The Kimpact: How Celebrity Apps are changing mobile gaming
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The Kimpact: Celebrity apps are changing mobile games

Last edited: Sep 13, 2022 Published: May 19, 2016
Mixpanel Team

“One day, Britney Spears’ team approached us and asked if we could build them an app.” Tony Scherba, founding partner of Yeti, a San Francisco developer studio, was telling me about how he got his start in building websites and apps for celebrities while in college at a design studio in Boston.

It turns out, the music industry heavily depends on software engineers, then and now. “When new albums were about to drop, I’d do website redesigns for artists,” he said, rattling off names like Bob Dylan, Dave Matthews, Linkin Park, and Taking Back Sunday. Anyone who’s anyone was on the web back in the oughts. But mobile? That wasn’t really a thing yet.  And for Britney Spears? Huge. It was 2009, and still very early days for iPhones and the App Store.

There was only one problem. Tony confessed, “I didn’t know anything about mobile development.” But that didn’t stop him. “Yeah,” he remembered thinking, “I’ll learn how to build an app for Britney Spears.”

Flash forward nearly a decade later and Tony’s developer studio, Yeti, has created Chelsea Handler’s Gotta Go! App, which was featured on the comedian’s Netflix documentary series. Throughout his career in mobile, Tony has witnessed first hand how tech influences celebrity brands, and how celebrities influence tech.

As Tony can attest, there have been celebrity apps as long as there’s been an App Store, but it wasn’t until “Kim Kardashian: Hollywood” smashed its way to the top did the entertainment and gaming industry witness the magnitude of impact a celebrity brand could make on colliding industries. Kim Kardashian’s app was a tipping point for other celebrities to follow suit.

Today, celebrity apps aren’t just changing how developers build apps. These apps have upended the gaming market, and that market is (finally) women. Powered by largely female brands that don’t have an ounce of virtual blood or dragons, celebrity apps are now some of the biggest sources of revenue in the male-centric gaming market.

Despite what some call frivolous games (that destroy brain cells), mobile apps for female gamers are finally being recognized as a mainstream – and very profitable – market, and mobile developers can learn a lot about how brands with “star power” can ultimately lead to blockbuster mobile products, that break out of the crowded app store, and attract a broad base of users that keep coming back.

The Kimpact

When “Kim Kardashian: Hollywood” launched in the App Store in 2014, what seemed like a vanity app shocked the industry with recording-breaking numbers of downloads – and revenue. With more than 42 million downloads to date, “Kim Kardashian: Hollywood” shone a spotlight on a relatively quiet player, working behind the scenes. Glu Mobile, who produced the app, positioned itself as the strongest and most proven celebrity studio for mobile gaming.

As their largest title in Q4 2015, “Kim Kardashian: Hollywood” generated $13.6 million dollars in earnings, approximately 24% of Glu Mobile’s total revenue. As Christopher Locke, GM of Glu Canada revealed, the app’s core audiences are “fans of celebrity culture” and women ages 18 to 36.  

In “product-talk”, a public Slack channel, I asked a number of product managers what they thought of “Kim Kardashian: Hollywood.” Most of them believed it was a mere novelty and money-making scheme for the Kardashian empire. However, they didn’t seem to recognize the financial impact this and other celebrity apps are having on the greater industry, both for mobile advertising and what is now considered the table stakes for a successful mobile game.

Is Hollywood disrupting mobile distribution, and ultimately the application of Silicon Valley’s emerging technology? Completely. In spite of the hubris, using vanity as a product strategy, apps like “Kim Kardashian: Hollywood” illustrate how stars are in cahoots with mobile gaming, driving revenue with new delivery systems and using their celebrity to reinvent promotion in the mobile age.

The Celebrity App Industrial Complex

Whether it’s a “growth hack” or necessity to stay relevant, celebrities often experiment with new distribution channels to further their brands at all cost. What I learned was that the brands behind Kim Kardashian, Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj, Chelsea Handler, and the lot, are key drivers in what we’re calling The Celebrity App Industrial Complex.

In 2004, Maureen Orth, the Vanity Fair columnist, coined the Celebrity-Industrial Complex in her book The Importance of Being Famous. Similar to Orth, we see an analogous relationship trending between celebrities and the mobile app industry. With the The Celebrity App Industrial Complex we see both parties work together to reach new audiences and drive revenue.

Niccolo de Masi, President, CEO and Chairman of Glu Mobile, has cracked the code on what turns a celebrity app into a massive moneymaker, and he and Glu haven’t stopped at Kim.

In a 2015 fourth quarter earnings report, he told his shareholders, “We know this narrative roleplaying game mechanic [in Kim Kardashian: Hollywood] can generate pretty healthy lifetime values.” Translation?

Users, particularly women, like these games and they keep coming back for more. Glu and the celebrity rake in the cash, and this game represents a business model that could be replicated across many more celebrity partnerships. (If you’re interested in in-app purchases or monetization, keep reading!)

What’s unique about this phenomenon is actually not the game itself. “From a developer perspective, a lot of Glu Mobile’s games are fairly similar with the same mechanics within the apps,” Tony Scherba mentioned to me. Before they stamped Kim Kardashian’s brand on the game, Glu Mobile ironed out all the kinks to the addictive game loop with Stardom Hollywood. If you play Stardom, you’ll notice it’s basically the same game as Kim’s – just without the Kardashian overlay. It’s as if the studio white-labeled Stardom Hollywood, and then pumped out versions with a different celebrity as the headliner.

“I imagine Glu Mobile has a platform, and they’re partnering with the celebrities to do some type of revenue share,” he continued, which seems likely, considering “Katy Perry Pop” and Nicki Minaj’s anticipated game.

What Glu Mobile has shown is that a brand’s following and the business model behind the app can be a much more powerful driver of user acquisition and monetization than the actual mechanics within the game itself.

Most notably, Glu Mobile’s success (a la the The Celebrity App Industrial Complex) has inspired a land grab for mobile developers and celebrity brands to partner up and reach untapped markets in gaming, including women and other more mainstream audiences.  

A market to be reckoned with

The millions and millions of dollars generated from “Kim Kardashian: Hollywood” with mostly female users prove that women like to game. SNL even picked up on the trend, spoofing how Moms ravenously play video games more than their kids. 

And the data shows women play longer and will pay more for it than men.  A mobile analytics platform released information that women surpass men when it comes to both time and money spent on mobile gaming.

Not only are women a more receptive audience for downloads and in-app purchases, but women players have a 42% higher seven-day retention on average compared to male players.

What these numbers are pointing to, reports The Mary Sue (a guide to gaming for “geek girls”), is “an underserved market for games specifically geared toward women.”

It turns out keeping up with the Kardashians plagues not only our collective psyches – segue to Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s recurring bit, “Wait, how do I know that?” – but keeping pace with leaders also dominates the to-do lists for many celebrities. As more stars rush to build out their mobile presence, having an app will no longer be unique. Rather, it will be a must-have in order to stay on par with frenemies and reach the receptive female market.

Case in point, Glu Mobile recently announced Taylor Swift is partnering with them to launch a “highly differentiated mobile gaming experience.”  (Whatever that means.)

“There is uniquely strong interest in both [Taylor’s] music and life from all demographics,” he continued, which is a very corporate way of saying Swift has millions of squad wannabes. While Taylor Swift fans do come from all backgrounds, it’s important to note that the vast majority are young women.

But the The Celebrity App Industrial Complex hasn’t just influenced the market of mobile gaming.  Celebrities realize their brand can translate to mobile, and an app can be a new channel to strengthen their ties to their fans, no matter who or where they are.

Knowing this, mobile developers can see how building a strong brand is that “golden touch” that drives conversions and user acquisition.

Celebrity support group

“In a lot of cases I do think celebrities, like anyone, are following the dollars when they build a mobile app,” said Tony, the Yeti founder whose team created an app for the comedian Chelsea Handler. “Celebrities all have their own brand and a big part of working with them is using that brand and celebrity to attract an audience.” And they might have more uses for those eyeballs than just another game

“For example, Chelsea Handler’s Gotta Go! App is also a ‘celebrity app’ but in a different category since it’s not a game; we didn’t monetize it like ‘Kim Kardashian: Hollywood’,” he continued. Instead, Yeti’s developer team worked with the production studio behind Chelsea Handler’s documentary series on Netflix.  

“We sat down with their team, came up with the concept of this simple, fun app, and decided we’d launch it alongside the Netflix series, as a second screen experience to the show.”

It’s here where I saw the power of celebrity and the interplay between brands and use of technology. Sure, Handler’s app wasn’t a monetized game, but it was the subject and storyline of a show, and in part, helped bolster viewership numbers for the binge-worthy “television” series.  

“Chelsea’s moving from broadcast television to Netflix. Building this app was a bit of her exploring the different forms of media than the traditional ones,” added Tony.

Considering media is any celebrity’s lifeblood, it’s now imperative to be in the App and Google Play Store in order to keep a seat at the big table in Hollywood.  

But if you’re not building a celebrity app, what can you take from this development, especially when designing games and apps for women?  

The importance of building a brand

In a crowded mobile marketplace, branded content is vital in order to ensure your product stays alive, remains top of mind in a user’s digital routine, and doesn’t drop off into the home screen graveyard. 

According to App Annie, in 2015, branded titles represent 21% of the Top 100 grossing titles in the games category in the U.S. iTunes App Store.  A year before, branded titles took only 13% of the pie.

For early developers and entrepreneurs, it’s tempting to build an app before the brand is well known. However, the research shows the most prominent apps rise to the top when there’s a name someone recognizes.  

A household name like Taylor Swift is a perfect example of someone who has a built-in user base. “Arguably the most popular person in the world,” Masio said, “Taylor Swift’s app is expected to be just as successful as ‘Kim Kardashian: Hollywood’, if not more, considering Swift’s 220 million social followers and 40 million albums sold.”

The power behind building a brand before an app doesn’t just have to do with celebrities. In Silicon Valley, numerous successful companies, like Mattermark, Product Hunt, Uber and more, established their brand before their product, enabling them to preserve their popularity and still change or expand their offerings, shift their markets, and solve new problem sets.

Take theSkimm, for instance. The popular email newsletter rallied its readership of Skim’bassadors because of its wit and daily digest on current events, building and serving its loyal subscribers as the publication’s first priority. Once theSkimm acquired 1.5 million email subscribers, the newsletter launched as a mobile app in April 2016, and became the number one iOS News App, trumping reddit and CNN. This is a key example illustrating the importance of building a brand before building an app.

Without a doubt, branded content gives mobile apps more visibility, which increases user acquisition. It’s also about building a reputation people trust.

So before even conceiving an app, a good question for a founder, product manager or mobile developer to ask is, “Do we have a built-in user base?”

Star power drives revenue  

What mobile developers can’t contest is how branded content drives more revenue than non-branded content. Nearly all mobile games are built on a freemium model, with in-app purchases (averaging at $4.50)   used as a way to “enhance” a mobile experience.

With in-app purchases being the monetization strategy for Glu Mobile’s game, “Kim Kardashian: Hollywood” got away with astronomical in-app purchases, ranging from $1.99 to 39.99, which far exceeded the average “app enhancement.” And as Kimmy K. player Tracie Egan Morriessey from Jezebel can attest, it’s quite effective. Morriessey spent $494.04 on the game. So as Glu Mobile proved with mobile apps, the more influential a brand, the more the app can charge.

With the rush of celebrity apps, mobile publishers are just beginning to recognize the extent powerful brands have on pay-to-play methods, but it also goes with advertising. Masi, Glu Mobile’s CEO, announced that the studio will be integrating more and more ad units into these apps, throughout both early and later stage titles, as a way to drive even more revenue. So for mobile publishers with celebrity titles, this translates to rising real estate prices for your mobile ad space.

After building a household name amongst millennials, theSkimm has seen their email “real estate” rise in value, too. With 1.5 million active users per month and a 45% open rate on their emails, big brands such as the NBA, HBO and Netflix are paying to run native ads in the daily digest, which aims at “deconstructing the morning-show behavior.”

Witnessing how the Celebrity App Industrial Complex drives major revenue for all involved, building that “star power” is an asset that accrues dividends over time, whether it’s with a built-in audience, loyal fans primed to purchase, or a platform for promotions. With such influence, celebrities often encourage the broader consumer market to adopt emerging technology, too.  

Beyond the silver (mobile) screen

I wanted another insider’s point of view on celebrity mobile trends. So, I “took a meeting” (to borrow LA lingo) with Daniel Brunt, Mixpanel’s customer success marketing lead and co-producer of the Golden Globe-winning movie, Thank You For Smoking.

“Celebrities are pretty obsessed with their fans. It’s their livelihood, and stars are always looking for new ways to reach them,” he told me over iced teas in a SoMa courtyard. “So if you think about it, tech provides the channels and delivery systems, and celebrities bring content and the audience to drive revenue.” This got me thinking: to what extent will celebrities work with technology to reach their fans, and how far will fans go to reach their favorite celebs?

From tabloids to social media, to platforms like Being (a.k.a Eyes) where anyone can explore Instagram as if he were Justin Bieber or another A-Lister, we continue to see how the Celebrity App Industrial Complex at-large encourages celebrity-fan interactions to become more and more immersive.

So what did Tony Scherba of Yeti say when I asked where celebrities are headed after mobile?

“Virtual reality. After building out Chelsea Handler’s app, going down to LA, and taking a number of meetings, we know there’s a lot of movement in entertainment and virtual reality,” he said. “We’re hedging our bets that this will be a big new channel after mobile, which is why our team is experimenting with Tiny Eye, a VR app. It’s like a game of I Spy.”  But everyone is still figuring VR out, the Yeti founder said.

Experimenting is key in building out the next the blockbuster hit. As Glu Mobile proved, “Kim Kardashian: Hollywood” and other marquee titles rose to the top of the App Store because it learned from past models and set the latest trend before it became over-done.

As we’ve seen over time, celebrities partnering with technology will always be intrinsic to the entertainment business, testing new ways to reach fans and see what people are willing to pay for or pay attention to. So next time you’re tuning in to the red carpet, listen in for the star who not only plugs her designer’s dress but also her new app or virtual reality game.

Photographs from background imagery by Alan Light, Avatary Photos, and Shinya Suzuki are made available under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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