Or how not to relaunch your app when your community really knows what it likes already

A year or so back, I wrote an article for publishing trade paper InPublishing. The original brief was to write about an app I like. Which I didn’t actually clock meant, ‘Oi, you make digital editions, write about a rival digital edition you like’. So in time-honoured fashion, I ignored the brief and wrote about the comic book reader/newsstand, ComiXology.

It wasn’t (just) arrogance that made me do it. ComiXology was (and still is) a digital comic book distribution platform with over 100 million comic downloads as of October 2012. Featuring content from Marvel, DC and a wealth of smaller publishers, it offered a ‘buy once, read anywhere’ selection of over 30,000 comics and graphic novels across iOS, Android, Kindle Fire, Windows 8 and the web.

In 2011, comiXology ranked as number 10 in the top 20 grossing iPad apps. In September 2011, comiXology’s Comics app was the highest-grossing app in the App Store. In 2012, comiXology was ranked as the number three top grossing iPad app — the only app from 2011 to stay on the top ten list.

You can see why I liked it. Actually, make that envied it.

You can read the original InPublishing article here. Executive summary: I used to buy loads of comics. I then bought no comics. ComiXology got me back buying comics every week. Job done.

Actually, job not done…

In April 2014, ComiXology was bought by Amazon. A couple of weeks later, in-app purchases were removed forcing people to use the ComiXology site to buy issues which they then download to the app.

You can read the official take from ComiXology Co-founder and CEO David Steinberger here but a quick Google for ‘ComiXology Amazon’ will throw up a pile of brand-mangling articles from Vox (How Amazon and Comixology betrayed comic book readers), TechCrunch (Amazon Guts The ComiXology App With Removal Of In-App Purchases, Users Not Happy) and Business Insider (Amazon’s ComiXology Update Could Not Have Gone Worse).

Ouch.

Now you can see the brains behind the decision. Take the purchases off the App Store to get that infamous 30% Apple Tax back. Aim all your SEO-ed content and CRM guns at the website rather than in-app to get the most out of online marketing. Own that lovely customer data. Publish what you want rather than have to bend to any Apple content restrictions (which ComiXology have had to in the past).

However, despite a $5 Gift Voucher campaign, the actual customers turned away in their droves leaving a trail of zero star App Store reviews and forums dripping with four-colour bile. Why? Well, the perfect storm of a few dev wrinkles, poor planning (effecting immediate change + being bought by huge company = bad idea) and a generally anti-establishment comics community who see Amazon as The Man.

However the main reason was simply the removal of those in-app purchases. Amazon don’t like them but – and get ready for this – the users do. And someone kinda forgot them.

Y’see, the ComiXology experience was so smooth, so intuitive, so impulse-friendly, so damned GOOD (as I explain in my InPublishing article) that even the smoothest web transaction was going to look hamfisted by comparison. And thus a seemingly locked-on business decision was turned, by a mixture of poor planning, worse timing and what I can just get away with calling petard-hoisting, into a nightmare.

ComiXology will survive. It’s still absolutely the best way to read digital comics, Amazon’s dev muscle should iron out those wrinkles and, despite the rants against The Man, the community will come round – ComiXology got the .rar-happy torrent crowd to accept it and not much is tougher than that. It will likely even get me back in the fold – and my own purchasing has dropped from £10-15/week to zero.

However in all this is a clear message for anyone else planning a major change in their in-app business model. Think. Then think again. And if you haven’t used the word ‘user’ right at the very start of that process, stop.

Now start again.

 

Mike Goldsmith

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