Inbound marketing in an App Store world

Fred Wilson wrote a great piece this week on the pain and frustration felt by mobile app publishers who rely on iTunes or Android Market as the primary distribution channel for their apps. In Fred’s words:

Centralized control of an ecosytem never offers as much opportunity and diversity as a decentralized system. And in the leaderboard driven app store model, we have centralized control. Let’s rise up and protest against this model. It’s not healthy for anyone, most certainly not healthy for small developers of the kind we like to work with.”

I’m all in favor of breaking the app store’s stranglehold on app distribution (and have been working with the team at AppStoreHQ to create alternative modes of app discovery for a while now), but blaming the app stores for poor discoverability is a little like blaming Google for not putting your site on the first page of results — getting found is the responsibility of the publisher, and is as much a part of the entrepreneurial game as building a great product.

Web publishers have faced this problem for more than a decade now, and a sizable industry has grown up around the problem of getting found in an vast and turbulent ocean of information. Broadly defined as “inbound marketing“, this includes new disciplines like search engine optimization (SEO), blogging and social media marketing, as well as time-honored crafts like “earned media” and public relations.

In the early days of the smartphone revolution, the app stores had so few apps that traditional retail merchandising — category browsing and “top seller” lists — worked well enough that most app publishers didn’t bother with out-of-store marketing efforts. But that time has passed, and expecting the app stores to do your heavy lifting is a little like expecting DMOZ to drive your web traffic.

Wake up app publishers: You are responsible for your own demand generation!

Instead of waiting for the app stores to fix the discoverability problem, app publishers need to dig deeper into their entrepreneurial toolkits and embrace the power of inbound marketing to generate their own demand. Inbound marketing for mobile apps is an emerging discipline — the methods and tools that have evolved for web publishing won’t necessarily apply. But taking control of your own lead generation isn’t a nice-to-have in the app world any longer, it’s essential to your survival.

I’m aware of at least two companies that are out in front on this effort to adapt the tools and techniques of traditional inbound marketing to the app store world:

  • MobileDevHQ (disclosure: I’m an investor) is currently in private beta on a suite of app store optimization tools, including app store search rankings, keyword analysis and competitive benchmarking for app store performance. Ian Sefferman, the company’s founder, has embarked on a campaign of “radical transparency” to share the company’s own experiences in the app store and how they’re using the tools they’ve developed in-house to drive organic demand.
  • Smore (disclosure: they’re a TechStars Seattle 2011 company, I’m a mentor) is “Tumblr for products, services and events”, a lightweight publishing platform that makes it trivially easy to build, publish, promote and analyze beautifully-designed online flyers. Mobile app developers are a core audience for the platform — Smore is building a really smart set of tools designed to showcase apps in ways the app stores don’t allow, and to drive and measure demand to a marketing platform 100% controlled by the publisher, not the app store.
Are there other companies out there pioneering the discipline of inbound marketing for mobile apps? Sound off in the comments and let’s start Fred’s #OccupyAppStore revolution!