Another year of PocketBracket: A March Madness App

A look back on 4 years of developing, managing, and marketing PocketBracket - a March Madness app for iOS, Android, and Windows Phone devices.

Posted in Main Thread on April 5, 2012

Four years ago I developed PocketBracket – a March Madness app for creating unlimited brackets, organizing pools, and following the games during the tournament. It was born from a desire to create an app for, at the time, the new iPhone and my love of college basketball. PocketBracket was the first application of its kind in the App Store. It has since become the oldest and most successful of my apps.

Screenshot of PocketBracket on iOS, Android, and Windows Phone

Building a Brand – PocketBracket

Each year I look to extend the reach and features of PocketBracket. PocketBracket really took shape in 2010. The app was rewritten as a completely native app. The original app (2009) contained several web views. Now the app contains only two. In addition, new sections were added for Pools (create and view), PocketBracket Network (view other’s brackets), and Scoreboard (game schedule and scores).

PocketBracket shot a quick jumper at the new Android Market in 2010 that was a brick. Under the time pressure of March Madness app development was rushed. With so many Android versions and devices, an untested PocketBracket app became an epic #fail. This resulted in a backlash of negative user reviews (which are hard not to take personal) and low downloads. In the end, I refunded users of their purchase (an option in Google Checkout). While ultimately some transactions cost money, it was the right thing to do.

PocketBracket became profitable in 2010. The iPhone user base grew by 80% and rose to #3 in Top Paid Sports Apps and #78 in Top Paid Apps. While PocketBracket for Android failed, it became a learning opportunity.

In 2011, I put full focus on a return to the Android Market. With thorough testing and an earlier release, PocketBracket for Android was a success. We ended the season with a 3 star rating and set the bar for platform downloads. PocketBracket for iPhone grew more social in 2011. Facebook, Twitter, and email sharing was available for Brackets and Pools. In addition, more features were added to the Scoreboard. This included an extended game detail screen with stats and PocketBracket’s GameVote (up vote your favorite team) and GameTalk (in-app conversation during the game) features.

PocketBracket also shifted its pricing model. Instead of being an annual upgrade, it became a new annual download. While there was concern about user falloff (due to the repurchase) this was inline with other Sports apps – MLB.com, ESPN, CBS On-Demand. In the end, while I received a handful of nasty emails, it didn’t slow growth.

This year, PocketBracket tackled Windows Phone 7. While this platform currently has smaller marketshare than Blackberry, it was a strategic move. I believe Windows Phone is an up and comer (not to mention Blackberry is dying) and as such will gain market share by 2013. As with Android in 2010, PocketBracket faced challenges in the new platform. The app had a nasty bug with the Scoreboard once the tournament began. Fortunately I was able to work with Microsoft to expedite an app update.

PocketBracket for Android evolved nicely in 2012. I’ve learned it takes two seasons for the app to really hit its stride on a new platform. The Android version was rewritten for Android 2.0 as well as correcting bugs, given a more native Android UI, support for larger screens, and porting the features from PocketBracket 2011 for iPhone.

I also released PocketBracket Mobile – a limited HTML5 version of the app. It was available for free and targeted users that either didn’t have an iOS, Android, or Windows Phone device or didn’t want to pay 99 cents for the app. While I intentionally released it late with limited marketing (as not to cannibalize app sales), it was still relatively successful.

I really wanted to see PocketBracket for iPad this year. In fact, I wanted it for 2011. Unfortunately, between the expansions above and updates to the PocketBracket API an iPad specific version didn’t happen. Attention to PocketBracket for iPhone suffered slightly also. There was only time for bug fixes, an upgrade to iOS 5.0, and a handful of new features.

2012 was by far PocketBracket’s best year (so far). PocketBracket for iPhone rose to #1 Top Paid Sports App and held this position for 11 days. We also topped out at #28 in Top Paid Apps, passing icons like Angry Birds (Rio) and Words With Friends.

PocketBracket for Android passed previous year sales 20%. Not as much growth as we see in the iPhone market, but growth nonetheless. I believe that Android users are not as app-centric as iOS users. Specifically when it comes to paid apps. It topped out at #4 in Top Paid Sports apps.

PocketBracket for Windows Phone did well relative to its market share. It also reached #1 in Top Paid Sports apps. I also received a lot of user feedback thankful – and impressed – for bringing PocketBracket to their platform.

In addition, the PocketBracket team got interviewed by the local news. It was nice to receive some local publicity. Especially as Louisville has a seemingly small tech scene.

Marketing the App

Marketing is difficult for any app, but more so for PocketBracket. PocketBracket deals with a niche market. PocketBracket targets someone with an iOS, Android, or Windows Phone device, interested in sports (particularly college basketball), and willing to pay for an app. By the time you filter through that criteria our addressable market is small.

PocketBracket also deals with a time sensitive event – the NCAA College Basketball Tournament. It’s called March Madness for a reason. That is the madness doesn’t happen until March. As such pre-March marketing usually falls on deaf ears. Furthermore, once the tournament starts – typically the second Thursday in March – interest drops dramatically. So that only leaves two weeks for prime marketing.

Due to the combination above, online marketing is challenging for PocketBracket. In the past, App Review Site Ads, Google or Facebook Ads resulted in very poor ROI. Specifically app review site ads are a complete waste. App review sites typically offer monthly ads and have a backlog for review. So timing is never right, not to mention that market is completely saturated. I abandoned such online marketing for the 2012 season. I may reconsider in the future through partnership or custom ad scheduling.

The best marketing for our app has been email campaigns to our users and App Store rank. Of course, these build upon one another – more users mean more emails and more downloads (higher rank). But emailing existing users doesn’t reach new users. Not directly anyway. However, if worded and timed correctly, it can provide focused downloads. And that increases our App Store rank.

Ultimately App Store rank is critical for marketing to new users. Which is inline with our addressable market – sports fans willing to pay for an app. What better way to reach this audience than by being #1 in Top Paid Sports apps? While the path will continually change, I know that’s where PocketBracket needs to be.

Future Directions

Without a doubt PocketBracket will be available for iPad and Amazon Fire next year. Development for these two devices is already overdue. Of course, I’ll gladly consider any device which gains significant marketshare in the next year.

PocketBracket Mobile will receive more attention. Not only in features but also reach. I believe that in the next few years mobile web apps will surpass native apps. Admittedly, PocketBracket currently does not have native app requirements (camera, sensors, etc). Furthermore, selling the app as a service directly would mean 100% of the revenue (as opposed to 70%). So exploring this space is in our best interest.

PocketBracket constantly receives user feedback and suggestions. These typically become features for next year. I like to emphasize this responsiveness. I believe it is what keeps us in competition with big name competitors like ESPN, Yahoo!, and CBS.

If you are interested in learning more about PocketBracket, please visit www.pocketbracket.com or feel free to contact me directly.

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