Fresh & New(er)

discussion of issues around digital media and museums by Seb Chan

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A new Powerhouse Walking Tours App and a Q&A with Glen Barnes

July 20th, 2011 by Seb Chan

About a month ago our second walking tour App went live in the AppStore and was promptly featured by Apple leading to a rapid spike in downloads.

The Powerhouse Museum Walking Tours App is a free download, unlike our Sydney Observatory App, and it comes pre-packaged with two tours of the suburbs surrounding the Museum – Pyrmont and Ultimo. Both these tours are narrated by curator Erika Dicker and were put together by Erika and Irma Havlicek (who did the Sydney Observatory one) based on an old printed tour by curator Anni Turnbull.

Neither Pyrmont or Ultimo are suburbs that are likely to be attracting the average tourist so we felt that they should be free (as opposed to the Sydney Observatory one) inclusions with the App.

Additionally, as an in-App purchase you can buy a really great tour of historic Sydney pubs around the CBD written and narrated by Charles Pickett. We’re experimenting with this ‘freemium’ approach to see what happens – especially in comparison to the Observatory tour which requires an upfront payment. So, for a total of AU$1.99 the buyer can get the two included tours and the pubs tour.

So how’s it going?

As of last week we’d had 1,437 downloads of the free App with the two included tours since launch on June 13. 13 of the 1,437 have made the decision to go with the in-App purchase (that’s a upgrade conversion rate of less than 1%). We started getting featured on the AppStore on June 25 and the downloads spiked but there was no effect on in-App purchases. In comparison, the priced Sydney Observatory tour has sold 53 copies since launch a few weeks earlier on May 23.

We’re pretty happy with the results so far despite the low in-App conversions and we’re yet to do any serious promotion beyond that which has come our way via the AppStore. We’re also going to be trying a few other freemium upgrades as we do know that the market for a tour of Sydney pubs is both smaller and different to that of more general historical tours. You’re unlikely to see families taking their kids around Sydney’s pubs, for example.

We even had an unsolicited review from local blogger Penultimo –

We learned a few things very quickly – mostly about our own expectations. The first was this: it’s not going to be like a museum audio tour. The Powerhouse Museum did not pay a professional audio-speaker to make these tours. This means they have a kind of nice, very slightly amateur feel to them. At first this felt a little strange, but we got used to it.

Glen Barnes gets inspired about outdoor mobile tours during a visit to Pompeii 2003

Glen Barnes runs MyTours, the company behind the software platform we’ve been using to make these tour Apps. Since KiwiFoo, Glen and I had been conversing on and offline about a lot of tour-related issues and I got him to recount some of these conversations in a Q&A.

F&N: My Tours has been very easy for non-technical staff to build, prototype and test tours with. How diverse is the current user base? What are some of the smallest organisations using it?

We’ve got about 26 apps out right now covering 3 main areas:

– Tourism boards and destination marketing organisations (Positively Wellington Tourism in New Zealand and the St Andrews Partnership in Scotland)
– Museums and cultural institutions (Powerhouse Museum, Invisible City Audio Tours, Audio Tours Australia and Invisible City Audio Tours App mainly because the content is great and the they’ve spent a lot of time on the stories, photos and audio. (Did you know that people used to sink ships of San Francisco so they could claim the land over the top of them when it got reclaimed? How awesome is that!)

Invisible City App

I think a good tour has to have something to hold it all together – putting pins on a map just simply doesn’t cut it and neither does copying and pasting from Wikipedia.

I’m also a big fan of real people talking about their experiences or their expertise and this was really bought home to me when I meet Krissy Clark from Stories Everywhere at Foo Camp a couple of months ago. We went exploring out into the orchard and ‘stumbled’ across a song that was written about the place by a passing musician. The combination of the story and the song really took me back to what it must have been like in the middle of the hippy era.

Of course a great story is no good if people can’t find it. Promotion is key to any app.

I think this is one area where organisations really have to start working with local tourism boards and businesses. If you are from a smaller area then band together and release one app covering the local heritage trail, museum and gardens. The tourism organisations tend to have more of a budget to promote the area and by working together you can help stand out amongst the sea of apps that are out there. Also make sure that you tell people about it and don’t rely on the app stores. Get links of blogs, the local newspaper and in real life (Welly Walks had a full page article in a major newspaper, two more articles and a spot in KiaOra magazine). Talk to people and make sure the local hotels and others who recommend places-to-go know about what you are doing.

F&N: Do you see My Tours as creating a new audiences for walking tours or helping transition existing printed tours to digital? I’m especially interested to know your thoughts on whether this is a transition or whether there might actually be a broader market for tours?

We fit the bill perfectly for transitioning existing printed tours to the mobile space but that is definitely only the start. It is easy to do and creates a first step in creating more engaging content. A criticism some people make is that some of the tour apps don’t have audio – but in reality audio can be expensive to produce. I don’t mean we shouldn’t strive for the best but I would rather see some tours out there and made accessible than not published at all. Also if a few new people who wouldn’t dream of going to the library to pick up a walking tour brochure or booking a tour with the local historical society get interested enough to spend their Sunday exploring the town then that is good enough for me.

F&N: Here at PHM we’re trying both a Freemium and an upfront payment model for the two apps we have running. How have you seen these models work across other My Tours products?

We’ve tried to experiment a bit with different pricing models both for our own pricing and the app pricing. In-app purchasing hasn’t really taken off just yet and I’m not sure how this is going to work long term for this type of content. I’m hopeful that as more people become used to paying for things like magazine subscriptions through apps simple In-App purchases should become the norm for content just as it is for in-game upgrades. My main advice would be that if you can give the app away for free then do it as your content will spread a lot further that way. One way of doing this would be to get sponsorship for the app or some other form of payment not directly from the users.

F&N: What are the essential ingredients to having a chance of making a Freemium model work?

For any app you have to provide value off the bat to have any chance at all. For example you can’t give away an app and then charge for all of the content within – You will get 1 star reviews on the store straight away. Apart from that are you offering something that someone just has to have? That is a big call in the GLAM sector but if anyone has ideas of what content that is I would love to hear about it!

F&N: I was struck by My Tours affordability compared to many other mobile tour-builders. Do you think you’ve come at the ‘mobile tours’ world from leftfield? What assumptions have you overturned by being from outside the ‘tour scene’?

When we started we didn’t really look at any other solutions (as far as I know we were working on My Tours before anyone else had a completely web based tour builder like ours). I think we also did a few things with our tour builder that are a bit different because we hadn’t come from within the tour ‘scene’. The whole idea of having to upload ‘assets’ to your ‘library’ before even getting started just seemed a bit weird and convoluted to me so we we just let people add images and audio directly to the stops as they needed them. Also opening up the tour builder to anyone without them having to sit through a sales pitch from me was a first – I see no reason why you have to qualify people before they even kick the tyres.

We also challenged the assumptions that apps were only available to those with lots of money. The internet has this amazing ability to put everyone on an equal footing and let everybody’s voice be heard. This doesn’t mean that all voices are perfect but what it does mean is that money isn’t the measure of quality. Put another way there is no reason why the Kauri Museum shouldn’t have their own app just like the MoMA. It might not have all of the bells and whistles of an app from a major museum but at the same time it won’t take a hundred thousand dollars to develop.

It is interesting to look in more detail at pricing. We approached pricing by looking at a couple of other generic app builders and also looking at what value we provide. We’ve based the value proposition on the number of downloads that most of our apps will receive. Welly Walks is doing around 30-50 downloads a week which means they are paying around 30-50 cents for each app that gets downloaded. That is great value for them. Other apps are not getting quite so many downloads. If you are a smaller organisation you may only get 10 a week and the price per app is $1.50-$2 which still seems OK.

Looking at the charging models for some other tour builders and at those same download rates over a 2 year period you’d be looking at $11 and $16 an app for 10 downloads a week or $2.50 and $3.50 for 50 downloads a week. Of course, there are other factors apart from cost per download that come into it (For example renting the devices on site) but the bottom line is “Are we getting value for money?”. We may add in different pricing tiers as we add more features but I expect this will be around how deep you want to go with customising the look and feel of the app – custom theming for example.

F&N: I was really impressed to see that you had been implementing TourML import/export.

TourML to just seems like a no brainer. To me it serves 2 purposes. 1) To enable organisations to export/backup their data from a vendors system in a known format and 2) Allow content to be easily shared between different platforms.

Now some vendors want to lock you into their system and their way of doing things and they try and make it hard to leave. Instead we started from scratch building our company based on the modern practice of monthly charging and no long term contracts. As they say, “you’re only as good as your last release” and this keeps pushing us to build a better product. And while we don’t have the TourML export in the interface yet (the standard isn’t at that stage where we feel comfortable putting all of the finishing touches on our proof of concept) we see no reason why people who want to move on should not have access to the data – after all it is theirs.

We also want to see content available on more devices and pushed out to more people. Isn’t the whole point of the GLAM sector to enable access to our cultural heritage? By having an open format it means that a tour may end up on devices that are too niche for the museums to support internally (Blackberry anyone?).

F&N: What do you think about ‘augmented reality’ in tours? Do you see MyTours exploring that down the track?

I’ve got a love/hate relationship with AR. On the one hand I really want it to work but on the other I have never actually seen it work.

I think two examples show this clearly.

On a trip to London last year I was looking forward to trying the Museum of London’s award winning Streetmuseum app which places various historical photographs around the city. But having done so I came away with a couple of nagging issues. I never once got a lock on an image actually hovering over the correct location (even at which has a wide open sky due to the construction of the new crosslink tunnel). Here’s a screengrab from my phone where you will see the photo is way off the mark.

The second unfavourable experience with Streetmuseum was less technical and more a psychological issue – I actually felt really vulnerable standing in the middle of touristy London holding up my iPhone with my pockets exposed. I was always conscious of a snatch and grab or a pickpocket.

The second example was during Museums and the Web 2011 where Azavea held a Walking tour of Historic Philadelphia.

A group of about 15-20 of us set off with the PhillyHistory.org mobile app and walked around the city looking at various sights. It only took about 10 minutes before our devices were tucked firmly back in the pocket as we couldn’t really get it to work reliably – and this is from 20 dedicated museum and mobile practitioners! Let me point out that I don’t think it was a bad implementation of the current technology (they really have a bunch of talented people working there), I just think that the technology isn’t ready. You can download a whitepaper from Azavea on the project from their website which goes into some of the issues they faced and their approach.

I think there are some opportunities around where it does make sense but the outdoor ‘tour’ space I don’t think is one of them (yet). So will we be adding AR to My Tours? Not any time soon in the traditional sense but if someone can show me something adds value down the road? Sure.

F&N:You are also really committed to open access to civic data. How do you see commercial models adapting to the changes being brought through open access?

I’m a big Open Data fan (I helped found Open New Zealand). I’m not sure where that came from but I got interested in open source in 1999 when Linux was starting to take off and I just loved the way that many people working together could build tools that in a lot of instances were better than their commercial equivalents. I’ve also worked for companies where there were a lot of manual tasks and a lot of wasted human effort. Open Data means that we can all work together to build something greater than the sum of its parts with the understanding that we can both get a shared value out of the results. It also means that people can build tools and services on top of this data to without spending days trying to get permission before they even start and can instead focus on providing real value to others. I’m really proud of the work myself and the other Open Data folk are doing in NZ. We’ve got a great relationship with those within government and we are starting to see some real changes taking place.

How will companies adapt to this? If you are charging money through limiting access to content then you will no longer have a business. When you think about it how did we ever get in a situation where businesses produced content and then licensed this under restrictive licenses back to the organisations that paid for it in the first place? If you commission an audio track then you should own it and be free to do what you like with it. Mobile? Web? CC licensed? That should all be fine. Therefore the value that the producer adds is where the business model is. For My Tours, that is in providing an easy to use platform where we take all of the hassle out of the technical side of the app development process – you don’t need a ‘computer guy’ and a server to set up a TAP instance. That is what we are experts in and that is what we will continue to focus on.

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