Taking your app global is a process that requires a focused strategy and a clear vision of where you want to be – and who you want to engage – with your app.
National Geographic, an iconic brand with over 360 million social fans around the globe, is laying the groundwork to do both. We catch up with Marcus East, National Geographic Executive Vice President of Product and Technology, to discuss the company’s unique approach to put their content in front of new audiences, while maintaining brand integrity.
Apps are often compared to items on digital shelves in a supermarket. It makes sense in retail to be on the shelves in many stores. How do you see this opportunity?
Such a great question, and a topic that I find even more interesting since speaking at a conference in Moscow recently. It really struck me that the world is using different apps when you get outside of the Anglo-Saxon world. For example, I noticed that many in the audience were taking pictures of me whilst I was presenting and sharing the content – but it wasn’t on Facebook or Twitter. It was the Russian equivalent – or VK.com as it’s known there. That was a really sharp reminder to me that apps and brands operate in a global market. If you look around, you see that users have different tools and apps, and this is not taking place in the traditional app environment or across the app stores – Apple and Google – that we think of first.
Take a step back and there is a huge opportunity for brands to think about the consumer and how they need to stay relevant to their audience. For us at National Geographic, it’s a very exciting opportunity because we are a global brand. We have a powerful reach, with over 345 million people interacting with us via social media. So being where the consumers are is important to us. On the flip side, as I’ve started doing some research into different app stores and different app ecosystems, there are some challenges to being in all the app stores. You want to make the right choices to distribute your app and you want to make sure that your brand is being represented in the best way possible is these stores. This is not always the case in some of these smaller app stores as they don't have the same policies, and so that’s something to think about as well.
To your point, there are hundreds of alternative app stores. What are some criteria on which you base your choice of where you want to publish your apps? What is your advice for other app companies?
The first part is to look at the metrics around the number of consumers, amounts of revenue and level of engagement different app stores generate. We’ve used those simple metrics to give us a feel for where we should focus our energies. Take the Myapp app store powered by Tencent. Clearly, they have a huge audience – so that’s an obvious one for us. However, it’s also worth brands thinking about momentum and growth. Seen through that lens you may also want to be in those environments and app stores that may not be huge right now, but are poised for growth because they provide an incredible customer experience, or because they offer some unique functionality or utility that consumers really love.
How do you identify these opportunities to reach and engage new audiences?
The truth is, it’s a huge landscape out there. You talked about the 300+ app stores out there, and the work we've done initially with appScatter suggests that there are even more. Each has distinctive characteristics and audiences. There’s Opera, a browser that has its app store, and there are regions and governments that also manage their own app stores. You need to have tooling in place to help you understand the alternative app landscape, and that’s where solutions like appScatter come in. It bundles all the connections into these environments, and that’s the way forward.
What’s more, appScatter understands the importance of dashboards and giving companies and brands the ability to log into a tool, see what’s happening and then to identify hot spots and problems and dive into them right away. The app ecosystem is so vast and fast moving. You would have to have an army of people if you tried to do everything that a solution like appScatter does on your own, and that's just not commercially viable, so tooling is very important. We really like the work that we’ve seen from appScatter and we are still considering it as a possible solution for our needs. The principal is sound, and it all revolves around the idea that there is a one-stop-shop to show you everything that is happening with your app across all the apps stores across the globe. In a way it's like having ‘mission control,’ the sort of thing you’d see in the Pentagon, that is configured to show you your entire digital footprint as a brand, and that’s a great starting point.
As you say, you need to know every aspect of your app – everywhere it is published. What are your main pain points on your way to this important goal?
So, one of the problems with the app ecosystem right now is that all the different app stores have varying requirements for content, for metadata, for descriptions and so on. If you wanted to deliver your app into all 300 of the major app stores around the world, that could be a full-time job. Therefore, one of the most attractive features that appScatter provides is its ability manage the publishing of the app into all these different app stores. It knows the information and assets each store needs, and it knows how to put this into a single interface for you and your team. That is a massive win for a global brand like ours.
Basically, appScatter does all the hard work behind the scenes to publish your app, and it also does the regular updates. When you go to the dashboard, you have complete visibility into this and can make any changes from a single app home page. That is a potentially huge cost saving for brands like ours. I’d say the visibility is probably 20% of the value, and 80% of the value comes from actually being able to manage those different apps.
It’s also about being able to reach and engage all the audiences that love your brand. You have unparalleled reach and touch over 745 million consumers across 172 countries, and that’s every month…
It’s interesting as we are seeing huge demand from consumers in Asia for our content and app experiences. It’s intriguing because I was discussing this with one of our regional presidents and how this demand starts us thinking about the app experience we offer. It’s probably a good idea to provide a kind of base level app experience as a way to provide a consistent view of the brand to all consumers everywhere. But then different markets would have a slightly different premium offer. The challenge is to develop a framework where we can support that. We are really passionate about the work that we do, and about the storytelling of our explorers and we want to share that with as many people as possible at the same time. For those consumers who are more deeply engaged, we want to provide them with premium experiences - often through partners. So, I think that it’s necessary to have a multi-tiered approach to apps, where there’s probably a basic offering for the whole world that is really powerful that allows them to have that relationship with the National Geographic. But then there are also premium experiences – working with the partners we have close relationships with - that build on top of that. So, it's quite a complex landscape, and we are quite excited about that opportunity that it presents.
It’s a brand opportunity to go global, but it’s also important to monitor and manage brand integrity. How are you approaching this?
We had a report produced with appScatter, and one of the things that struck me was that there are lots of unofficial apps in some of the smaller app stores, where people just want National Geographic screensavers. That's all they want, and they're prepared to pay to get them. Seeing this makes you take a step back and really look at what consumers want from the app experience. For some users, just getting access to a different screensaver image every day would be good enough. The report also allowed me to understand the different audiences we have and see the huge opportunities to build app experiences that talk to a specific use case. So, whilst I thought when I first joined National Geographic that we could have one app to rule them all, we are seeing that we have quite different audiences with these different needs, and it will be important for us to build solutions to those wants and needs.
So, seeing how your brand is represented globally opened your eyes to new opportunities. What else struck you when you could see your global brand footprint across all the app stores?
One of most eye-opening insights we got out of the appScatter report was the number of ways in which people are attempting to use the National Geographic brand. There was one particular case where, I think a student, where someone had created a screensaver app by taking public images from our website and putting them into an app. The intention was good, but the execution was poor, and the developer clearly needed to licence the content in order to do that. I’ve talked about how we need to have an international and democratic approach to bring our app to all our audiences. But we also need to protect ourselves from sometimes well-intentioned third-parties taking our brand and then delivering it in a way that isn’t to the same standard that we would expect it to be. Without something like appScatter it would just not be possible to understand how your brand is being manifested in all these app stores around the world.
The report showed us that the National Geographic brand was represented about 17,000 times on app stores around the world. At first, we thought that couldn't be right – but then, as we started drilling into it, we realised that the report was right. Some of it was just a mention of National Geographic, but some of it was third-parties trying to create - with good intentions - a National Geographic experience. So, we are going to really lead into that and actively manage it because the integrity of our brand is everything to us and the user experience is everything to our consumers.
To close this series, please share your top tips to make your app a global success
Number one would be: make sure you understand the needs of your consumers all around the world. We are now actively talking to consumers in different markets to understand what to do to deliver an app experience and how they use our content daily.
Second, come up with a true global strategy. It’s no longer the case that you can just think about the Apple App Store or Google Play. This means looking beyond the U.S., the U.K. and the rest of western Europe. For us, focusing on a global approach also inspires us to think about how to have a democratic and fair level of access to our content through an app experience across the world, and I’m really excited by that.
Finally, there is a need to make sure that whatever you do globally is also sustainable. That requires you to have a strong commercial model. It’s all about looking at how you can meet your consumers’ wants and needs, and you also want to have a product strategy that is global. On the flip side, you also need to make sure that you can make money with that because that allows you to do the best possible job for your consumers.
Marcus East, National Geographic Executive Vice President of Product and Technology