Storytelling has a “storied” past. In written form, it dates back some 10,000 to 12,000 years to ancient petroglyphs (also known as cave paintings). Personally, I have a passion for storytelling as a means to communicate, educate and socially engage all at the same time. As an interactive and content marketer, I appreciate storytelling as a vehicle to share authentic accounts of life experiences. As a father, I delight in storytelling as a way to jumpstart my kids’ creativity, teach them important skills and lessons, and encourage them to have boundless goals.
In 2006, my enthusiasm for storytelling compelled me to join Cambridge, MA based Panraven, a company that, through an intuitive, flexible interface, lets consumers combine media (text, photos, audio and video) into one rich expressive story. “Our Guardian Angel,” a personal account written by Panraven member, SilverWaves, about her friend’s tragic car accident, will stay with me forever. The story appears in the interactive viewer below.
Below are two of my favorite quotes that to me capture the power of storytelling:
“We are lonesome animals. We spend all of our life trying to be less lonesome. One of our ancient methods is to tell a story begging the listener to say-and to feel- ‘Yes, that is the way it is, or at least that is the way I feel it.’ You’re not as alone as you thought.” -John Steinbeck
“Because there is a natural storytelling urge and ability in all human beings, even just a little nurturing of this impulse can bring about astonishing and delightful results.” -Nancy Mellon, The Art of Storytelling
STORYTELLING MEETS THE IPAD
Here we are in 2011, at the onset of the second wave of digital publishing. The iPad, with its touchscreen, accelerometer, and other advanced features, has ushered in a whole new era of storytelling, one with unprecedented potential to captivate in an immersive learning environment. Publishers are creating rich, interactive apps that make e-book readers, which merely simulate traditional book reading, seem so 2010. Today’s apps are even tailored to different types of learners, from visual to auditory. With an iPad app, one child can read and interact with stories independently, while another can have them read aloud and/or accompanied by music. Other perks, such as short-length videos, quizzes, challenges and games, are often included in addition to the core content. (I will continue to focus the rest of this article on children’s books, because it is one of the categories that stands to benefit most from the iPad’s capabilities.)
Two companies in the children’s app space with stellar execs and killer apps worth the money are Callaway Digital Arts and Ruckus Media Group. Callaway, a spinoff of Callaway Arts & Entertainment, recently received $6 million in Series A funding in a round led by Menlo Park, CA-based Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, and is set to open an office in San Francisco. John Lee, CEO of Callaway and a toy industry veteran has called the newly created company “a cross between publisher Random House and animated film studio Pixar.” Ruckus CEO Rick Richter, spent twelve years at Simon & Schuster, including as President and Publisher of the Children’s Publishing Division. According to Richter, the Norwalk, CT-based company has received only seed financing to date.
The typical industry business model includes releasing titles for both owned and licensed brands. Callaway has rights to create stories for kid favorites Thomas & Friends, Sesame Street and Miss Spider. Apple recently named Miss Spider’s Bedtime Story, the only Callaway title out long enough for consideration, one of the Best Interactive Story Apps of 2010. Ruckus Media has enlisted talent such as Meg Ryan, Robin Williams, and Meryl Streep to narrate classics such as The Velveteen Rabbit and Goldilocks, as well as other original stories created specifically for the iPad. There are many more children’s books for the iPad—here is a list of Mashable’s top picks for 2010.
Rich media storytelling apps are like candy for a child’s senses. And parents love them, because if their kids are absorbed in the content and having fun at the same time, they are far more likely to learn. Why, these apps are so hot you’d think they should all but sell themselves, especially given how word-of-mouth spreads amongst moms. So what, aside from asking its customers first to plunk down $800 for a family iPad, is standing in the way of a smashing success for this new breed of companies?
Well, for starters the app discovery challenge amidst mobile industry fragmentation persists. But there are at least a few other challenges unique to this category:
1) Although I believe many apps are worth the price today, consumers won’t continue to pay $2.99 to $7.99 per app. As companies scale and achieve efficiencies, they can afford to charge less, but at some point consumer willingness to pay will reach its limit.
2) Unlike with most mobile apps, file size is a major hurdle. Story apps for iPad can be as large as 300 to 400 megabytes apiece. Even if a company can convince someone to take the time to download and surrender the Flash memory space, 3G bandwidth is insufficient, meaning consumers need to be connected to a Wi-Fi hotspot to download. And if they aren’t, the marketer’s dreaded latency problem comes into play, conversion plummets, and precious dollars go to waste.
3) Particularly for the toddler demographic, there are two separate and distinct target consumers for each transaction, the child (the end user) and the parent (who controls the purchase). How might companies efficiently allocate marketing resources to reach both segments?
THE SOLUTION: A CLOUD-BASED ECOSYSTEM
Many companies realize the pay-per-download model is not sustainable and are already switching to a freemium model (free basic app with limited features and in-app purchase capability) to realize greater stickiness and generate repeat business. According to Jupiter Research, in-app purchases will overtake download revenues by 2013 and grow to $11 billion by 2015. Planting a seed on the device gives marketers valuable behavioral data that can help them engage customers and push cross-sell opportunities, but it alone does not solve any of the intrinsic problems mentioned above.
So let’s tackle them one by one. Fixing problem No. 1 could be as simple as switching to a subscription model. Once a company has a critical mass of apps, it should offer monthly or annual fees for app bundles. Borrowing from the social gaming playbook, a loss in margin due to the model shift could be offset by virtual goods revenues (the relevance of which is discussed below).
A logical solution to No. 2 is for the free thin downloadable client to serve as the key that unlocks a trusted, safe ecosystem (under the Callaway brand name for example), where most rich content is served from the cloud. Doing so would also lend insight on kids’ app usage patterns. Imagine a dashboard where parents can observe how children are interacting with an app, where they are having the most success, and where they are getting stuck and need practice. Additional functionality might include parental controls and the ability to approve new stories on a “Wish List” before a child downloads and/or purchases them. This last feature addresses part of the problem in No. 3.
The other answer to No. 3 (and a way to aid discovery in general) is to stimulate a network effect. Embedding viral widgets within an app enables kids to share with friends, so they can read/watch content and play games with each other. After all, children will spend more time on a memory exercise if they can compete virtually. This also opens the door for virtual goods opportunities, as mentioned above. Lastly, facilitating these peer connections promotes social engagement, which has been fundamental to storytelling over the years, yet has been a shortcoming of rich media apps thus far.
In summary, while elegant design and user experience are prerequisites for market traction, entrepreneurs who 1) stay true to the essence of storytelling and 2) employ proven digital distribution and business models addressing well understood shortcomings of the mobile platform, have the greatest chance for success.