Artistic edge: How indie apps are getting discovered

From the mag: With indie apps cropping up across the market, here's how well-designed ones like Mr. Cupcake Has The Sprinkles are cutting through the clutter.
March 16, 2015

You might not know Josh Book by name, but chances are you’ve seen his work. As Nickelodeon’s former CG creative director, he oversaw animation on shows like Bubble Guppies and The Penguins of Madagascar. Disney Junior’s Sheriff Callie’s Wild West, billed as the first Western for preschoolers, also benefited from his animation expertise.

Having logged some serious toon time with the big boys, Book made the jump into indie waters in 2012, launching Mighty Yeti Studios with his wife, Jennie. Fast-forward three years—and a heck of a lot of work—and the pair’s whacky, wickedly drawn interactive storybook apps are now on the market.

“We like to create goofy IPs that make us laugh,” Book explains. “Jennie comes up with the stories. I do early designs for what the characters could look like.” Along with character sketches, he also oversees animation and technical production.

The Books are part of a budding subset of app developers—industry creators striking out to craft their own kid-targeted offerings. And like anyone big or small working in the space, they’ve had to confront the challenge of getting their apps discovered in a crowded market.

A numbers game
A recent report from US-based mobile analytics company Adjust found that there are roughly 131,581 kids apps and 58,583 book apps available in the Apple App Store worldwide. But while the competition is fierce, the potential for success is there. Last year set a record for the App Store, with developers earning a cumulative US$25 billion worldwide from sales of apps and games.

That number could grow substantially—global mobile game revenue is expected to generate US$30.3 billion worldwide in 2015, according to research firm Newzoo. For app developers looking to get a cut of the action, a catchy character or title is no longer enough to sell product. Instead, the right marketing strategy is the key to discoverability.

An indie story
Book can attest firsthand to the challenge of discoverability. Mighty Yeti’s first app, Mr. Cupcake Has The Sprinkles, tells the quirky tale of a cupcake determined to find the source of a mysterious crunching noise. With illustrations from animation artist Eddie Betancourt, the storybook app had the pedigree. The trick was promoting it.

“We weren’t hitting the numbers we wanted,” says Book. After a lot of price experimentation and looking at different ways to expand the audience, Mighty Yeti made Mr. Cupcake available for free.

The app had 211 downloads before it was reclassified as free. By the following day, it had more than 26,000.

“We thought, ‘This can’t be right,’” recalls Book. “It had broken into the top 40 for all books. It was above My Little Pony and below Marvel. What that told us is that there is an audience there. We just had to figure to how to connect with that audience. We’re now looking at developing more episodic story content, chapter-based stories where we can give away the first one for free and have the other ones in the series as paid.”

Having launched two apps last year (Mr. Cupcake, A Shark Knocked on the Door), and with two more rolling out this month and later this spring (Jacob The Gibberish Machine, Maggie Is Afraid Of Monsters), Book says he has found a light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to marketing. Building a presence organically has allowed the studio to score downloads without breaking the bank on PR campaigns.

“Having our work reviewed by bloggers and review sites has been very helpful. They’re curators that people trust,” Book contends. He also puts weight on maintaining relationships via social media with the core fan group (whether that’s five or 5,000 people), as they’re the ones most likely to post reviews in the App Store.

Marketing expert Karen Robertson, who specializes in book apps, agrees. As the author of titles like How to Market a Book App and the Treasure Kai series of book apps, she recommends starting at the grassroots level.

“You look at the top 200 now [in the App Store] and there are big brands everywhere,” notes Robertson. “So how can indies compete? One way is by joining forces with industry organizations like the Book App Alliance. Another is to go local with message direction. Word-of-mouth is really the essential thing.”

Rounding out the list, for today’s transmedia consumers, Book plans to market Mr. Cupcake across media platforms, via short YouTube videos and mobile games, to drive kids back to the apps.

The animation effect
Another strong pull for Mighty Yeti’s book apps is the  quality of their illustrations and animation. Each storybook app is professionally sourced through Book’s network of industry contacts.

Whether doing gutter races with Grandma in A Shark Knocked On The Door, or getting Mr. Cupcake to pat his dog (who has the tongue-in-cheek name Mr. Cat), the stories captivate.

This works for Mighty Yeti on two fronts. First, even though the apps were developed by a very small team, they seem like they were created by a much larger studio. Second, they reinforce the quality of the property, a main selling point for parents.

“Having worked on so many properties that appeal to kids, it’s gotten me into the mindset of what kids and parents are looking for,” says Book. “That was a big thing at Nickelodeon—wanting parents to feel good about the content their kids were watching.”

Know thy audience
Ultimately, for Robertson, it comes down to having a marketing plan in place and reaching out to the audience before launch. “Most app creators spend all their time focusing on creating the app, and then the app is live and they scramble,” she notes.

“Probably the biggest mistake I’ve seen creators make is that they’ve placed all their hopes on being featured by the App Store. They think if they can be featured, which is like a one-in-a-million chance, they’re going to come up roses,” asserts Robertson. She contends that developers should instead be doing a little bit of something a couple times of week to help build awareness and keep their apps front-of-mind. “I always tell people it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

This article originally appeared in the February/March 2015 issue of Kidscreen

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