TouchType's SwiftKey is one of the leading paid Android apps in several markets, and has seen a huge amount of success despite having a relatively small marketing budget. TouchType CMO Joe Braidwood was kind enough to share some tips gleaned from his experience at getting the keyboard app downloaded hundreds of thousands of times, and what developers can do to try and drive similar success from their own apps.
WIP: Hi Joe, can you tell us a little bit about TouchType, SwiftKey and what you do?
JB: Sure. Our company TouchType was founded in 2008 around the idea that we could use some recent breakthroughs in natural language technology and machine learning to make typing on touchscreen phones easier. After a couple of years of research and prototyping, we came up with a powerful language engine and strong UI that worked really well. SwiftKey was born.
SwiftKey replaces the keyboard on Android phones or tablets with one that has a smarter language engine, which learns your lingo and applies it in context to make typing an easier, more pain-free experience on touchscreens. It’s a genuinely amazing product, so that makes marketing it much easier that it might otherwise be. We’re currently having an amazing week where, after running a Black Friday/Cyber Monday sale on the app, we’re the #1 paid app globally on Android.
My job is “Chief Marketing Officer”, which means my main focus is on marketing SwiftKey in the consumer marketplace. I also work to promote our company’s business and enterprise services and help represent the company at events and conferences.
WIP: SwiftKey is a good example of an application that's been relentlessly marketed outside of app stores. What have been the key drivers of downloads and revenues for it?
JB: I wouldn’t quite say we’ve marketed SwiftKey “relentlessly” outside of app stores, although we’ve done as much as we can to spread the word. The main reason I’d say our activity is not relentless (yet) is because while we’ve been aggressive in promoting SwiftKey to Android users both within and beyond app store channels, we’ve run no advertising campaigns or paid customer acquisition drives. Instead we’ve relied on organic growth, viral marketing and targeting key individuals such as bloggers and journalists.
This all began before we launched the app. We set up an alpha test group, and partnered with some blogs to promote that group. What this meant was that we struck right at the core of the Android early adopter community, and had already begun to win over a chunk of influential people before we’d even finalized what the app would look like, or when it’d launch. I’d say we had around 10,000 members of our alpha group the day SwiftKey went live on the Android Market. Because of this, each one of these users downloaded the app when it launched at the same time, and some of them wrote about the launch. This drove an enormous amount of traffic for us, where we became Android’s #3 free app on the day of launch and saw over 100,000 downloads in our first week.
As you may know, being able to achieve initial momentum with your app is so important, as once you climb up the charts, there’s an element of sustained momentum that is generated by that fact alone. We applied this logic to our launch of SwiftKey as a paid app in September 2010, where all of our beta users received an in-app expiry notice that directed them to the paid app at the same time. It shot straight to #1 and stayed there for almost two weeks. This, again, established us as a top app from day one, and made our pitch to bloggers and app stores much easier. “We’re the number one app – check it out!”
From there, Google chose to feature us for several weeks (we’d asked them to check out the app). This was also great, as it continued to generate exposure for us. People are more likely to respond positively to your app being featured than it simply being high in the charts, so this drove a significant chunk of downloads.
Beyond this, we’ve found that the app market is highly susceptible to money-off promos. We’ve run several of these, and they’ve always buoyed our app and generated more revenue than we take on an average day. These are best done when people are looking out for something special, such as around big holidays or sale seasons. We also found that being Amazon’s free app of the day worked well to generate traction (but the economics have to be right for this to be viable).
WIP: Following the previous question, what have been your biggest takeaways on marketing the app that you can share with other developers?
JB: I think the most important lesson I’ve learned is to focus, as clearly as possible, on the user benefit your app drives. This is especially true for apps like ours that boost productivity. If a user isn’t immediately able to work out what benefit your app drives from glancing at your app store listing, then it’s not likely they’ll buy or download your app.
Android is an interesting eco-system, as when we started publicizing SwiftKey in 2010, many of the paid apps were quite niche, almost geeky products. Today, the charts are more mainstream, and dominated by games (although there are still a significant chunk of geeky apps on Android). Because of this, we’ve attempted to refine our message to reflect the more mainstream nature of the customer base. Rather than focusing on “artificial intelligence” and “next word prediction” in our comms, we’ve opted for telling users simply how easy SwiftKey will make typing on their phones. This seems to resonate more strongly with average folks who are less interested in being cutting edge, but want products that drive a genuine benefit.
WIP: You've had success on a few fronts with SwiftKey, both through app stores and paid downloads, and now with some device pre-installs. How has your marketing strategy evolved to support this?
JB: As our company progresses, our marketing challenges have certainly evolved. At first it was about trying to get the message out about SwiftKey and why it’s an awesome product. Over time, it was about trying to broaden our consumer reach and hit new goals with our mainstream adoption. Now, it’s also about trying to funnel new business to our company. The technology that powers SwiftKey is much more powerful than simply being able to let users type more easily, and as we move forward we’re hoping to ride off the success of SwiftKey to attract new business in other markets.
Therefore it’s important that people who are interested are able to figure out that there’s actually some really powerful engineering going on behind SwiftKey. We’re currently in the middle of a significant rebranding exercise to better reflect this throughout our marketing, and I’m excited about the direction things are going in.
WIP: How do you approach working with multiple app stores? Do you focus on a small number (and if so, how do you prioritize)? Do you try to hit them all so that your marketing messages don't have to point to a specific store?
JB: We’ve had a mixed approach to different app stores over the last year. Obviously when it comes to making money, there are diminishing returns with some of the smaller app stores, especially where you have to make custom builds of your product to fulfill their terms.
When our product was simpler around a year ago, we entered into all the app stores we possibly could, exploring what they could all offer. We also found that in trying to curate relationships with carriers, they’d often ask whether we were listed in their app store, so it was useful from a relationship perspective to be able to say “yes.”
However, as we began to bake referral URLs and sharing features into the app to try to drive further viral uptake, and as our update schedule became more aggressive, being listed on all of the stores began to make little sense. We’d only see a handful of downloads on some stores, where discoverability and momentum were a big issue. So we pulled our app from most stores.
The three we’re currently focusing on are the Android Market, Amazon Appstore and Android Pit in Germany. The first two have obvious market reach (although the fact that the Kindle Fire doesn’t support third party keyboards is a shame). Android Pit was chosen because not many people have credit cards in Germany, so buying apps on the Android Market is difficult for such a significant territory. However, Android Market’s carrier billing has now rolled out in Germany and therefore the reasoning there is less significant these days.
WIP: Have you used any incentivized download services (something along the lines of OpenFeint) or other services to boost downloads or placements on top app charts? If so, what worked well?
JB: No. We’ve explored it as an idea, but have yet to see a compelling business case. I think this is probably more useful for apps with a strong freemium monetization route who are in need of exposure.
WIP: You've invested a lot of time in PR and blogger relations. How helpful has this been? What are some tips for smaller developers in this area?
JB: This has been very helpful indeed, in that it allowed us to build a user base right at the core of Android’s early adopter community. I think relationship management more generally is just so vital when you’re trying to make a name for your product or company.
For people starting out, what’s important is to really get a feel for where there are publications or communities that can help drive interest in what you’re doing. Make a list of the top five or ten journalists, bloggers or community managers that you’d like to get to know. Follow them on Twitter, email them about your product, say hi if they’re at a conference or event that you’re at. These people provide the oxygen for publicizing your product, and I cannot underestimate how important it is to get to know them.
This doesn’t just stop at bloggers. I don’t think we would have been so successful on the Android Market, or on Amazon, without putting time into developing relationships with people at both companies. Face time is such an important value driver here.
We conducted a major survey in Q2 where, among other questions, we asked users where they’d first heard of SwiftKey. The audience that was driven to this survey came mainly from our VIP community of users and from the Smartphone Experts blog network, so in that sense there is a bias in favor of people who read and appreciate technology blogs or online forums.
But what was interesting is how few of these people actually found out about us through the “top app” charts. People are much more inclined to read about great products on blogs, pay attention to apps that are featured, or operate on word of mouth or social media recommendation. I think this is encouraging news for people starting out in the app marketing game: if you can excite bloggers or online communities about your app, you’re likely to drive many downloads from that.