Making Freemium Add Up

Today at MIDiA Consulting we have released a new report on the digital content sector entitled ‘Making Freemium Add Up’.

The report combines an unprecedented appraisal of key freemium service metrics with market analysis and recommendations to create a definitive assessment of the freemium marketplace.  In the report we analyse an intentionally diverse selection of consumer web services, looking at the distribution and scale of their user bases and the relationship of these with their business models.  Services tracked range from music services like Slacker, through utility services like Skype to social services like Google+.  It also includes long term data trend analysis of Spotify, Deezer and Pandora.

The report is available for free to all subscribers to Music Industry Blog (to subscribe just add your email address in the Email Subscription box to the right of this post.  If you are already a subscriber but have not yet received a copy of the report by email please email mark AT midiaconsulting DOT COM).

Here are some of the key findings of the report:

  • Inactive users: inactive user rates range from 13% to 77%.  Social services have the highest rates (77% for Instagram and 66% for Twitter).  Inactive users are a key characteristic of all registration based services with free-to-consumer tiers, but the registered-to-active rate is below average for all freemium services However freemium inactive users are also often highly interested customers who simply need hooking up with the right pricing and product. In short, freemium inactive user bases are priceless qualified marketing lead databases.  The challenge is to separate the wheat from the chaff, to differentiate between disinterested freeloaders and potentially valuable paying customers.
  • Paid users: paid user rates range from less than 1% to 90%.  But both ends of the scale are outliers.  At the low end Soundcloud’s premium tiers are aimed at the smaller audience of creators that are just a small subset of its 180 million active users. While at the other end Valve’s gaming platform steam is more digital retail store than pure freemium destination.   The risk for all freemium services is ensuring the free tier isn’t too good, unless free users are your key revenue source (cf Hulu and Pandora). Spotify and Deezer appear to have hit a conversion sweet spot, a solid balance between compelling free tiers and better enough paid tiers.
  • Scarcity counts: a music service user risks little by churning because he can still easily get all the same music elsewhere if he cancels his Spotify subscription.  But if you stop playing Angry Birds you’ll find few other places where you can hurl bad tempered feathered missiles at egg-stealing green pigs.  Similarly churning out of a social network carries a high ‘churn risk’ for consumers as they will weaken their ability to connect with extended social circles online
  • The free-to-paid divide needs narrowing: the gap from free to paid is high, a significant leap of faith is required from the user.  Whereas the gap from zero to $0.99 for Angry Birds free to paid is a modest step, from zero to $9.99 for Spotify or Deezer portable is a much more sizeable hurdle.  Thus converting to paid for music subscription services is a more sizeable achievement than for low priced gaming apps. More needs to be done to bridge the divide.  This can be achieved in through bundles and innovative pricing. Though this must be set against the risk of cannibalizing full price tiers.

making freemium add up

What Angry Birds Teaches Us About the Future of Media Products

Angry_Birds_promo_artAt Midem this weekend I spent some time talking with Peter Vesterbacka, CMO of Rovio, the company behind the phenomenally successful Angry Birds game.  Angry Birds continues to enjoy approximately 1 million downloads a day and as Peter pointed out, that daily download count is more than the majority of music singles ever reach. The conversation got me thinking about why a mobile game can have so much more success than the majority of artists.

Digital Era Products are Tailor Made for Digital Era Devices

To be clear, Angry Birds is not the representative sample of mobile games, to the contrary it is the runaway success story.  And the fact that Rovio hasn’t yet been able to build a new brand franchise to rival Angry Birds emphasizes the uniqueness of the brand.  Nonetheless, Angry Birds illustrates what happens when you build a content product that is tailor made for the digital devices it is intended to be consumed on.  Angry Birds is a content product that does not just utilize the functionality of the smartphones and tablets but depends upon them.  Angry Birds is a 21st Century content product build for 21st Century content devices.

Think about when Apple launch a new iPad, they don’t wheel out a senior record label exec with a hot new artist to show off the device, instead they get EA Games to show off a new game that leverages the functionality of the device: graphics accelerator, Retina Display, Accelerometer, Multi Touch etc.  Even the best iTunes LPs do not come close to doing that job, let alone a static audio file, which remains the dominant product that the music industry sells on iTunes and other stores.

Analogue Era Products in Digital Era Clothes

But there is something more fundamental at play rather than simply a technology skills gap between record labels and games publishers, and it isn’t just a record label problem either. The inescapable fact is that record labels, publishers of books, magazines and newspapers and even TV and movie studios are trying to shoehorn analogue era products into digital era technology.  These companies’ products were built for sitting on shelves and for being consumed in single purpose, non-interactive devices.  Games and apps though, are digital era products at home in digital technology while traditional media products are lodgers not yet quite able to keep up the rent payments.

This does not mean that traditional media products cannot have a vibrant future. They can, but they have to truly understand what makes digital era content products work:

  • Interactive and Dynamic: digital era content products don’t just leverage the functionality of the devices they are consumed on. They make that functionality core to the content experience itself, to the extent that the content product would not be able to exist without it.
  • Visual Experience: digital era content has a visual element at its core. This puts video products at a distinct advantage, but video is an asset that print and music products can leverage too. No coincidence that YouTube is the most successful digital music product in the globe.
  • Context and Relevance: digital era content products are increasingly embracing the context of location, social group and time.  They both understand the consumer demand-gaps that these factors combine to create, and they also enrich their experiences by meshing these factors into the products themselves.

None of these three areas are insurmountable hurdles for traditional media companies, but at the same time they are not natural paths for many of their products.  Embracing these objectives often requires an entirely different approach to product development, rethinking what makes the content valuable in the digital age.  For example the audio file in the YouTube video is much less valuable to young teens without the video than with.  The video is as important in that product as the music itself.  Yet the music product development cycle revolves around creating the audio file, not the video.

Embracing digital era product principles also requires an understanding that just because you can does not always mean that you should.  Not all features are appropriate for all types of content.  Not even digital era content products use all the device features available to them e.g. Real Racing relies more on accelerometer functionality while Angry Birds leans towards multi-touch.

Learning lessons from digital era products is a must for all traditional media products.  Most digital versions of traditional media products are digital adaptations, not genuinely new products. Trying to squeeze the round peg of analogue era products into the square hole of digital era devices clearly is not a long-term solution. Until the circle is squared though, digital era products will continue to leave digital adaptions of analogue era products in their slipstream.