HarperCollins' 'bridge into the books' behind 'Game of Thrones'

HarperCollins' 'bridge into the books' behind 'Game of Thrones'

Game of Thrones viewers? "We discovered that this particular group of TV fans were unaware of how much they had to look forward to from the books," writes HarperCollins' Emily Labram. She and her team set about to create an app that, in a sense, reverse-engineers the fandom of the television show's huge popularity, directing them to the wealth of information and entertainment in George R.R. Martin's books. The result can be seen here, at the iTunes store. "We wondered whether we could provide a bridge into the books for these fans." And after a highly iterative, "agile" process, it seems she has her answer.—Porter Anderson


Inspiration

Since the Game of Thrones TV show first aired in 2011, HarperCollins has been blessed with a huge new audience to introduce to George R.R. Martin’s wonderful series, A Song of Ice and Fire.

Digital products, in the form of apps and websites, have been part of our campaigns from the outset: we launched a free sampler app in 2012, which accrued 300,000 downloads over the years.

But fast-forward to 2015 and we knew we could do more. Our old app no longer met the needs of Game of Thrones fans, and it didn’t offer them enough to sign in for with email or social–a real priority in a mobile age, when direct and sustainable relationships with readers are at such a premium. With several TV seasons of Game of Thrones still to air, we decided to start afresh.

So in March this year, the HarperCollins product team embarked on a phase of discovery. Could we meet a need for Game of Thrones TV fans, using only the rights to our book content, significantly and delightfully better than the alternatives?

Two focus groups later, one key finding emerged:

“Some Game of Thrones TV fans may be initially daunted by the size of the books. But once they start reading, the barrier dissipates quickly."

We discovered that this particular group of TV fans were unaware of how much they had to look forward to from the books:

  • The insight into favourite characters allowed by the point-of-view style;
  • The sheer page-turning pleasure of the writing;
  • The many scenes and storylines that haven’t yet appeared in the show.

We wondered whether we could provide a bridge into the books for these fans: an app that showcased the reading experience by offering some of the most iconic moments from the show, spoiler-free and tailored to their progress.

The idea played to our advantage in owning rights to the books–and it improved upon the existing ways of sampling them: free ebook samples of only the first chapter, for example.

We hypothesised that by giving generously (nearly six hours of reading time), we would entice more than 50 percent of readers into signing in with email, thus enabling us to begin a lasting relationship with them on behalf of our author.

Process

Working with Reason, an excellent product design studio, we built a simple, clickable prototype of the app in five days. After putting this to Internal stakeholders and a small group of fans, we were energised: the business needs were met; and the fans responded enthusiastically.

The app itself came together in three months. A huge editorial curation job was needed to choose and introduce samples from across the 5,000-page book series. I kept in touch with Reason through daily ‘stand-up’ calls and presented back to the HarperCollins team in ‘sprint demos’ every fortnight. We also responded continually to feedback from user testing. Moments of confusion or frustration from readers would turn into ‘user stories’, which we would address through copy, design and engineering changes.

Outcomes

On launch, Apple featured the app in "Best New Apps" in more than 100 countries, resulting in 20,000 downloads in the first three weeks. Given we launched off-season for Game of Thrones (the TV is every spring), this was a real boon. Our key metric was conversion to sign-in. This is optional but surpassed our target at over 50 percent. It’s a really pleasing start and we are readying for next spring, when we expect from our previous app that downloads will soar again.

The best result of all was the response from users, who loved the concept and also found the app a pleasure to use. All our editorial and design work focused on helping TV fans to jump into the story at different entry points without getting confused– from the design, themed by TV season, to the specially written plot recaps and maps. When this resulted in five star reviews, we knew we had a product that would reward further investment. 

Learnings

Overall, the success of the app gives us real confidence in our product process. We now conduct at least a week-long "discovery phase" before committing to development, and we don’t build until we know we’ve found a genuine need to meet with our authors’ content.

If there’s one thing I’d love to have included in Version 1, it’s a way of enabling readers to enthuse to others from within the app; but this is planned for down the line.

From the effectiveness of usability testing to the challenges of working according to the principles of "agile" product development, there were many more insights along the way–and I look forward to sharing these at the FutureBook Conference.