The apps for children conundrum

So, there we were, sitting in our TV production office, watching the sizzle tape for our latest pitch – The Amazing Adventures of Miss Ballooniverse. That’s how I met Allan.
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Allan is the BAFTA-winning creator and producer of Something Special featuring Justin Fletcher and Mr Tumble. If you’re three or four years old, he’s a TV god.

Anyway, Allan, having left the BBC not fancying a new life in Salford, had sprinkled magic dust over an idea I’d had for a children’s TV programme. During the process we’d shared thoughts on how TV could and should be used for educating children, and that conversation evolved into how children’s TV was under threat from tablets and apps.

Then came the big IDEA. What if we did a licence deal with Justin Fletcher and created a series of apps for pre-school children – taking the best bits of kids TV programming and combining them with the ability of a tablet to allow them to immerse themselves in the experience.

Allan phoned Justin, he loved the idea and the Justin’s World series of apps was born – three apps all with an educational slant aimed at two to five year olds, and all featuring video of Justin – an app first.

Making it was the easy bit – Allan had worked with Justin for over 12 years at the Beeb and Milo, who did our programming, had cut their teeth on the Peppa Pig apps.

But how to market it and monetise it?

From day one it has proved impossible to get a definitive answer on this – it’s just too young a business for any data to be available to show what works and what doesn’t. And what data is available is jealously guarded by those who have it. Add to the pot the fact that we were targeting a pretty new user base in the pre-school market, and it became obvious fairly soon that this was going to be an interesting journey.

“Release a free app and use in app purchasing” came one answer, repeatedly. But no good for our target market – we’ve all read the Daily Mail horror stories of parents receiving multi-billion dollar bills from the evil Apple empire because little Johnny has repeatedly been hitting the big gold “BUY” button in his newly downloaded app. So we resolved from the start that we would need to create a quality product that parents would want to buy, safe in the knowledge that there would be no hidden surprises.

As it happens, Apple has been incredibly supportive – they loved the idea of targeting the pre-school market with something of real educational value. In fact, when we embarked on this crusade 12 months ago, I met people who didn’t believe two year olds would be capable of using a tablet. Don’t believe it – our accountant’s 18 month old daughter quite happily played through the Goldilocks book on the day of release. As did my five year old.

Apple awarded us Editor's Choice on the app store on day one, and it rocketed us to the top of the app charts. The only downside was that the next day Justin performed a sell out show to 3,000 excited children and parents at Westfield in Birmingham. As a result, we couldn’t definitively attribute where the resulting spike in sales came from. Radio interviews, press reviews all went brilliantly. And our Facebook page started to attract a following.

“How about product placement?” we were asked. Well, yes, there’s opportunities that exist that simply can’t be considered in a TV world, so it’s something we’re considering. There’s a rather lovely yellow vacuum cleaner in the Three Bears living room that would be immeasurably improved with a manufacturers name on the side...

Licensing deals are another avenue to be explored – Justin’s World is designed to be able to incorporate any app that’s related to pre-school learning, with Justin making the introductions. So we’re looking at introducing Sing and Sign performers for example. This also allows us to launch sponsored/ branded apps as part of the series – as long as it’s educational and meets Allan’s high standards of quality control we’d be happy talking to brands about designing them an app to sit within Justin’s World.

And what about pricing – Goldilocks was released at £2.99. But is that too much? We released Lettersounds a month later – that’s £1.49. Watch the sales figures – has a lower price point made a difference? One week in and the data suggests it has – but will it sustain? And the final app in the series, Jigsongs, is only 69 pence – so that’ll give us even more data.

“Release a freebie” people suggested – we designed an app specifically to be released for free, no in app purchases but links to the paid apps. It’s due out at the end of July, so that’ll allow us to really test the size of the IOS market.

Which raises another question – we’re on IOS, the most expensive tablets out there. What about Android? And then which device exactly?

My instinct is that in a year’s time there will be more potential users in our target range with access to an Android device than an IOS device. Based simply on the fact that once the price point for an Android tablet is down to around £70, parents will feel far more relaxed about handing over their shiny screened device to a two year old who’s going to smear yoghurt or something equally yucky over it as they help Justin tidy the Three Bears’ house.

Anyway, this only scratches the surface of the many unknowns we’re faced with. It really feels like the Wild West out here, and it’s as much of a data gathering exercise as anything else at the moment.

So… if there’s any tablet manufacturers out there looking for a marketing edge this xmas, give us a shout – Justin’s World has to end up on Android at some point, so it might help solve that question at least.

Graham Ebbs is managing director of Nearly Too Late.

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