Talking Tom Cat, Talking Ginger and friends are also big hits on YouTube, via a partnership with Disney
The figures, announced today, speak for themselves. People aren’t just downloading the cutesy talking-animal apps at a rate of 50m a month: they’re actually using them. Oh, and watching their stars on YouTube.
A series of music videos starring two of the characters, Talking Tom Cat and Talking Angela, have notched up more than 100m YouTube views, while a series of 10 Talking Friends “webisodes” produced with Disney has generated another 100m views.
In short, Talking Friends is one of the biggest character-based brands to emerge from the apps world, alongside Angry Birds. While Disney knows not to underestimate the appeal of squeaky-voiced animals, Outfit7’s apps remain somewhat under-the-radar for many other media and entertainment firms.
Chief executive Samo Login says the company is ambitious to change that. “We are working on something new because we are never satisfied with what we have offered to our users so far,” he says. “We always know that we can do more and better.”
That includes a new Talking Tom app this summer with deeper gaming elements, but also educational aspects: “Teaching kids and teenagers how to take care of somebody,” according to Login. It follows the recent Ginger’s Birthday app, which offered (light) education on healthy eating and hygiene.
“Lately, all of our products have included some kind of educational value,” says Login. “But we want to keep the humour and entertainment in the apps. If kids smell that it’s just educational, they don’t want it! And they can smell it…”
Outfit7 is also shooting for more licensing deals, targeting television, live events and attractions, following a similar path to franchises like Angry Birds and Cut the Rope, which have been taking their digital success out into the real world.
The company is also refining its focus in terms of characters. 14 have appeared in Talking Friends apps, but in recent months three have been particularly prominent – Talking Tom, Talking Angela and Talking Ginger – while others have been sidelined.
“We are investing in all of our premium characters, which are more or less the ones you have seen in the Disney webisodes,” says Login.
“We will not invest a lot in some of the other characters which are more generic, like the Tyrannosaurus Rex, the hippo and Hedgehog Harry. Those characters will most probably not appear in the new apps.”
He adds that while one new character is in development, Outfit7 is determined to develop more content with its existing characters, rather than introduce a flood of new ones.
The Disney partnership was interesting on that score. That company is trying to build its own characters on mobile before taking them elsewhere: Swampy the alligator in the Where’s My Water? game being the first example.
Partnering with a mobile startup that had its own characters was thus a surprise. “Disney doesn’t work with many partners, and especially not with IP that they don’t own. We were a great experiment for them, I think,” says Login.
“Disney wanted to work with us to get distribution, including for their own videos with Swampy. They knew they didn’t have the distribution power that we have. The main motivation for them was to find a partner that can bring something valuable into that partnership.”
Login says Outfit7 has been pleased with the response to the webisodes, which were also distributed within its own apps – a strategy that Rovio has also been trying with its Angry Birds Toons series.
He believes that this potential for companies to distribute video to fans directly through their own apps will continue to intrigue the traditional media world.
“We have many plans for integrating all the different entertainment channels, including apps, TB, webisodes on YouTube and mini-websites for our characters,” he says.
“We also want to integrate all the different ways to access our users through emails or push notifications, to offer them ways not to miss the interesting stuff that they want to see. I think with the mobile companies that will head towards entertainment, a lot of new things can be expected.”
It’s natural for companies like Outfit7, Rovio and Cut the Rope maker ZeptoLab to talk up their disruptive potential while at the same time presenting themselves as potential partners for established entertainment companies. Not least if they’re thinking about possible acquisitions further down the line.
“Companies like Disney always want to learn something from the small players, new kids on the block like us, because they are aware that the app business will become an important part of the entertainment industry,” says Login.
“Maybe in the future, we will see more partnerships and acquisitions. That’s not something new or unexpected.”
Outfit7 is currently financing its expansion plans for Talking Friends from the revenues generated by its apps: the company hasn’t taken external investment as yet.
Some of those revenue streams have proved controversial, though. In October 2012, ads for payday lender Wonga were spotted in the Talking Ginger app, offering “cash loans up to £400”.
Then in February 2013, the Talking Friends Cartoons app included an ad directing users to a quiz to win an iPad, which also sought to sign them up to a £4-a-week mobile content subscription service.
In both cases, Outfit7 moved quickly to remove the ads, but their presence in apps that were extremely popular with children (albeit not exclusively aimed at them) indicated a wider problem. At the time of the second issue, Login told The Guardian that the ad’s appearance was “a technical glitch”.
Now, he says that Outfit7 has learned the lessons, at a time when the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) legislation in the US, and an Office of Fair Trading investigation in the UK, are shining a new spotlight on how children’s apps make their money.
“There are a lot of things changing from the legal perspective, in the US and EU, and our plans are to be the leaders and not the followers in terms of implementing all the changes requested by COPPA and the EU,” says Login.
“We will be one of the first companies that will be prepared for that, because we believe we should be an example. We have a huge user-base among kids, and we can’t afford to take that lightly.”
One problem in the children’s apps sector is the way publishers feel squeezed: many parents don’t buy paid apps, yet they distrust in-app purchases and ads. How to make money while maintaining an ethical business.
“Honestly? For the developers making only apps targeting children, I believe most will struggle to survive. If all of your products are niche products, it’s hard to get significant distribution,” he says.
“Developing apps for children can still be a good business, but combined with apps also developed for an older audience, so you can reach the size of audience that enables you to also distribute those apps that are for pre-schoolers.”