iPhone app business models improving

By Steve Outing

Recently, I’ve been noticing new iPhone apps coming to market that are adopting interesting business models. Generally, they can be categorized as using the “freemium” (or semi-freemium) model; i.e., they give away some valuable content and entice you to upgrade for more and better features.

1. This American Life iPhone app. … This app costs $2.99 to purchase, and what that gets you is well worth that small amount of money if you’re a fan of the public radio show (as I am):

  • All of the This American Life radio broadcasts from the most current to the program’s beginning in 1995, which are streamed to your phone. (In other words, you need to be in range of a cell-phone tower or wi-fi network.)
  • Easy search for old programs, including by contributor (e.g., David Sedaris, John Hodgman, et al).

The premium part of the model is if you would like to “own” any episode. You can download any program to your iPhone or iTouch (via Apple’s iTunes) for 99 cents, which you might want to do for a favorite episode to keep, or if you want to listen to several episodes on a car trip where you’re not likely to experience quality (or any) streaming.

This app is a great example of selling an app for a modest one-time fee, but also having a recurring revenue stream from the app. In this case, This American Life can make money from it’s 15-year archives with no work involved other than promoting the app to iPhone/iTouch owners.

2. Sports Illustrated Swimsuit 2010 iPhone app. I only downloaded this app to my phone to look at the business model, not the female models. :) Swimsuit 2010 is a mobile version of the infamous SI annual Swimsuit issue of the magazine, featuring photos and videos.

This is a full-on freemium app, since it’s free to download to your iPhone/iTouch. That gets you only the basics: single swimsuit photos of several (but not all) SI models, and several 1-minute videos.

SI (and Apple) will get your money if you want more. (No, I did not pay for the upgrade.) For $1.99, paid from within the app, it is upgraded to see multiple photos of all the swimsuit models, and all the videos.

Which model (business, that is) should you choose: Free download with paid upgrade from within the app? Or paid download with much more given away free, but upgrades still sold within the app?

I think it depends on your audience. This American Life is a great radio program with a small but dedicated audience. SI’s controversial annual Swimsuit Issue is a mass-market offering worth $1 billion-plus in revenue for the publisher.

It’s in SI’s interest to get the limited app on as many phones as possible, and hope that lots of them will spring for the $1.99 upgrade. (A few days ago, the Swimsuit app was seeing a 7.8% paid-upgrade success rate.)

For This American Life, its loyal fans are more likely to pay the $2.99 both to show support for the program, and because what you get for that price is pretty darn nice for the show’s fans. (I didn’t hesitate to buy the app when I first saw it promoted.) I’m betting that the show will make more money by asking an up-front fee for the app than if it gave it away free and upsold the content.

For SI, I believe it will make more money giving away the sparse free app and selling upgrades than if it tried to charge an upfront fee for the app.

I’m not sure that we’ll ever know in these two cases, but I’d like to see some research on most-lucrative mobile app charging strategies for content. Indeed, I hope to be doing that at the Digital Media Test Kitchen at CU-Boulder before too long. (Hint, hint… need funding.)

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!