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Making and Marketing Kids Apps: Definitely Not Child’s Play

The market for children’s apps is even more complex than just about any other category. Nancy MacIntyre, veteran of the kids learning and entertainment space, shares her playbook on making and marketing successful apps in the children’s category.

When legendary game designer Tim Schafer created “Once Upon A Monster,” he talked about the magical moment when his daughter waved back at a character in the game.

Tim’s desire to create an interactive experience that he could share with his young daughter is a natural impulse shared by many developers as they become new parents, and one that seems more attainable than ever, thanks to indie-friendly distribution platforms such as iTunes, Google Play and Kindle.

I’ve launched hundreds of games for kids on platforms as diverse as Xbox 360 and Leapster Explorer. I’ve seen experienced game developers fall into the trap of thinking that making children’s games is as easy as frosting cupcakes!  It’s not.

In fact, the market for children’s apps is even more complex than just about any other category. Many of the effective levers for driving virality in adult apps, such as Facebook social features and multiplayer hooks, are not possible with kid apps. New federal regulations governing children’s privacy put further restrictions on how publishers collect and use players’ personal information. And to complicate matters, the “players” (kids) aren’t the “payers” (parents). As a result, children's apps have to work twice as hard to please two different constituents.

Then there’s what I call the “Packed Refrigerator” problem. App stores burst with options for kids -- with as many as 88% of them free, according to NPD Group. That leads to a snacking behavior -- kids sample and move on to the next app rather than develop a long-term relationship with any one title. More than 25% of all apps downloaded are only opened once, according to app analytics firm Localytics. Given children’s short attention spans, that is likely to be even more so with kids apps.

So why bother? The truth is many developers, including those of us at Fingerprint, believe that  the potential payoff is enormous. The opportunity for apps to promote healthy social connections, spur creative thinking, and spark our children’s imagination is irresistible -- particularly for technologists who thrive on figuring out ways to make things better.

It’s also true that the market itself is growing. Tablet usage among kids has soared from 3% in 2011 to 13% in 2012, with tablets being used most amongst younger children, according to the NPD Group. Kids spend about 5 days a week using mobile devices such as smartphone, tablet or iPod touch, with an average session lasting just under one hour.

Recognizing this growth opportunity, Google, at its I/O developer conference in May, said it will expand its successful Apps for Education program, which has more than 20 million users, to launch in the fall a dedicated Google Play For Education store catering to classroom needs. And, later this year, Apple will add a dedicated and curated “kids games” category to the iTunes App Store with the launch of iOS 7.

So how can developers succeed in the new app market? While the playbook is still being written and refined, here are five suggestions that we have found especially helpful in launching successful apps in the children’s category:

1. Make Great Apps. Your product will speak for itself and the better it is, the better it will do. At Fingerprint, we spend hours upon hours testing our apps with kids and families and we rely on the opinion of others to help validate what we think is a compelling experience. And, as you know, kids will readily speak their minds.

2. Get Apple on Board. More than just about any other marketing lever, being a Featured App or being included as part of an Apple-curated list moves the needle from obscurity to virality. How do you get Apple’s attention? Have a game that stands out -- either because it is more beautiful, better than, or is completely unlike anything else -- raises the chances of it being promoted by Apple. The new Kids Category in the App Store should really help, too!

3. Reach Out to Parents. Put yourself in a position to build an ongoing relationship with parents. You can do this in the design of the game itself, by encouraging “co-play” experiences that pull parents into the fun -- such as Fingerprint’s The Flying Alphabetinis, a word scramble for the whole family. Be a resource for parents.  Use your expertise to keep parents updated on the most important market, political or social issues (e.g., Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act) that matter most to families. As part of customer acquisition strategy, have a presence in places where parents congregate for trusted advice such as Common Sense Media.  Plus, actively engage in the blogosphere targeting go-to sites like Techlicious for app reviews as well as participate on the most active Facebook groups such as MomsWithApps or TeachersWithApps.

4. Garner Awards. With so many options, having an award can help parents decide whether to download your app or skip to the next option. Some of the most popular awards to apply:  Parent Tested Parent Approved, Parent’s Choice, Family Choice, National Parenting Publication Awards (NAPPA), Kids At Play Interactive Awards (KAPi) and Kidscreen Awards.

5. Plan Regular Updates. Rather than regard updates as a “treadmill,” look at them as opportunities to get another bite at the marketing apple. App downloads often spike right after an update is released for this very reason. Talking about your app’s new, better features is a great way to get back in front of the consumer.

6. Build a Strong App Store Presence. This means having compelling screenshots that convey the excitement of your app at a glance. Make sure that the description of your app is straightforward, while also telling readers, without hyperbole, why they should download your app. Give some thought to your search words. If you have a licensed title, make sure that’s part of the search terms. Include categories that parents and kids are most like to use in a search -- going from the general (kids games, education, learning) to the specific (alphabet game, coloring). For example, if you have an app that teaches kids about money, search terms can include “math,” “ financial literacy,” “savings,” “allowance” and “budgeting.” In most cases, keep in mind that it’s an adult who is searching.

At Fingerprint, we believe the sheer size and reach of the children’s app market will ultimately exceed the impressive numbers achieved by traditional console market for kids. But the rules for success have changed substantially from the cartridge model -- in ways that make things both easier to publish, but also exponentially harder to get traction. It’s not child’s play, but we agree with Tim Schafer when he said that the most rewarding thing about making a kids’ interactive title was “watching a parent help their kid play and play it together. It just feels like we have made something that has a really positive impact.”

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