Indie App PR 1: How to Handle an App Disaster
Jun 20, 2011 12:46

This is part of an ongoing series of blog posts about building, launching, and promoting my first iOS app Remembary: The Connected Diary For Your iPad.

As I described in my previous blog post, I had good news that led almost immediately to bad news: Remembary got a great review in and a big spike in sales, but the new users revealed a serious bug that caused Remembary to lose the current diary entry if it hit low memory situations. I found and fixed this bug - but that's only half of the story, because bugs in live software products need to be addressed not only in code, but also in the world of public reputation.

Remembary is not only my first iOS app, but it's also my first real consumer product. I've spent 15 years in the software world, but I've mainly built things for other people. I think Remembary is a great app and I use it myself almost every day (and I've even made a little bit of money from it), but it has also been a way for me to learn about product development, sales, support, and Public Relations.

My first clients back in the mid-90s were communications and crisis management consultants - and over the years, while formatting Word documents, fixing fax modems, and building web apps for them, I picked up some ideas about how to handle PR emergencies.

When the negative feedback started coming in for Remembary, I was of course mortified - but part of me was eager to finally have a PR situation of my own. In the week or so between discovering the problem and getting the fix out to the world, I connected to people, got the word out on ways to avoid the problem, and even managed to turn 1-star reviews into 5-star reviews.

Through this I kept the following things in mind:


This is the heart of it all. If you don't care about your product and its reputation, then you're not going to do what's needed to protect it. You can't fake caring: it shows up in a hundred little ways and people can tell, almost subconsciously, whether you care or not. Caring and success often go together - and if you're not caring about your own products, you might want to rethink what you're doing.


The natural impulse when a PR disaster strikes is to hide and hope it goes away - your psyche is hoping that if you pretend hard enough that nothing happened, maybe it won't have happened and everything will be like it had been before.

This is the worst thing that you can do.

History is full of examples of companies, leaders, institutions, and governments who only made their problems worse through denial and secrecy. The Chernobyl disaster, the recent Weinergate scandal, and many others all show how trying to hide a problem usually makes it worse than just coming clean up front. Often the results of avoiding the problem end up being worse than the original problem itself.

In this case, as soon as I realized that there was a problem, I immediately tried to get the word out. I added comments to the review article, changed the app description in the App Store, and put a big "Having Trouble With Remembary?" link on the front page of the app website.


Most of the products we buy come from large, impersonal companies, and we're used to being ignored or getting the runaround from these places. Usually if we're unhappy with a product, there's not much use in expecting real support or a timely response from the large international conglomerate that made or sold it. Many organizations consider support to be a resource drain and so, if it's done at all, it's relegated to script-reading drones at overseas call centres.

Markets like the App Store give small shops or independent developers the same virtual shelf space as large established corporations. As a small developer, I can't compete with the big guys with marketing muscle, but I can respond more quickly than they do, and care more (see above).

People are always pleasantly surprised and sometimes even shocked to get a response to their concerns. The mere fact of responding, of showing that you care, can immediately change people's feelings in a bad situation. I try to respond to people within minutes if possible, and at most within the next 24 hours.

Get Them To Help You

Nothing puts people on your side by asking them to help you out. Most kvetching comes from a feeling of powerlessness - asking for help can really turn things around. In this case, I really needed help, since I couldn't at first recreate the bug that people were complaining about. I contacted everyone I could - even people who wrote in to say they liked the app - and asked if they were having trouble and if they could describe in detail any problems they were having.

It's hard for someone to stay mean once you've thanked them for helping you fix your app.

Stay In Touch

Once the immediate crisis period has passed, it's important to maintain relationships with your users. Set up a Customer Relationship Management system (if you don't want to use a full commercial one, a spreadsheet or text file will do). Email them every so often (but not too frequently - you don't want to be annoying) asking if they're still using the app. Give them sneak previews of upcoming releases. If you have other apps, give away some promo codes.

As an app developer, you're like a musician or an author - you want to build up a base of dedicated fans. Fans will recommend your app to their friends. Fans will buy your other products. Fans will give you five star reviews. Fans will generate more fans.

Fans don't come for free though - they're grown by first having an app that's worthy of having fans, and then second by building up their relationships with you and your app. This takes regular attention and care. Often the people who were the most critical at first can turn out to be your biggest fans - but it isn't a quick or easy thing.

The next post will cover some specific steps I took that helped in handling Remembary's PR.

Giles Bowkett Diary Project 2
Jun 03, 2011 22:44