Cover Story: Four Publishers Reveal Their App Strategies
Deborah Forte, President, Scholastic Media
Scholastic's "I Spy Spookyi Mountain" app, based on the picture-riddle book and game franchise, has proven a perenially popular download on Apple's App Store. The app is also available on the Windows Phone and Nokia Lumia platforms.
Kaplan's flashcard apps have proven popular with students, providing a more convenient way to engage in a traditional study activity.
Maureen McMahon, President of Kaplan Publishing
Pfeiffer's "Leadership Challenge" app was designed to allow people to access useful content on the go.
Lisa Shannon, Associate Publisher, Pfeiffer
Springer's Cardiac CT Imaging app provides CT scan images for clinical cardiac physicians. It replaces a CD that used to come with its accompanying book.
Patricia Cleary, global e-product development manager, Springer Science + Business Media
Not too long ago, just making an app made news—especially in the book world, where the utility (and desirability) of book apps was a subject of some debate. As publishers have come to see books as multimedia brands, however, the terms of the debate have shifted, from whether book apps have a place to when. Apps can accomplish many things when executed right—from content enhancement to marketing to fun and games, helping publishers meet audiences where they are and build loyalty to books, brands and authors. Realizing this, a few companies have gotten pretty sophisticated in their, ahem, app-roach, as the following examples show.
Spy vs. Spy: The Scholastic approach
Scholastic is a good example of a publisher that believes doing it right is more important than doing it first. "We never jumped on the [initial] app bandwagon," says Deborah Forte, president of Scholastic Media. Given the company's long experience in cross-channel publishing and marketing (producing console games, TV shows and events, for starters), it was important for Scholastic to know the purpose an app would serve.
"The apps we have done to date have been for specific reasons rather than just to throw something out there to see how it works," Forte says. "Largely, we have looked at apps to date as complementing our brand strategy."
For Scholastic, this means understanding which brands are well suited to particular platforms. Brands that promise or promote interactivity, for instance, are natural candidates for apps. "Among the most successful apps in our portfolio are the I Spy apps," she says, referring to the popular picture-riddle book and game franchise. "And that makes total sense because I Spy is an interactive concept … so it works beautifully in an app format. Apps really allow us to utilize mobile platforms to deliver that experience for that brand."
While Forte says the average children's app loses velocity after just three months, the I Spy apps have remained popular downloads for more than two years. According to Scholastic, "I Spy Spooky Mansion" began life in September 2009 as a top-five paid kids game and top-10 puzzle game in the App Store. It has since won several awards and continues to rank consistently in the top 100. (It doesn't hurt that Scholastic went back and optimized the app for the new iPad's Retina display.)
App development and production is part of an integrated strategy applied to either "master brands" (the overall brand concept, e.g. I Spy or The 39 Clues) or particular key products and services within a brand (e.g. apps or events). To do app development well, Forte says, publishers should define goals for their brands early in the process and figure out how an app can help accomplish this goal.
For Scholastic, the decision to include an app in an integrated product strategy does not proceed from a set formula. One of the key questions to be answered during the development process is whether the goal of an app is marketing or content enhancement: "Is it that there's a component about that brand that can be beautifully executed and differentiated on a mobile platform? … You don't need to do it if [the app experience] is the same as what you're doing everywhere else, and you don't need to do it if you can't execute it well."
For this reason, Scholastic puts effort into making each app experience unique. While some publishers work with one app template and "skin" it differently for each book, Scholastic builds each app from scratch to ensure unique functionality. This allows Scholastic to optimize the experience for various age groups, purposes and content, Forte says.
Not surprisingly, Scholastic develops all of its apps in-house. "We have this team who's doing digital production in every platform, so we know our content, we know our brands. We care much more deeply about success and execution than any third party would," Forte says.
Follow the Leadership: the Pfeiffer/Wiley approach
Given the longstanding success of its Leadership Challenge development franchise, Wiley imprint Pfeiffer knew the bar was set pretty high for its app treatment. Now in its fifth edition, the Leadership Challenge book, along with its associated workshops, events, websites and online training courses, seeks to "meet customers where they are, give them access to content and give it to them in the form they want," says Lisa Shannon, associate publisher at Pfeiffer. "Certainly mobile and apps are a new form customers want."
The app, released in January, provides a platform for users of the program to access useful content on the go, giving them learning tools when they have a spare few minutes during the day.
"With that vision we started talking to some of our customers and came up with a prototype of features [based on] their feedback," says Shannon. These include leadership skill practice routines, tools for requesting and measuring feedback from subordinates, and a news feed.
Pfeiffer worked with an outside vendor, Float Mobile Learning, to develop the app. "We needed to work with a vendor … [who] had some experience in the training and development space and understood what we were trying to do," Shannon says.
The publisher also saw opportunity for bringing in new audiences through the app. "We built the app so it can not only be used by people who know the content and want to go deeper into it, but it can also provide an introduction [to the program]," Shannon says. "Let's say they do a search for leadership in the App Store and they find this app. It would become a way for us to introduce this model to them. So in that sense it's a sales lead. It's helping more people to get familiar with this product."
"It's a slow build," she says of growing an audience. "This isn't a consumer product where you suddenly have a million people downloading it." Because the app is well-suited to corporate leadership courses and seminars, Shannon expects download "bumps" to come when it is integrated into such programs.
While the App Store brings the advantage of discoverability for those unfamiliar with the Leadership Challenge brand, Apple's policy prohibiting in-app purchases presents a difficulty because the app is meant to tie-in directly to other products and platforms, Shannon says. Because of this, Pfeiffer is talking to Apple about allowing new features such as bulk app purchases.
Flash Forward: the Kaplan approach
Educational publisher Kaplan has found that, even with an audience that skews young, users of their products are looking for the evolutionary, rather than the revolutionary.
"A consistent theme in our students' feedback is that they're not looking for apps that substantively change their learning experience," says Maureen McMahon, President of Kaplan Publishing. "What appeals most to them are apps that enable them to do something they already do—just in a more convenient or portable way. For example, our students have always found flashcards to be useful study tools. Delivering the same content in mobile apps that can shuffle the 'cards' and track right and wrong answers is more convenient and more helpful."
With this in mind, Kaplan begins thinking about apps early in the product development process. (Kaplan both develops apps in-house and works with outside vendors, depending on the project.) "Whether or not we develop an app isn't dependent on the product, but whether it makes sense to support a particular learning program," McMahon says. "Our focus is always on the best way to deliver effective learning programs."
Success is measured by whether students find the app truly helpful. "We serve a student population that's very tech- savvy, connected and opinionated. Because we survey and communicate with them regularly, we're fortunate to have early and immediate insight into what they think is 'working' and what is not."
In The Lab: The Springer approach
In the STM world, with high percentages of doctors and scientists carrying and using mobile devices to do their jobs, apps can seem like a no-brainer. Still, even with an eager market, the devil can be in the execution, and Springer plans carefully before investing in an app.
"I've learned that you need to get more details and learn about the market you are developing it for, and you need to identify the key areas—either a product need or a promotional need," says Patricia Cleary, global e-product development manager at Springer Science + Business Media. "There are different apps for different purposes."
With each project featuring a mobile component, Springer considers issues such as how branding is inserted into apps, how best to target apps to specific user needs and strategies for promotion.
Cleary stresses the importance of knowing your audience and how they work. In the case of the Springer Protocols app, which provides "recipes" for certain experiments so researchers don't have to reinvent the wheel every time they go into the lab, the publisher decided to do a user survey to discover how scientists use the protocols in a mobile environment. What they discovered was that most researchers use devices already in the lab rather than bringing their own, without necessarily knowing whether these devices use the iOS or Android operating systems. "To help them, we decided to develop a [Web] app using HTML5," she says, "so users can experience Springer Protocols in a mobile environment on any mobile device with a browser."
Monitoring the user experience does not end once an app is released. Because Apple App Store reviews can "make or break an app," Springer constantly monitors reviews and incorporates user feedback into updates, Cleary says.
Apps are particularly well suited to the market for continuing professional education, Cleary says, with test-prep for medical board exams being "revolutionized" by mobile. These types of apps can be expanded across medical, law, educational and other disciplines, she says.
Whether for iPhones, Android phones or the Web, Springer creates apps to stand on their own, while at the same time trying to highlight any connection to a book or other brand platform. A good example of book/app cross-promotion comes from the Cardiac CT Imaging app, which provides CT scan images for clinical cardiac physicians. The current app replaces a CD that was enclosed with the first edition of a book.
"The Springer editor and the book's authors did not want to include a CD [in the second edition], and thought an interactive app would be better suited to what they wanted to accomplish," Cleary says. "So the second edition has this app. You can't bundle this with the book. It's set up so that in the book's marketing we include mention and a link to the app. The app [itself] mentions that the info in the app is derived from this edition of the book and we give the ISBN number so people can find the book if they want to. It's cross-pollination."
It's also a good way to deal with Apple's restrictions on in-app purchasing. While these restrictions make cross-selling difficult, the "walled garden" ecosphere of iTunes and Google Play do make selling apps easier because consumers trust Apple's and Google's purchasing systems. (Cleary compares this to Web apps, which can be harder to find and require their own purchasing mechanisms.)
Cleary said decisions about whether to create an app are made at various points in the development process, depending on the project. Use of apps is also influenced by the priorities of scholarly associations Springer partners with. "It sometimes comes late in the process because people aren't thinking mobile yet," she says. "That's the nature of mobile right now. It depends on the market." BB
James Sturdivant is Book Business' Senior Editor and the Managing Editor of Publishing Executive, where he writes the Pub Talk blog (pubexec.com/channel/pub-talk). Email him at email@example.com.
Related story: Hachette Book Group: Publishing Innovator of the Year, 2012