in Canada as a Result of the Soft Launch
What We Learned:
When pitching to the press, it helped to associate Word Hack with a familiar game title. In fact, we received the most opens with this subject line “Word Hack – A Colorful Twist to Hangman”.
After spending months developing your app, the one thing you want to do is get it in front of as many users as possible. However, delaying this gratification was one of the hardest parts. We initially launched in Canada, then Australia, then the U.K. and finally New Zealand.There were many times we wanted to release in the U.S., but we had to make sure we had the game play and user experience to the point where we felt comfortable with it
Reaching the U.S. Market
Not being able to release in the largest app market was really tough. Our friends and family couldn’t download the app without jumping through some hurdles.To make any sort of splash in the app world, you have to reach the top charts in the U.S. market.In addition, not having data and user feedback from the U.S. market made it tough. It will be interesting to see if the feedback we received from other countries will be similar to the feedback we get from the U.S. market.
Delaying the Hard Launch
It took us 3 months to get to the U.S. launch. While some may view that as a long time, we felt like it was the right amount of time to make sure we ironed out all the kinks. Another disadvantage is trying to make too many changes and never getting to the hard launch. There are still some things we want to refine within the app, but we had to get to the hard launch or we might forever be stuck in soft-launch phase trying to make the app “perfect”.
Is Soft-Launching Your App Right for You?
How do you know if soft-launching is the right strategy for you? While we can’t answer this question for you, we can tell you to ask yourself the following questions.
- Are you trying to see if your technology scales?
- Is your app “complex” and you need to see a significant amount of users to interact with the app?
- Are you trying to refine your marketing pitch?
If you are launching a simple game like Flappy Bird or Timberman then a soft-launch may not be appropriate. However, if your app has many dimensions to it, then it is something worth considering.Looking back on it, we would have done it all over again.
You can check out the Word Hack game mentioned in this article on the app store here or find more from Bobby over at Ideatoappster and Blue Label Labs