The swerve effect: digital momentum for your apps and e-books

Less than a year ago, every publisher wanted to make apps. Because tablets were (and still are, in fact: they are even more) hot, and people with tablets use apps. Apps for books as well. So there lay golden opportunities, they thought. But, not even one year further, many publishers now will think twice (and hard) about going into the app business. Because, if they made one (or more), it was most often not successful, and if it actually did manage to be successful, it was either very expensive in terms of investment or it was just one of a kind (and therefore not reproducible). So how do you repeat such success in a smart way? 

Sam Missingham wrote a very valuable blog post on this, which endorses my point exactly: you can make nice apps, but if you don’t do anything about it, except making it: who then knows how to find it? Or, in other words: is it the fact that the market (for publishers) is just not there, or is it something else? She argues the latter, and I fully agree with her on that. There is definitely a market for digital products (anything beyond standard e-books) from publishers, but if you want to step in, you need a few things to keep in mind. And act accordingly. 

First, it makes absolutely no sense to make apps that look exactly like books (and by that I mean an app that is just the e-book, and nothing more than that), without any extras in terms of content, design or some sort of interactivity or social elements. If that is what you want, than just keep it with ‘plain’ e-books (in the iBookstore). Secondly, book apps with extras that were put in later on, are 9 times of 10 flawed products. They just don’t feel right. Which makes sense, because there was not thought of adding additional content (graphics, interactivity, audio and/or video) when the title was originally created. This kind of apps remind me of the multimedia CD-ROM’s from the mid 90’s. Those CD-ROM’s were titled as ‘the books of the future’. Well, we know now that nothing was further from the truth. And thirdly, if you do manage to create something that is beautiful, good and idiosyncratic, just submitting it in the App Store and as the marketing for it only sending out a press release, is not enough to earn money with it. That is not even enough to get more than 5 sales a day (for most apps).

But what then? Well, that's actually quite simple. Digital products need attention, just like paper books. Only then consumers will know of their existence. And where we are very good at this with paper books, with e-books and apps this is much less the case. One of the roles in this (with paper books) that should absolutely not be underestimated, is that of the reseller. By offering it in his (web)shop, he also generates attention to it, and sometimes even more by giving it a good spot in its store or via its own brochure, website or promotional campaigns. Besides that, you also have to take into account that the world for digital products is (at this moment) still not as large as the physical world (not everyone owns an e-reader or tablet/smartphone). Although it literally grows by the day. Last year alone, the tablet market in The Netherlands has doubled.

But how do you get the attention than so simple? You do that, with what I call, hybrid marketing. Hybrid marketing is using the channels that we already know (because there are our target groups), combined with new forms of marketing. You can think of attention on websites specialized in tablets or smartphones (to effectively and directly draw the attention of a large part of your target group), doing bundle actions with web shops (for e-books), using social media (in a good way) and doing promotional actions. With digital products, you are also free to change its price every day. And if you combine all those elements together, you can get a far better result than before, with just minimal effort (and money!).

I can hear you think now: ‘yeah right!’ And until just recently, this was only a theory for me, although it was supported by, and partly based on, successes made by others (who already did it that way) and Sam’s blog post. But by now, I can speak from my own experience, when I say that a hybrid approach, combined with playing with the price, can generate a swerve effect, as I call it.

The first example, is the Dilemma app of Berthold Gunster, which we made free for 48 hours, and made rumour for it by sending out  a newsletter, a news item on iPhoneclub.nl (the largest Dutch iPhone website) and via Twitter. The whole idea behind it was, that by giving the app away for free for a limited time, the sales would go up when the promo action ended. And besides that, generate additional publicity for the app by doing this. The results bewildered us. The number of (re)tweets were enormous, the number of free downloads the multiple thereof, and the app was for more than a day #1 in the free section of the App Store (iPhone), and thereby pushed Draw Something (the new hit over here) one place down. A big achievement, if I may say so myself. But did my theory of the swerve effect, work? Were we able to create so much digital momentum, that it would last and thereby lift the number of daily sales? Yes, it did. The daily sales now, are far more than before, and the app is now doing that by itself. 

How? Because more people have the app on their iPhone (and can tell others about it). More people have starred and/or reviewed it, which helps others making their choice to buy it or not. And there is still some momentum in the digital air floating around, which persuades some people to buy the app, even when they’ve just read an article or tweet that it was free some time ago. Yes, the effect fades out at a certain point, but you can do this over and over again. And besides that, I also believe there is a tipping point, when an app can truly sustain without any (extra) attention needed anymore (see Angry Birds, which is probably the best example). And since millions of people have an iPhone, you are still far far away from saturating your target group with such an action.

The second example, is an e-book action with Easy Money (Snel Geld) by Jens Lapidus. The e-book, the first one in a trilogy, was (just as the Dilemma app) two days for free in the iBookstore. We gave attention to this action by having a full-page ad in NRC (a large newspaper), and in the iBookstore itself. The download results were better than all previous similar actions the iBookstore did over here, and after the promo was over and the price went back up, it sold much better than before. Ergo, the swerve effect has worked here as well.

This mechanism is just one of the possibilities for doing marketing for your digital products. But it does show that, in addition to getting smarter in investing in your app development (and thus being able to better manage your finances), by simply having attention for your products, you can achieve success with digital titles. In fact, making money with them. Apps are not dead, they only ask for a specific and new approach!

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