CCO of the children's app publisher explains how Magic Town platform is becoming more engaging than TV, while convincing parents and teachers that mobiles and games are valuable educational tools.
Action figures and dolls were once the child-pacifying weapons employed by parents a few years ago, but a rising number of adults are now letting their offspring operate their smartphones and tablets.
That's good news for educational app publisher, Mindshapes, who secured $5 million in October 2011 to develop two 'virtual learning worlds' – Language City and Magic Town.
Fast-forward a year, and character-driven digital storybook app Magic Town is the company's flagship product, with interest complemented as book publishers embrace the e-book market and TV studios adopt the second-screen trend.
With the rising trend of youngsters using mobiles for education and media companies going digital, ME visited Christian Dorffer, chief commercial officer of Mindshapes to find out more...
How would you describe Magic Town?
Magic Town is our crown jewel, it's Disneyland for the iPad. We provide users with one free animated story each day, but a premium £2.49 a month subscription offer is available for children that want unlimited access to the library.
The design lets kids to organise the ecosystem around characters, because it's the external appearances that will attract them ahead of book titles that they won't necessarily be familiar with.
What structure does the app have?
We refer to each story a 'live book' which offers a number of alternate viewing options.
Watch: Plays the story out in a cartoon mode.
Play: An advanced version of Watch and prompts children to tap highlighted areas of the screen in order to progress through the story.
Read Together: Allows parents and children to bond over the story, progressing with each other.
Explore: Provides morals at the end of the tale to teach the kids right from wrong, such as; how do you think Cinderella felt after being locked in the tower by her stepmother?
How has the app been received by the industry and its users?
Magic Town was launched on iPad three months ago and more than one million stories have been read in that time. We've been working with the BBC and one of the execs told us that her daughter now finds the platform more enjoyable than TV because it's more personalised.
The Beeb loves us because we can make their much-loved programmes even more popular through interactions. Users receive a direct greeting from characters when they load the app, while receiving on-screen/verbal responses based on the actions they make.
Who else have you partnered?
We work closely with Apple and PRs to get featured exposure and spread our message. What's more, we work with teachers who refer to the app as a parent partnering tool. Teachers making recommendations to parents offers a personal social sharing element, while we can also learn what the children like and what the teachers value.
At present, we've partnered with 400 schools in Scotland to make Magic Town available on interactive whiteboards and tablets.
How do you decide what material is right for the users?
We've worked with a Harvard professor to ensure psychological aspects are taken into account, while a university study shows that the app increases a child's comprehension and understanding by 12 per cent. The point of the platform is that it only highlights key content, making sure it doesn't overload the children.
It's not a case of us just making story upon story to generate content for the sake of it, we want to have the best 500 stories ever written.
What other measures are you taking to convince parents of the app's educational values?
An important part of the app is its 'report' functionality, similar to one a child may receive from a school each term.
The app, of course, will be downloaded to the parent's device, so it's the adult that's in control. They can register for a full insight to the child's usage patterns, ]like the number of stories they've read in a month or the genre they prefer.
With these insights, the parent can praise their child and learn the areas they excel in, while guiding them to avenues they may not have yet experienced or explored. The idea is to build parent/child bonding, while we want to introduce the content on a global scale because we see ourselves as Netflix for preschoolers.
As for navigation, characters will pop-up to offer tutorials and tips to support the user experience.
The kids are also able to test out their drawing skills and write their own stories if the titles on the app give them a sudden zest for creativity. We understand the reservations adults may have, but we're winning awards and the core objective for us is to ensure parents that media can be used for educational purposes.
Are they any incentives for repeat usage?
If a player drops from high use to low use, the app will recognise this, enabling a big fuss to be made when the user does return which adds to the personalisation concept.
What's the next stage for the platform?
In Mid-November, we'll be running a promo in a London toy store to celebrate the launch of the iPhone version – a condensed version of the iPad mode, offering Watch and Play options. We didn't want to simply port the app from iPad to iPhone, we wanted to provide the best experience possible on that particular device.
Any plans for an Android version?
There is an Android version on the cards and we're in talks with Amazon and Barnes & Noble for launches on their devices. We could have an Android version out by Christmas but as a small company it's important for us to work in stages, so iPhone is the next priority. That said, our primary focus is tablets because we feel they're easier for a child to operate.
How large is the team?
We've got a 32 employee strong team, with ex-staffers from CBBC, Warner Bros, Sega, HarperCollins, Disney and more. We're really international too, members of the team come from Spain, China, Russia, the US, Venezuela and beyond.
How long does it take to produce stories for the app?
We're the Rolls Royce of children's entertainment and one minute of animation takes a week to do, that's how seriously we take our art. Each story has just one voice actor, and we have a selection of talent that we use again and again because it's very difficult to find someone that can adapt their voice to a handful of different characters in one sitting.
You mentioned the premium option for Magic Town earlier, how else do you plan to monetise?
We'll be looking to produce more standalone apps like we have done in the past, using the premium price model of 99p to £1.49 for an app. In the US, parents are more than happy to pay $5 a month for subscriptions, but you can't cross a certain threshold if you want to keep consumers happy.
Where do you see the future of the market heading?
I work on a CDI Europe scheme called Apps For Good. It's a voluntary operation that invites children to submit their best ideas for an app, ones that can solve real life problems. I get on a Skype call to them for an hour a month, as they pitch their ideas while I give my honest feedback in a not-so Simon Cowell fashion.
It's a great way to teach them about enterprise and business and shows demonstrates how keen young minds are to learn about technology.