This guest blog post is brought to you from Amy Friedlander, VP of Marketing & Strategy for Wasabi Productions. This team has created several book apps, including the Lazy Larry Lizard series that launched in April of 2010.
It’s strange to feel like an ‘elder’ or ‘veteran’, fit to reflect on what’s changed in the tablet app industry over a very short space of time – just two years. The reality is, that’s all it has taken to have seen it go from non-existent to where it is today, gaining rapid momentum well on the way to billions of dollars worth of app sales.
Wasabi Productions was founded in Sydney, Australia by Graham Nunn in 2010. The ever-curious Apple devotee embarked on a passion project to write a children’s book for the iPad (and this was before the device even had a name or a launch date).
After the success of Lazy Larry Lizard, Graham was inspired to produce 3 more titles and in the process, learned that the conditions that led to Larry’s success had evolved significantly. As with any start-up business, adapting is key to staying ahead and so Graham sought partners to help. Within a few short weeks, the vision of an international digital publishing company of the future was born and Graham and I joined forces to take Wasabi to the next level.
With plans to move to the States, my ability to grow Wasabi in the key USA market through my skills in product strategy, digital technology and marketing was attractive and from my point of view, who wouldn’t want to focus on entertaining and educating kids around the world? So, here I am.
After my crash course in the industry and steep learning curve about where we need to be focusing to remain innovative and competitive, I’ve put together some brief insights into what we’ve learned and what we think will be important for app developers of childrens’ books going forward.
1. Multimedia storytelling is magical but great stories are still the key
Just because things can move, sing, flash, shake and be shaken, doesn’t mean they will ensure a great story app. Ultimately, the basics of strong, likable characters and a solid story arc are still critically important for success. The more memorable your characters and emotionally rewarding the story and its resolution, the more likely your audience will want to read it over and over – and (hopefully) mention it to their friends.
It was a blessing in disguise that our first app, Lazy Larry Lizard, was conceptualised before the iPad launch – conceived on the whim of Apple rumors that as usual came to fruition. This allowed for the ultimate recipe of writing a story for a new and exciting touch platform, while heroing the story first and foremost, untainted by industry expectations or experience with the device. We still feel this first app has an extra layer of ‘magic’ because at its heart it’s simply a lovely story.
Larry is charming and seeing him move in 3D on your touch provides a really surprising response – especially in what looks like a traditionally illustrated story book. Poking and prodding Larry throughout is endlessly entertaining for its preschooler audience, who learn a good social lesson at the end when they comfort and stroke Larry the Lizard to sleep.
It’s been important for us, four apps in, to go back to the recipe and roots of our success and to stay true to this vision as things change around us, while still evolving enough to stay relevant. Keep the magic and multiply it!
2. New technologies must be integrated and relevant
Creating original stories for touch devices allows you the privilege of letting the interactions become integral to the storylines. This means you can make your readers into characters, involving them intricately in the narrative development. Keeping interactions central to the story unfolding is something that continues to delight Wasabi’s readers.
Well-known characters in the offline world have a huge advantage when it comes to being found and purchased in the app store, but original texts written for the store have the benefit of reimagining storytelling for a new device from scratch. While the possibilities of what a touch can represent are endless, incorporating them seamlessly remains the most challenging and important part of our work.
As developers we have the responsibility of avoiding superfluous interactions, which can be a distraction to storytelling, mitigating many of the benefits of a literacy led experience. You may have noticed the concern in the industry around too much animation and interaction distracting young readers, providing a less than optimal reading experience. Recent research from the Joan Ganz Cooney Centre confirms that nearly half of parents see lots of animation as a distraction and there is a perceived need for reading experiences that build literacy and a love of reading.
With the myriad of possibilities out there in app development – from augmented reality to recording your own voice and more, the hardest thing is really deciding what not to do. Keep coming back to what each element is adding – and use that as a criteria to decide what can go.
3. Providing a ‘safe’ playpen for kids is paramount
All the experts and industry luminaries we’ve had the pleasure of meeting have stressed how critical it is to provide a ring-fenced, safe environment for children to engage in within apps. This means no exposure to external links to iTunes, no in-app purchases, no links to social media nor email sign-up forms – and we couldn’t agree more.
Giving parents peace of mind to let their children explore your app is very important. We’ve just released updates to our apps which relegate all of these elements to a protected and dedicated parents section, that can only be accessed via a protected (3-second hold) link. The stories are thus completely safe and secure for preschoolers to navigate and enjoy – with no supervision required to ensure this.
It’s an easy distinction – what would you not want your own children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews exposed to in other apps? Well protect them in your own!
4. Marketing and PR are half the work
We were extremely fortunate to benefit from an early movers advantage with Lazy Larry Lizard, where iTunes was less crowded and much more generous with its editorial support. 2010 was a time when the wider media was very interested in the emerging technology and its possibilities, meaning widespread coverage and many reviews landed in our lap. This has become less and less likely with each week that passes – and as most developers lament, visibility in the app store sea is an ongoing battle.
Ultimately, producing a quality app only gets you 50% of the way there, the remainder is getting your app into the hands of those who will appreciate it. Being an independent, original content producer is extremely challenging because of this, and marketing needs to not only raise awareness but build trust so that industry experts feel comfortable including you in their articles, and ultimately parents feels comfortable parting with their hard earned cash on your products.
5. Now you need to look at the law
From privacy policies to copyright, the bigger the industry gets the more regulation and rules you need to be one step ahead of. It’s comforting to know that the FTC with COPPA are taking children’s privacy extremely seriously in the USA, and as developers we need to be on top of the details of what is and isn’t allowed when it comes to personally identifiable information on app users.
6. The value economics are warped – deal with it!
While families find it acceptable to pay $5 or $10 for eBooks on their Kindle, or even more for printed books in stores, book apps above $3.99 are considered extremely pricey. So, working out how to continue to produce high quality, leading edge apps that are profitable is a real challenge.
Mobile developers are also in great demand which means production costs are rising, especially when small shops work with freelancers or external agencies for their development. What started as a business with ‘mates rates’ (as developers wanted to upskill for mobile) has turned into a much more costly affair. If anything, this may increase the argument for cross platform publishing to get the greatest bang for your buck rather than re-developing each app for the various operating systems. This way, you set yourself up for a greater potential audience (and bottom line) from the word go.
7. Education is everything
The presence of positive learning and development characteristics in apps makes the decision to purchase them easier for parents and also means there is less guilt associated with screen time for little ones.
Whilst storybooks aren’t curriculum-based educational tools, they can have the same kind of educational ‘lessons’ that a parent tries to impart to their children – behavioral and social skills that are crucial parts of learning and growing up. We’ve also found that special needs students have benefited greatly from these aspects of our stories, and that’s been an extremely fulfilling part of our journey thus far.
In storybooks, text highlighting is now a hygiene factor for what makes a quality app, helping to increase literacy and comprehension (it also adds to the cost, but is an investment you have to make). Mapping your app to common core education outcomes (even for preschoolers) is a worthwhile task, and requesting testimonials and reviews from teachers is also helpful to keep building credibility and proof on this point. Wasabi has been fortunate to conduct readings and demonstrations at various schools and we’re continually developing relationships on this side of our business with key educators as it’s clearly a very positive pursuit for all involved.
8. Teachers are now a top priority
With schools and preschools adopting touch devices in classrooms and recommending apps to parents, it is important to ensure appropriate book apps are known to teachers. The iTunes bulk purchase program also makes the chance of bigger quantities being sold to the same school possible, a welcome feature for developers.
The other reason teachers are such an important stakeholder is they don’t always have the time or resources to devote to getting the most out of the devices and apps at their disposal – meaning developers should take the responsibility of helping to enlighten teachers about the features and benefits of their apps. This is to help educators make informed decisions about what is right for their classrooms and students.
9. Build a big portfolio, and cross promote
Something we’ve learned is having one blockbuster app that is downloaded millions of times is not likely in the current ecosystem. So why not have a more diverse portfolio that incrementally adds to overall downloads? An important part of this strategy is ensuring customers can have a minimal barrier to experiencing your brand of books. A lite version is one option available, but not favored by Apple (one of ours got knocked back with a request to turn it into an in-app purchase instead – which we won’t), or have a great YouTube trailer. Alternatively and if possible, it’s great to provide one app for free within your portfolio, and cross promote the other apps from within this property. We’ve made the decision to make Lazy Larry Lizard free and believe this will be a powerful tool in inviting many more potential Wasabi customers into the fold.
10. Future proof or fall off the radar
It’s not enough to keep up with the Jones’s in today’s app world – teams need to continually be thinking ‘what’s next’ and trying to be part of innovating the future of the industry by introducing smart features which enhance the experience while remaining true to its core. This type of thinking is important in product development but also the halo that surrounds your products in the form of marketing and PR.
If you have any points to add, feel free to comment below or get in touch
This guest post was written by Amy Friedlander, VP Marketing & Strategy – Wasabi Productions. She has a global focus, naturally, as an Australian born in South African and now living in Atlanta, Georgia. She sees herself as ‘always curious and on a mission to get the most out of life’.