Andrew Johnson has been teaching relaxation and coping skills for the last 16 years through techniques including Hypnosis, Emotional Freedom Techniques, Reiki, Stress Management, Meditation and Mindfulness. He is author of a series of bestselling apps, which recently hit the 4 million download milestone. I met up with him over lunch at the Blythswood Hotel, Glasgow to explore his digital success.
JW So let’s go back to the beginning.
AJ Originally I was doing one to one hypnotherapy sessions. Traditionally you would give away a recording. I was copying cassettes and giving them to clients to help with their smoking cessation, weight loss or relaxation away from the session.
JW Okay, we are back in the cassette era – some of our readers won’t even know they existed!
Photo: Status Frustration
AJ Exactly, and recording them was a slow process. But with the advent of CDs and the ability to burn CDs at home, it became viable to produce those and eventually I got the main four titles, smoking, weight control, confidence and stress professionally recorded. To get these mastered and produced, I committed to producing 1000 of each.So there I was, with 4000 CDs sitting in my office (some of which I still have to this day!) So with a stock of CDs, it became apparent that I needed to put them on the web site, which I did, using PayPal which I still use to this day.
JW You we a bit ahead of the curve in the therapy world having a website as far back as 2001?
The first Andrew Johnson e-commerce web site from March 2002.
AJ Maybe! So, I started selling online. It was very slow, but it ticked away and occasionally I would get a bulk order of 20 or 30 from a hospice or hospital. With the advent of the first iPod and other players, MP3 versions of the first four recording were added to the site and to my surprise within 3 months, sales of the MP3s had overtaken those of the CDs. Sales were still slow, very very slow however.
JW It was never going to pay the bills.
AJ No. And to be honest, as a therapist seeing one to one clients there was never really a budget to market them or promote them, and my name wasn’t very well know outside of West Scotland, well, Ayrshire, well even Ayr! But the one thing that kept coming back was that people who had bought the CD or MP3 were very complimentary about the quality, and I was getting word of mouth sales.
JW Yes, because even back then there was competition, as it was now feasible for anyone to produce recordings at scale, but the quality was not great. There would be noise in the background and the actual content would not be well thought out or delivered.
AJ I was lucky to find a very good, local recording studio and sound engineer who knew a lot about voice recording. So I guess compared with the other recordings out there, mine were some of the most professionally recorded. So still sales were slow, but feedback was great.
The big turning point was around 2006 with the advent of the iPhone and the announcement of the app store. I quickly realised that if I could get into the app store I could generate another small income stream.
Even though the iPhone was not for sale at that moment in the UK, I started thinking about the process of getting these four recording converted into apps.
JW It’s always been about early adoption hasn’t it? We’ve been doing lunch for some considerable time…
AJ For millennia, since we were boys..
JW …and we’ve always discussed the leading edge of tech and the web. You were the Mac representative and I was the Windows guy
AJ Certainly for me it was the iMac for my office that led me to Apple and then to the iPhone. My wife went over to New York and bought four iPhones before they were available in the UK.
JW So what was the gap between the birth of the app store and your first app being launched?
AJ Well, as is often the way in these things, serendipity had it’s part to play in this. Out of the blue I got an email from a lawyer in Seattle who said he was a big fan of the relaxation CD and that he was an iPhone developer. He had written the very first app that turned the keyboard sideways before Apple did it themselves and it had been a major seller. He saw the potential, and asked if I’d like to put the relax CD into the app store.
It had to be re-recorded as it needed to be split into different sections but this was quickly done and even before we had met or signed a contract we had an app live on the app store in January 2008. It surpassed all expectations…by selling the equivalent of £5 a day! I was delighted, thinking that this will at least pay for lunches with you.
So, thinking no more about it but eager to get the next three CDs converted to apps, that’s what we did. And over the following 6 months it became very apparent that this is something we should be investing time and money into, and over the last 5 years we’ve recorded an additional 23 apps all on iTunes, and a high percentage on Android.
JW By getting in early, you got “first mover advantage” as the business people would call it, or what the network scientists refer to the “rich get richer” effect of scale free networks. You gained connections (customers) which gave you prominence in a network (of people), which attacted more connections through perferential attachment.
So where are you now with app sales?
AJ The turning point for us was creating the free app. In the last three years it’s had 1.5 million downloads which drives sales of the other apps. We’ve experimented with this app, including using in app advertising which made a small revenue but we’ve found that advertising our own apps is by far the best approach.
JW That’s the eternal question for an app developer – should I go free with paid ads, paid app, in game purchase etc., and for sure the answer is different in each situation but it’s important to explore and test the options. For you, the free app feeds sales of the rest.
AJ Yes, we had maybe 10 apps live and when the free app went live sales increased across the board by 20-30%. The difficulty we had was in promoting the apps – we tried many different approaches and none proved as successful as the free app. We didn’t want to spend money on advertising, as the app store was such a different market and rules were being broken. I spent two years promoting the apps in all manner of ways and realised that it had very little effect.
JW It’s worth talking a little about what you have tried.
AJ The apps we produce are very high quality and work with a very high percentage of people, but the apps themselves are not that technologically advanced. They don’t use a great deal of the iPhone’s capability or have a tech “wow” factor. So when you look at the major bloggers, they tend to pick more “advanced” or interesting apps to review and talk about. The success we had with magazine articles and blog posts has come from individuals who have actually used the app and really liked it. So we concluded early on, that our apps couldn’t be “pushed.” We made a decision that the apps can be best promoted by connecting to existing customers, and we were lucky that we had Twitter, Facebook and a newsletter subscribe button in the app from the early days. Although the size of my Twitter, Facebook and newsletter membership is relatively small, they are a hugely loyal and responsive audience which is fantastic.
JW When you say small, we are still talking about 10,000 Facebook likes, 48,000 Twitter followers and a newsletter list of 35,000! And the thing about these networks is that they are high activity and high response.
AJ Yes, I was lucky enough to meet up with social media expert Mari Smith (@marismith) and we talked about the concept of measuring engagement, by looking at the number of fans compared to the number of active fans.
JW Ah yes, Mari talks about “content being king, but engagement is queen.” This engagement ratio can be easily worked out for most networks, although of course not all engagement is created equal, we need to be aware of the effect of sentiment.
AJ Sure, so Mari was saying to me that a big brand like Coca Cola will have an engagement ratio of around 6%.
JW Big audience, relatively small amount of interaction.
AJ Yes. When we did the same calculation on the Andrew Johnson facebook page, it was up at around 33%.
JW High interaction, and you can see from reviewing the page that it’s also very positive sentiment. It’s easy to build a big network, less easy to build an active, responsive big network with limited resources. Partly you’ve done this through the large reach that the app gives, but it’s also about the quality of your cassettes, CDs, MP3s and apps generating word of mouth and now, word of mouse!
AJ So the big challenge we have is that all sales in the App store are anonymous to us, in that we don’t know the name or any details of the purchaser. Apple, quite rightly, and I understand why they do this, do not share any of that with us the app producer. So we have to rely on people wanting to get in touch with us for making that first connection.
JW So the Apple app market is a black box in terms of marketing to your customers. Frustrating, but you get around it by having good connection options from within the app, which is perhaps your greatest masterstroke.
AJ Well it seemed like a logical move at the time, even though back then it was the early days of Twitter and Facebook. Twitter came first for me, and Facebook has since proved itself to be a great communication tool. I’m very proud of the apps and I’m also interested in who listens to them, and I’m very pleased when people get in touch. When someone gets in touch, I always try to respond promptly but I’ll take the time to look at their profile and find out a little about them so I can reply appropriately.
JW Of course the personal approach does not scale well, and I know you spend a lot of time on replying and responding. It’s a significant investment when you spend 5 minutes replying to someone who has downloaded an app for free or at best at a 60 pence profit to yourself.
AJ Facebook is really good in that respect, as the communication tends more immediate and short form.
JW. But the investment you’ve put into those networks and the mailing list from early days is really bearing fruit now both in connecting to the influencers, and in the strength in all those “weak ties” to many customers. I know that our lunch conversations have often revolved around strategies to grow networks, and it seems you now have the formula. Have something of value to give, and give freely.
Do you find that your community talk to each other at all or answer each others questions?
AJ To a degree. I can certainly ask for suggestions for new app names, new types of recordings, and run competitions on Facebook some of which have produced wonderful results. Posting a good photo with an interesting or thought provoking quotation will often get share hundreds of times. Twitter is a different animal and I do spend time reading, tweeting and retweeting, although I schedule some messages so I can reach people in different time zones, and so I don’t have to man the Twitter deck 24/7!
JW Have you tried promoted posts on Facebook?
AJ Yes. Does it bring the sales? I’m not sure. Does it bring interest? Yes. I do know that the MP3 files will be mentioned in a forthcoming UK Cosmopolitan magazine article, and that’s from a contact I made a year and a half ago.
JW So going back to the app market, what else have you discovered works for you?
AJ Apps are easy to change. You can change the icon, the words, the content, the function, the price almost in real time. This means that you can really experiment, react and respond both to your customers and competition. The cassette and CD were a fixed product with high initial costs.
JW Do you try to adjust the cost to get into the top 100?
AJ Well, you can do that but it’s often not sustainable. If you have a range of apps then they tend to support each other and make good rankings. You can promote your way into the top 100 but it’s debatable whether it’s cost effective. We did have an occasion last year when we entered the top 100 of all apps and that resulted in very good sales for a day or two, but then we dropped back out. Our best ever day was when we were mentioned on a US radio station who talked about the weight control app for 10 minutes. If you listened to the recording, as I have, they were basically taking the mickey. They were mimicking my accent, and teasing the studio sound engineer who used the app, yet sales that day were 100% up on our previous best day. There is no way we could have paid for that sort of promotion.
There are a number of companies established in the last few years to offer app promotion services, but the jury is out on that. I don’t know how they do it, andApple has come down hard on some of these services and apps that use them.
JW So what we are imagining here is handing over a briefcase of money to a shady guy who has a room full of app slaves that download your app to artificially boost it into the top rankings where it gets discovered by many others?
AJ That’s about the size of it. There may be some reputable providers out there, but that’s how app promotion is seen. I don’t know how it works.
JW It sounds like that would go into the same bucket as black hat SEO, and the last thing you want to do is get your app thrown out of the app stores.
AJ And for all the ways that Apple have transformed my business, they are still a relatively anonymous corporation. You don’t get a lot of feedback.
JW That’s true. I was talking to someone today about the eBook market and Amazon’s position in it. I described it as the “least worst” situation for the independent author as Amazon provides reach, a platform and digital rights management to establish a viable market, but at some expense both in terms of royalty share and perhaps monopolistic control.
So, as we wrap up…three bits of advice for people launching into the app market?
AJ. Firstly, be authentic. Secondly, find a way to connect to your purchasers or downloaders even if the download was free.
JW That’s a good point. How do you find people talking about your apps? Do you use scanning services like ViralHeat?
AJ No, I just check my Twitter and Facebook feeds, and have a Twitter search set up.
JW Do you use any tools?
AJ I use TweetAdder for sending out positive tweets, about 6 a day.
JW Certainly promoting the Obree book, we found that taking small snippets out of the book and tweeting them with a link provided a lot of re-tweets. Have you ever had any problems with the frequency of tweets?
AJ At one point I was sending out around one an hour, and that proved a little too much for some, and I would get the occasional message about what I was doing up at 3am! So I would come clean and say I was sending some scheduled messages.
JW With a worldwide audience, and the way Twitter’s feed is strictly chronological, it makes sense. We had the same thing, again with the Obree book launch. We tweeted quite a lot, perhaps up to twice an hour, and for a small minority of people who were not following very many others, this was too much. So, in every case I’d contact them and explain why they were seeing so many posts and why we were doing it – all in 140 characters!
And the third tip?
AJ Don’t be afraid to go back to the drawing board. One of things you get from your fans on Facebook and other networks is that you’ll get feedback. You get people who love it, love it, love it, and those who hate it, hate it, hate it. In the middle is really useful feedback. And the other thing, and maybe I’m not phrasing this well, is that given the size of the app market there is room for the long tail. When we started, we would never have considered producing say, an app to help with bed wetting. But now, given the ubiquity of mobile devices and popularity of the app stores, that app will find a market.
JW It’s remarkable isn’t it, that you see not just young people but octogenarians glued to their smartphones on the bus. All in 6 years since the launch of the iPhone. A product that changed the phone market, spawned the app industry, and transformed your business.
You can find out about Andrew’s full range of MP3s, Apps and buy one of those original CDs from his web site: http://www.withandrewjohnson.com/which now looks like this: