An Indie's Guide to the Press

Last week Rene (Editor-in-Chief from iMore) wrote What no indie developer wants to hear about the App Store: a look at the tough market indies have to compete in today. In it, though, Rene echoed the feelings I've heard in person from many in the press: they want to support the independent developer in every way they can.

I'm not going to accept this, mind you. I'm going to kick and scream, fight for every helpful feature, buy all the indie-crafted apps, write all the op-eds, and do everything I can to help every developer I can do as well as they possibly can for as long as they possibly can.

Getting the attention of the tech press can feel hard as an indie, so it's always encouraging to hear them talk about how they are on our side. And I know Rene isn't being disingenuous. They do want to help.

At WWDC 2014 Brett Terpstra (at the time writing for TUAW) put out a tweet asking for devs to stop by his room and show off their apps. We talked for 30 minutes; about Slopes at first but then also about his indie app and then community in general. One thing he said that has always stuck with me, though: "How has Slopes not been written about yet, you're doing everything right? This is a great app." (He did help me out and write about my big update later that winter.)

That same WWDC members of tech press volunteered their time at Alt Conf to speak one-on-one with indie devs, offering their time and advice. Among those I met was Peter Cohen (at iMore at the time) and he gave me similar feedback when I asked him about my marketing site: I was doing all the right things, and my app seemed pretty good too.

Throughout the week it was nice, but confusing, to get verification from multiple people that I had a solid app, great design, decent pitch, and a good marketing page. Their encouragement brought about my first realization regarding working with the press: doing everything right is only step one. I needed to understand where they're coming from, too, if I wanted coverage.

Learning That Stories Are What Matter

Hundreds of "I have an app..." emails hit the inboxes of the Apple-centric press every day. You're not only competing for attention with other indies that have just as much passion about their app, though, you're competing with the day-to-day news the tech sites have to write about. Readers trust these sites to filter out as much noise as possible. That is their job.

The most important thing I've realized about working with the press is that it's all about finding the story. You have to answer the question why will their readers care? Focusing on your app through the lens of their readers is important because that's where the disconnect usually is. Is someone going to click through to their site to read about your app? Will readers value the site because it lead them to your app? You might think "of course, my app is unique in that it..." but more often than not I think the answer is a brutally honest "no."

The reality is that if sites don't say no often enough readers will leave. I've dropped sites from my RSS once I see 'em post more than a dozen stories a day, I don't care to keep up. This pressures sites to focus on covering the stories their readers will most appreciate, leaving them with only a few "I'll help this indie app out" chips to cash in any given week.

It can feel unfair, but some apps will always be a story. If Facebook releases a new major feature, that's news and readers expect that to be covered. Some prominent indie developers share a similar advantage (deservedly so). The press and their readers have come to know the developer for releasing quality apps worth taking a look at. Fostering that kind of advantage involves maintaining a good relationship with members of the press, but even that isn't any kind of guarantee. In speaking with other indie developers one prominent figure had this to say:

"Even when I have a good connection to someone [with authority in the press] there’s basically only about a 20% chance I’ll get something written about an app when I pitch it. But I do it anyway. 20% is better than 0%, which is what happens when you do nothing, or when you pitch to a site with no personal contact."

The rest of us, however, are in a similar boat: we are relying on our apps themselves to be interesting stories. You need to figure out how you're helping the sites maintain value to readers (you're best-equipped to sell this part, don't leave it to the press to make your case). Sometimes an collection of awesome features might be enough to make a story (great example: Workflow pushed the boundaries of what we thought possible on iOS), but often it might not be. You might need a different narrative, switching from selling features to selling how the app will affect people's lives (a basic marketing technique as old as time). Build a story around that.

Maybe you can fit into a site's existing narrative. If readers follow a site or writer for any specific reason, and that aligns with your app, you've got a story. For example if you've got an awesome productivity tool for the iPad you'll probably have Federico from MacStories chomping at the bit to write about it, and many of his readers follow him hoping for those tips on these great new apps.

If you're struggling to find a way to justify your app as a story (you've gotta be brutally self-honest here), what can you do? I've discovered sometimes you'll need to find a way to be a part of another bigger story. One of the easiest techniques is to find a way to ride the natural PR wave that comes with new hardware or features from Apple. The press was all over Live Photo apps and interesting uses of 3D Touch last cycle, for example.

The easiest time I've had getting press coverage for Slopes was being a well-designed Watch app launching day one along side the Apple Watch. It was easier for me to stand out because Slopes was an example of an app that actually made sense to have on your wrist, not some "why do I need that on my wrist?" gimmick. Slopes also fit the fitness narrative Apple was already pushing with the Watch.

I did everything I could to talk about Slopes on Apple Watch publicly once I had a design, and then a prototype, months before launch. I knew the press would be actively seeking out new apps they could talk about leading up to launch, and they'd need to write plenty of "top 20"-style roundups on launch day too. They had to write those articles, readers expected it looking for reasons to look forward to the Watch, so I was helping them when I pointed them to my app. And it worked: I was a part of dozens of those articles and I got healthy traffic from them.

This season I wrote about how The Apple Watch Makes the Perfect Snowboarding Companion. I wasn't focused on how my app itself had some awesome new feature, but rather how Apple's product & services fit into the larger winter sports narrative. Slopes was just a small callout in the entire article, but that's fine I had a story to tell. That article got some traction, too.

Conversely when my big 2.0 launch happened in November 2015 (a time I'd kill for a lot of coverage) I didn't get much. Why? I didn't have a compelling story for readers. Honestly I was just another app update in a sea of thousands. "I have a winter sports app, and it's winter, so..." just isn't a story with high odds of being published.

Never Tell Me the Odds

Now that you understand where the press is coming from, lets look at how you can improve your odds of being noticed when you do reach out.

Look at your marketing material and make sure it's press-friendly where appropriate. What Peter said he liked about my app's homepage back at WWDC was how easy it was to quickly identify what Slopes was, its major features, and if it seemed to be a decently designed app. "Very scannable." Both the press and users have a lot going on, and helping them judge your app quickly is very helpful. He spoke at length about getting your app noticed by the media at AltConf '15.

Take a good look at your press resources (you do have some, right?) and how you pitch the press. When I was talking to Ally Kazmucha from The App Factor a few months back she stressed how important it was to keep pitches simple, quick to read, and personal if possible. When you're getting 100s of pitches a day brevity + clarity in pitch and material will set you apart. She's since published a a great article of tips on pitching.

While Ally and I spoke, she asked me how big my press kit was, and it became clear that the idea of having a ton of attachments or needing to download a large zip was unappealing to her (don't forget zips are terrible on iOS!). After speaking with her I came up with a new web-based press kit format for Slopes. I'd recommend you take a second to go look at what I came up with; that's the culmination of every tip I've gotten from the press over the years. Each writer always has personal wants / needs / opinions, but I think this is a good template.

The best part of this new press page? It frees me up to keep my pitch emails short and more personal; letting me focus on selling my story vs having to cram in all the basics. While they're in a rush to get through their inbox there's a lot less friction in clicking a link to a page that's clearly built just for them ("press.html") vs opening a big zip, so I can defer some of that information out of the email. I'm not alone: Recently Dan Counsell echoed this idea of ditching the zip files while staying self-hosted, and others are jumping on this press-friendly idea already.

Make sure your press kit is easy to find, however you deliver it. Most people in the press expect to see a "press" link in your header or footer. Often they might write something without even contacting you, so making it easy to get your resources ensures their article is accurate and uses your best-looking material. I had a TV news channel do a feature on ski apps without me knowing, but they were able to grab my high-res logo and speak accurately about my app without wasting time reaching out.

I view all the above as the minimum effort needed before I show up in their inbox. Don't forget: you're demanding their time and attention so you need to respect them enough to put in some effort. When I spoke to Rene about this, he added:

I have several times had developers asked why we didn't cover their apps. Often I've never heard of them. When they said they mailed multiple times I looked, and all of them were some variation of automated, sometimes broken, form emails.

When I told him those weren't very good, often went to junk, and since they didn't look like a human sent them, it was hard for a human to read them, they said it was too much effort to email people individually.

The press are humans facing the daunting day-to-day task of sifting through a crazy amount of noise, needing to filter it all down into just a few quality stories per day. When a lot of our competition doesn't make any noticeable effort in approaching the press, even just a days worth of effort to prep material and pitches can go a long way.

For all the effort you'll put in, though, coverage is hardly guaranteed. Being press-friendly won't make you a story, but it'll increase the odds of being noticed vs skipped over.

It always comes back to being a story that's worth-while to readers.

Chase The Story

Our marketing plans can't rely on "get mentioned by the tech press" any more than "get featured by Apple." If we focus too narrowly on the Apple tech press as our marketing channel we'll always be fighting for attention in a sea of apps. No matter how strongly writers and editors-in-chiefs want to help, many of us will go un-featured.

But here's the thing: even with their help we'd still miss out on a ton of users. So many people own iPhones and iPads, but only a fraction of them care enough about Apple to frequent iMore / 9to5 / MacRumors / MacStories / The Loop. We read those sites because this is our passion, but our users are out there following their passions elsewhere online and offline. The age of everyone with an iPhone constantly seeking out new apps is largely a thing of the past. We still do, but we're not the norm.

Remember the biggest thing you can do to improve your odds is to be a story worth talking about. Seek out and approach places where the audience will more naturally consider your app newsworthy. When you find these places you'll reduce the number of apps you're competing against for attention by orders of magnitude, while also reaching people that other app developers are likely not reaching.

Yono from the app Gus on the Go (a suite of language learning apps for children) wrote about how they had a lot of success approaching mommy bloggers, not the typical Apple tech sites, about their iOS apps. I've seen similar success with Slopes by actively participating in the skiing and snowboarding communities online -- they're always looking for new gear and toys. I'm even starting to look into other mediums, not just sites, where I can reach my audience.

It is undeniable that the Apple-centric tech press will help many apps be discovered, and we should always reach out to our allies there. But we can help ourselves greatly, and possibly struggle for attention a little less, by casting a wider net and finding new avenues to reach our potential users.

Want additional insights on pricing, business, marketing, and more that I've picked up along the way in making my indie app a sustainable part of my business? Catch up on the journey so far in the Slopes Diaries series.