While it is the launch phase that stands out as the stage that will decide if your game will fly or fail, it is actually the soft-launch phase that determines whether you are on track to release an app that can have a positive impact — both on your business and on your audience — in the first place. After all, there’s no sense spending time and effort to launch an app that doesn’t have a chance of achieving either, which is why you must test the waters before you take the plunge.
It’s all about capturing data and user ‘signals’ every step of the app journey to understand where your game really stands and if it has real potential in the marketplace. And that’s why I’d like to focus on helping app developers collect and analyse the data that matters most at the most critical stage of the app life-cycle. You need to understand what works best and determine if your budget and strategy are on the money.
You need to measure and monitor the behaviour of real users in the countries targeted as test markets in real-time. The in-game actions and interactions of players will give you insights into how to tweak your game to improve stickiness.
They will also allow you to get more out of your budgets, freeing them to focus resources on validating their app, not spending time and money on figuring out user acquisition at a stage when the app is not really ready to release to the public.
It’s not about producing a minimum viable product, nor becoming obsessed with MVP’s. It’s about getting a minimum awesome game to market so you can get maximum valuable feedback from the users in your target markets.
Data makes the difference
In a super-competitive and over-saturated market where user acquisition costs are rising through the roof, it’s important to have a launch where you go from strength to strength. It’s all about preparation – you have to do the hard work during the soft-launch to bring your game as far as you can. And it’s also work that never ends because you must take your cue from users, iterating the app to match and motivate their audience. If you don’t deliver a surprising and delightful app from the get-go, you set yourself up to blow every chance — and budget — you have.
This is where data makes the difference.
At one level, it’s all about measuring performance and making the improvements that will ensure a game will make it BIG. At the other end of the spectrum, it’s about having the confidence — supported by hard data — that allows indies to negotiate a publishing deal from a position of strength, since they know with certainty their game will be a hit.
The same goes for app stores, where indies, in particular, need numbers to show that their app has what it takes to rise in the charts. Apple and Google do not expect small developers to spend big advertising budgets during launch, so it’s even more important for these companies to show good numbers from their soft-launch.
4 Top tips to prep for a super-successful soft-launch
It’s all about learning from a soft-launch in test markets to tweak the app and make iterative improvements – here are four tips to consider (and get right!) in this critical phase.
#1 Test, learn and tweak: Plan months before and recognise that the soft-launch period — which typically lasts 2-3 months — is all about testing, learning and then implementing the changes that will put you on your way to releasing an amazing app. This is the period that will tell you if your app has potential. If you can, run your soft-launch for 6 months or more to allow even more time to really tweak the product and ensure the app delivers. You only have one chance to ‘wow’ a user, so take the time and make the effort to get it right.
#2 Aim for Android: It’s a period when app developers have to move fast and make changes even faster. Android has the benefit of being a platform that allows developers to iterate and tweak the game in very short cycles. Launch an app on Apple iOS and the developer needs a few days to gather the data and a few days to make some fundamental changes to the app. But then it takes 1-10 days to get the new build up, so your iteration cycle is at the least two weeks. On Android, it’s a lot faster and a lot less complicated. In fact, one of my clients was able to launch and update on a Thursday, get some traffic over the following weekend, and then use that data to make changes for a launch of a new version on the Thursday. A week to move from feedback to fix? That’s impossible on iOS.
#3 Don’t worry too early about marketing: Yes, you need to focus on brand, creatives and great assets. And you also need to think about when (and if) you need to hire a user acquisition expert, how you should manage A/B testing and how many SDKs you should integrate. But before you lose sleep — and money — make sure you have a product that is worth the effort in the first place. First and foremost, focus on having an amazing product because if you have a mediocre app in such a competitive market, you are setting yourself up for failure. Toward the end of your soft launch phase, when you are preparing for launch, is when you have to sharpen your focus on how you can deliver an amazing and effective advertising campaign. You should double-down on testing creatives, descriptions and icons when you are getting towards a global launch, not before.
#4 Know where you stand: Do people ‘get’ your game? Are they spending time in it — and often? Is it something they find surprising and delightful? These are just some of the questions you want to answer. And those answers will help you decide if it’s worth to continue to invest into finishing the game, or if failing fast and moving to the next game is the right way. Success is about knowing whether (and where) users will either pay money, or pay attention to advertising. But if people don’t come back because your app is totally off the mark, then why spend on marketing it?
Winning games have several characteristics in common. They are delightful and addictive, and they are fiercely focused on the user. Indeed, it’s knowing what users do in-game from behavioural data, as well as understanding their motivations and feedback from empirical data that will ensure that an app is — and will remain — a crowd-pleaser.