What’s App? The Truth Behind Creating A Successful App

There has been a veritable explosion in the apps market over the last few years as a result of the emergence of affordable smart phones and tablet browsers. Apple’s App Store recently passed 25 billion downloads, Google’s Android Market has a billion downloads a month, and, between them, the two stores have more than 900,000 apps available. There is some duplication but this is still well over 600,000 apps in total.

But apps aren’t just something for adults. The kids are just as excited about apps as their parents. In November 2011, Nielsen, theUS leader in marketing information, asked 3,000 kids what gadgets they wanted for Christmas. For 6-12 year-olds, 44% wanted an iPad. 30% wanted an iPod touch and 27% wanted an iPhone. In February this year (2012) Nielsen fund that seven out of 10 children in a tablet-owning household used it; 77% of those play games; 57% use educational apps; and 55% use them for entertainment while travelling. And it’s not just 6-12 year olds either, there’s a vast audience out there, with many as young as 2 – an audience that cannot read!

It has been suggested that within the film, TV and publishing industries, apps have revolutionised storytelling.  BAFTA recently welcomed Guardian journalist, and “apps-pert”, Stuart Dredge, and three award winning app-developers to share their experiences of this young, but highly creative, industry, and reveal the secrets behind developing and marketing a successful app. And it’s hardly surprising, therefore, that they would look predominantly at Children’s media and games

The experts were Tom Bonnick, Digital Project and Marketing Manager at multi award winning, independent publisher of children’s book and apps, Nosy Crow, whose preschool learner’s apps, Cinderella and The Three Little Pigs were in the top apps lists for children 2011; Peter Sleeman, co-director of interactive games publisher P2 Games whose apps for children include Peppa Pig Party Time, the number one iPad app; Fireman Sam and Tracey Beaker; and Paul Bennun, Chief Creative Officer of the triple BAFTA award winning content design and creation company Somethin’ Else, famous for Papa Sangre, The Nightjar, and the app version of Richard Dawkins’ The Magic of Reality.

Tom Bonnick explained that his company did not just jump on a band-wagon. They knew from the word “go” that they wanted to make apps. Nosy Crow was only founded a couple of years ago and they came into existence as touch-technology became front of market. Within a month of Nosy Crow’s founding the IPad was launched, and that was important because it provided a platform on which their products could be launched. As a new publisher Nosy Crow had no back-lists so they had to start from scratch. They couldn’t take existing books to which they had rights and squash them on a phone or tablet as they were a new publisher with no back-list. This turned out to be an advantage.  They decided to make brand-new apps and to use the Apple iOS platform and use all of the features of the IPad – “…this brilliant incredible device that had just been launched. And those things really informed the sort of apps we made. We wanted to make incredible reading experiences on-screen for young children.”

Bonnick went on to explain that they wanted to make apps that were “really interactive because children don’t have expectations when they hold an IPad. To just give a child a book on a screen would make them disappointed about it.”

Nosy Crow had learned a number of things in “this very crowded market:”. The first was to take marketing very seriously and very differently. Everyone in Nosy Crow had come from a traditional book background – marketing apps is very different.”

The audience need to be convinced that they should pay for digital content – a constant battle – because apps are ephemeral by nature, you can’t hold them or feel them. Piracy needs to be fought, not by shutting down 500 sites, but by convincing people that they should pay. It is, of course, less of a problem for the Apple apps market.

Bonnick found it a problem that the market was flooded with stuff that was “pretty terrible”, “polluted by terrible, terrible dross, that really doesn’t help people who make good quality content.” He gave an example by showing a slide of a lot of “fart apps” – “Atomic Fart”, “Fart Studio”, “Fart for Free”. (Oh dear, and I bet there’s a few more than me our there that find those as funny as the kids do!!). His company wanted to make good alternatives. Fully engaged and fully realised stories.

Thirdly,. Bonnick felt that it was essential to keep as much work as possible in-house. Most book publishers who produced an app will get an outside organisation to do it for them. But Lazy Crow didn’t do that. Keeping it in-house allows for greater creative control. At a practical level they were able to reuse code so for Cinderella we were able to re-use the code from Three Little Pigs which had been written in-house.

Finally, Bonnick said, it was vital to think internationally, whilst recognising that there may be cultural differences and preferences. For some reason, the Goldilocks story isn’t popular inGermany, so they didn’t do Goldilocks, but French and German customers liked Cinderella and Three Little Pigs.

Children’s voices are used in Lazy Crow’s children’s apps, and not adults playing children.

For a moment it appeared that the presentation by Peter Sleeman, co-director of P2 Games Limited, was going to become confrontational when he said that the experiences of his company were the “exact opposite” of Bonnick! He guaranteed that, in the digital market, for every one thing there will be someone else who will tell you the exact opposite! The market is extremely young and things are changing all the time.

P2 publishes a swathe of preschool and slightly older children’s apps.

Sleeman outlined the history of the creation of P2 and explained how their first app was launched, and “went through the roof” without any marketing whatsoever, other than a press release. Their second app, was somewhat less successful and they then decided that perhaps it wasn’t quite as simple as they had first  thought and that they would need to have a marketing strategy.

The “light bulb moment” for P2  was the launch of the iPad and the fact that it was a much more representative screen which enabled P2 to get much closer to the style of the product.

Sleeman explained, that, for those “without children of the right age”, the Peppa Pig brand is just a “phenomenon” in theUK. Two hundred episodes been made. It had been  more than ten years in the market. It was the most successful preschool product of this kind in the last couple of years. It has 200 million pounds worth of retail sales within theUKin2010. In2011 it even opened a theme park. The important thing from P2’s perspective “is when you take that product into digital format what are the key drivers that allow you to happily sit alongside the likes of Disney and the likes of Electronic Arts and the games industry and to be able to compete with these guys. All of the big battalions are on their side of the battlefield.

P2 were spending a fairly substantial amount of money developing a product into a market where eBooks on iPad had sold less than 10,000 units, but the experience for app development was different, and P2’s experience was that if the content of the product and the marketing was right, and the audience are immersed enough in that brand and that product then they will come and they will buy.

Sleeman cautioned that there were some constraints when talking about preschool, and the biggest of these is that the audience cannot read! So everything with the app has to be very intuitive about what they do. It has to give them immediate feedback so that they know what they are doing. So P2 developed the same mechanic to use over and over again in terms of how they get in and out of screens – so they will know, for example, that the door will take them back to the next one, and there is copious use of voice-over which is voiced by the Welsh comedian, John Sparkes – the voice of the narrator, and a big part of the success of the  Peppa Pig story.

Another constraint is that the only thing P2’s audience expect Peppa Pig to do is what Peppa Pig would do! So she can’t be put in a different environment or be made to do something else – they preschoolers expect her to react like they see her react on the TV series!

Telling the story is vitally important. For Peppa Pig’s Party Time, as Sleeman said, “It is important to give them an experience that they understand. As a young child they would have had a party or been to a party so they know the sequence – that you get invited, that food has to be prepared, there are games etc. So it is an experience that they are familiar with and with which they can engage.” And the game had to be a very repeatable, but not repetitive, experience.

In terms of their market-place, Sleeman had a novel view. He said “We are not selling a game to a child, we are actually selling half an hour of peace and quiet to their parents! They are the electronic baby-sitters!”  Children today see digitally – they start with TV, then DVD, they will have access to the Web with their parents, they will go and look at things, and now mobile is a natural extension of that.

P2 has identified another market advantage and that is whilst a typical audience re-invents itself every seven years, the preschool audience re-invents itself every two to three years!

If there is something wrong with your app, however obscure, some five year old will find it in half an hour and send a review about it. So listen to your audience. They are engaged with what they are doing and you will get  feedback and it will be valuable feedback which will enable you to update your app.

The customers are incredibly savvy however old they are. They tell you what they like and, more importantly, they tell you what they don’t like. They will appreciate it and they will reward you for it.

P2 doesn’t believe in a premium model, but a price model. If the product is of high quality then people will pay £1.99 or £2.99 for the product. It’s cheaper than a comic and it lasts a lot longer!

But the most important thing, says Sleeman, is Apple. Apple is the easiest way to sell your product in front of a relatively tangible audience. “A lot of people are using these devices “ Someone said “Apple is fantastic – it is the world’s largest shop except it has the world’s smallest window which it absolutely does”. If you are not in that top25 inthe particular chart then you are likely to see a massive drop-off in your sales.

Paul Bennun, Chief Creative Officer of Somethin’ Else. He said that they describe themselves as a content-design company and that what that means is that they take a user-centred design approach, working on everything from Grand Theft Auto to Gardner’s Question Time.  They had a “completely different experience” from Sleeman or Bonnick.  When the company started they saw that there was a space at the bottom Apple App store where there are “gazillions of apps many of which are free some of which are 69p”. However, when they looked at what Apple were doing  they noticed that they completely ignored the bottom margin, and, in effect say “Anything you get from us is going to cost you an arm and a leg but it’s brilliant”. That, said Bennun, was where the space in the market was. “So when we started we piled it high and sold it real expensive. For our first app that we made which was released under our own steam was Papa Sangre a video game with no video. It’s a first-person thriller, done entirely in audio –  an entire world using the first ever real-time 3D audio engine implemented on a handheld device. It was supported by 4iP (the ‘paramilitary wing’ of theUK’s Channel 4) and sold for £4.99.

The Magic of Reality, the iPad app from the Richard Dawkins book sold for £9.99. Bennun agreed that this was a  which is a lot of money for an app, but it went to number one in fifteen different countries. 23000 copies of this have sold worldwide and it is still selling well.

So the Somethin’ Else business model is simple; make something absolutely unique and treat it as something that no one else has doing; make the quality incredibly high; market it in a very specific way; pitch your battles: and charge a lot of money for it.

In the same way that Nosy Crow wanted to make applications that really took advantage of all the features of the iPad platform. For the award winning, Magic of Reality. Bennun explained that Somethin’ Else wanted to recreate the old kind of pages in a new form – a skeuomorph – where a form of something used in an old technology is used in a different way in a new technology. However, it wasn’t about page-turning technology. eBooks are not made of paper. They are digital. If it is so intuitive that a two-year-old can use it then you don’t need to pretend it is anything else. Bennun’s view is that by holding on to the old things what we are doing is not getting branched to other wonderful things that you can see on the platform. So there are no individual pages, although the entire book could be seen as a massive scroll. Bennun demonstrated scrolling through  the upper chapter headings. He said that the modern analogy is that of the pop-up book.

Like Sleeman, Bennun saw Apple as their best friend – provided that they choose to feature your application. If they don’t …. well…. and they do change the rules when they want!

The Nightjar, the award winning app, which features the voice of Benedict Cumberbatch, was Somethin’ Else’s second “video game with no video,” the entire experience being rendered in binaural 3D sound. According to Bennun, producing high-quality games is enormous fun, but it’s also risky and costly. People expect great games, but in the world of iOS, expect to pay very little for them.

With The Nightjar the company had total freedom to make the game they wanted to make, with no artistic compromises whatsoever beyond a very short production cycle of 10 weeks!  Financial partners, AMV, were collaborators as well, and were, in fact, the guys who first suggested setting the game in space. They also enabled Benedict Cumberbatch to board The Nightjar, and being able to have the talent of someone who is one of the UK’s best actors has brought something very rare to The Nightjar.

Bennun explained that his company had learned a huge amount about telling stories from Papa Sangre, their first game which paid dividends with The Nightjar.

He said that The Nightjar was definitely not “dead space with the lights off”! Indeed, it was as much a work of art as a game. It has the presence and intimacy of the very best audio book or radio play, except that the main character  is talking to you (the player) and not to some avatar in a game.

Initially The Nightjar was only available in theUKandIreland, but Somethin’ Else is expecting to get the app in the hands of their many international supporters shortly.

One issue common to all children’s apps developers on the Apple platform is that of discovery. There is no children’s category and the apps are spread across Books, Games, Education, Entertainment and Lifestyle. This means that there is no chart of the most popular kids apps for parents to look at. So word of mouth has been responsible for spreading the word certainly in the case of Peppa Pig, and the thousands of “Mum’s (or Mom’s!) Blogs” are also an invaluable tool – but the mums have to be convinced before they tell the other mums that the app is worth buying.

Yes – the app industry is young – but it is highly vibrant – and from the experiences of the experts at this stimulating BAFTA event – the future is going to be really exciting.


Eric Jukes

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