How-to: Attract your app’s niche audience

Taking on the likes of Google, Amazon, and Apple is a fool’s gambit — unless you’re smart about it.

The key, in most cases, is targeting software to small, fervent groups of users. It’s perhaps the only way for an independent business to eke out a living in a world dominated by these larger players.

The tricky part of selling a niche product, of course, is finding and attracting users. But a personal touch can make all the difference.

Take, for example, Wattpad. It’s a Toronto-based startup running a website where amateur novelists share their work. As a publishing platform for long-form writing, Wattpad is no more difficult to use than any consumer blogging backend. But a Wattpad account is better for aspiring novelists than a normal blog, because works can be split into easy-to-navigate chapters. Users can even design custom cover art and attach it to their work, like a profile picture for books.

Wattpad’s functionality is a big part of its appeal, but what truly sets it apart is the way it harnesses the energies of its five million registered members. To get that sizeable user base, the company’s founders made some key decisions. In particular, they spent a lot of time cultivating an encouraging environment.

Wattpad offers its members a few different types of feedback, all of them positive. First of all, everything published on Wattpad has a hit counter, so creators can track the popularity of their writing. The site’s interface makes it easy for readers to leave comments, which are often effusive. Wattpad even gives out annual “Watty” awards to writers whose works are particularly popular. And the site’s discovery interface helps push less popular works into the spotlight, ensuring exposure even for newer users.

Wattpad always intended to become the user-driven site it is today, but when it was founded in 2006, it, like most social startups, had no members. This is what some developers like to refer to as “the chicken-and-egg problem” — the problem of attracting users to a community-centred service before any community exists.

Ivan Yuen, co-founder and CTO of Wattpad, says the first group of users was about 100 strong. Growing beyond that initial cohort required a lot of intricate relationship management.

“We knew everyone,” says Yuen. “We knew them by name and we would talk to them all the time, and really understand what they were looking for, what other products they were using and where else they were going to do their reading and writing.”

“Then we figured out what we wanted to build based on that.”

This meant tailoring the site to the preferences of subgroups within the company’s target niche. When it became apparent that users were interested in vampire romance fiction, for example, Wattpad created a special section of its website where fans of that genre could intermingle. Over time, they did the same for other genres. Gradually, this led members of subject-specific online communities to migrate toward the site.

Wattpad also facilitated growth by making itself into a relentless curator of constructive community feedback. The founders built a set of conduct guidelines, and added a feature that lets users flag inappropriate content.

“We knew we wanted to be a positive environment, as opposed to an environment like the early days of YouTube, where there was a lot of negativity,” says Yuen.

Over the past four years, Wattpad’s user base has roughly doubled every six months. To hear Yuen tell it, this has been entirely thanks to careful community management.

“We haven’t spent a single dollar on advertising,” he says. “We definitely relied a lot upon word of mouth.”

But that won’t work for everyone, and some companies will have to turn to more traditional types of marketing. Mitch Solway — a marketing consultant whose former employers include now-successful startups Lavalife and Freshbooks — urges entrepreneurs to figure out their target niches before spending any money on ads. The wording on a company’s own website or app should then be tailored to that specific group’s tastes.

“This is a phase that a lot of companies miss,”  Solway says.

The next step is finding ways of reaching out to the target niche. Solway advises entrepreneurs look to where potential users hang out online. Influential websites can be good places to stage targeted ad campaigns and cross promotions, he says.

But being active online isn’t always enough.

“Be physically available in the community,”  Solway suggests. “Are there conferences and events where they hang out?”

Sometimes, he says, just mingling in a crowd is more than enough.

And, sometimes, a more concerted marketing effort is needed.

Ovahi, makers of a smartphone app that performs the functions of a customer-loyalty punchcard, find they need to spend a great deal of time and money making direct calls to the merchants making up their customer base. About five months after launch, marketing is their biggest single expense.

“It’s not as viral as other business models,” says CEO Mohammed Ghalayini. “There needs to be that face to face, that sales force. And with any sales force, there is a cost as well.”

But it’s a worthwhile expenditure. Users, after all, are a software company’s lifeblood.