Originally published on the Amazon Developer Blog in May 2015.

Four years ago, as the indie movement was beginning to pick up steam, I led growth marketing for an indie game developer. With no brand awareness and a marketing budget that consisted entirely of my own salary, I (like so many of you) had to get a little creative.

I found the only thing remotely scalable about zero-budget marketing was in the power of fandom.

As much as I tried, I couldn’t reach the masses. I could, however, reach the early adopters. Through proactive community engagement and loyalty programs galore, I was able to build up a fan community around our humble title. These early fans, in turn, did my job for me. Their votes propelled our indie game to be one of the very first games ‘greenlit’ by the Steam community, and their referrals, ratings, and reviews brought our game to the masses.

Building a fan community isn’t an easy task, of course. It takes time and effort – and for me, that meant responding to over 10,000 forum posts, creating hundreds of pages of original content, and endless hours of community programming.

Fast-forward a few years, and I’m still in the loyalty business; but this time, I’m working with Apptentive to make creating fandom at scale a little easier for all my fellow indie developers out there. Apptentive powers a suite of customer engagement tools that can be integrated into any mobile app to help developers build loyalty and earn customer love, and has already helped thousands of apps improve their rankings and monetization. 

Drawing on my experiences from both the gaming industry and my time at Apptentive, I’ve put together a list of five tips to create a scalable loyalty program that can turn games into businesses. Enjoy!

1. Build an app worth sharing

The first step is to build an app your players can get excited about – an app they can become fans of. At this year’s Mobile World Congress, Amazon’s Paul Cutsinger made the distinction between ‘player’ sports and ‘spectator’ sports. Player sports (like archery, for example) provide a high level of entertainment value to the player. But there’s not a lot of money to be made in archery – it’s not a business. Such sports are designed to entertain a small niche of players but lack the mass appeal to go viral. Spectator sports, on the other hand, have a much broader audience and can support a product line, brand, business, and most importantly, a fanbase. In his presentation, Paul notes eSports as a prime example of a spectator sport harnessing the power of fandom – and consequently racking in $194 million in revenue.

The same goes for mobile games and other apps. If you want to a fan community, you need to engineer for growth and virality. Build a game that players will not only love, but love to share. This brings us to our next point… 

With a beautiful interface, fun gameplay, social authentication, easy sharing, and an additional merchandise line, it’s not hard to see why Plants vs. Zombies is one of the top rated apps in the Amazon Appstore.

2. Ask for feedback

Let’s face it: None of us know how to build the perfect game. Fortunately for us, our players do. All we have to do is listen

With some 300,000 apps in the Amazon Appstore (of which, the largest category is games), players have pretty high standards when it comes to evaluating which game to play next. It, therefore, shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that a whopping two-thirds of players ditch a game after fewer than 24 hours.

Your players have a pretty good idea of what they’re looking for in a game and can provide a fresh set of eyes to something you’ve been laboring over for months – revealing bugs you’ve overlooked or confusing areas in your interface.

Yet, players rarely have a channel for communicating this feedback. They can either take the time to leave a public review of your app or (as we see much more frequently) simply leave your app without leaving any indication of the factors that led them to that point.

To capture this feedback and build an app your players will truly love, you need to not only listen to your feedback, but proactively solicit it. I’ve found that companies that do exactly that – in the form of in-app messages, surveys, and feedback forms – have grown their customer insight collection 15-fold. In the process of listening and interacting with their players, I’ve seen countless success stories of breaking through the noise of the Appstore, growing lifetime value, and boosting retention by as much as 100%.

Average retention rates for mobile games that proactively engage players vs. those that don’t

3. Integrate with existing social networks

Want to grow your fanbase? Make it easy to be a fan

Your players don’t exist in a vacuum, and neither should your game. By leveraging existing social networks, you can greatly increase your game’s reach and adoption. 

Social integration typically comes in two ways:

One-step authentication using a Twitter, Facebook, or other social account. Instead of asking players to create an account log in to your game, consider giving them the option to sign in with their preferred social network. In the world of apps, speed and convenience is everything, with one-third of mobile app sessions lasting less than one minute.

By getting players signed up faster, you can remove the first barrier of adoption and convert more installs into active players. Registration with social networks can also be used to sync a player’s contacts with the app, allowing him or her to invite friends and effortlessly evangelize your app. 

One-click sharing over the player’s preferred social network. Mobile games are becoming increasingly social, and the value of an app is often in its community. How many times have you set a new high score in a game or gotten an achievement, and wanted to challenge your friends to top your score in the leaderboard? With social integration, posing that challenge should never be more than a click of a button away. The easier it is to share your content, the more shares you’ll get. 

With the rise of deeplinks, social sharing has never been more important as an app discovery method. Leverage it.

4. Build a community that transcends your app

The previous tip was all about making your app a community. Now it’s time to grow that community beyond your app. 

Taking another note from Appstore evangelist Paul Cutsinger, this comes down to encouraging the creation (and distribution) of user-generated content that can be shared across the web.

One strategy Riot and several mobile game developers have done to encourage content creation is using Twitch to show championship games and other content streams. Twitch, the live streaming video platform owned by Amazon.com, started support mobile game streaming last March and provides a way for game developers to spread awareness by sharing gameplay videos to the web and create a second revenue stream through the advertisements shown on Twitch. As of January 2015, the site sees over 100 million views each month, making it a great platform for mobile game promotion. 

Other successful strategies include fostering fan communities and message boards, organizing online fan art or fan fiction contests, and creating a product/apparel line associated with your game. For an example of what such a community looks like in action, look no further than Angry Birds – a game that now sees over one-third of its revenue generated from its merchandise empire, with an extensive line of plush toys and t-shirts gracing malls around the world.

Angry Birds plush toy. Photo credit: Aira Vehaskari/AFP/Getty Images

5. Solicit ratings and reviews

Last but not least, you’ve got to ask for evangelism. At Apptentive, we’ve helped leading apps dramatically boost their review volume and sentiment almost overnight simply by engaging customers with intelligent, well-timed rating prompts.

Ratings and reviews are a crucial component of any mobile marketing strategy – so much so that the difference a single star makes is often enough to bring developers ‘above the poverty line.’ We looked into the relationship between willingness-to-download and star ratings in a recent consumer survey and found that a boost from 3 to 4 stars can increase app store conversion by as much as 89% while an increase from 2 to 5 stars can increase conversion by an incredible 570%. When it comes to mobile gaming, keeping player is a big pain point for many developers and acquiring them is even harder. Do yourself a favor, and ask for the ratings and reviews to help make this all a little easier.

I hope you found these five tips helpful as you propel your app to the top of the Appstore charts and turn your player into fans.

In the words of Paul Cutsinger, 40% of mobile game developers fall ‘under the poverty line.’

But then again, 40% of developers don’t have a fanbase. 

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