Wednesday, September 19, 2012
StoryBots And The Future of Learning,With Gregg Spiridellis, JibJab
Story by Benjamin F. Kuo
What would Sesame Street look like, if it was created in the world of smartphones, tablets, and YouTube? It might look a little bit like StoryBots (www.storybots.com), the new kids educational and entertainment service just launched by JibJab (www.jibjab.com). We caught up with Gregg Spiridellis, one of the founders of JibJab, to hear about Storybots.
First, to catch up our readers on JibJab, can you quickly talk about where the company is nowadays and the whole greeting card business?
Gregg Spiridellis: Four years ago, we saw an opportunity to reinvent e-cards. We recognized that it was a large business, with American Greetings having about an 80 million dollar a year e-card business, and we thought we could bring some hipness and freshness to the category. So, we launched JibJab eCards. We've been able to build a really meaningful business there over the past number of years. One of the primary components of that business is personalization. Our product is called Starring You, which lets oyu put yourself into any video we create. You might have seen this in Elf Yourself or Star Wars Starring You, or Justin Bieber Starring You, as well as in our original stuff.
Both my brother and I are semi-recent dads. I've got a two, four, and six years old, and Evan has a four and a seven year old. We found our kids really love Starring You, and love seeing themselves or family members in videos. We started experimenting with it a little bit, and a little bit more than a year ago launched JibJab Jr books, personalized storybooks that they can put themselves into. Since then, it has become a top 10 grossing iPad app. Those books have the kids as the main character, and include their name as well. At the end of last year, we started making plans to really expand our kids' offerings. So, for all this year, we've been head downs creating StoryBots. StoryBots is our take on what Sesame Street would be if it were created today. It wouldn't be a twenty two minute television show, where you'd site down at some time to watch. Instead, it would be something you could bring to yourself anywhere, and lives anywhere. The mythology of StoryBots, is that they are these little creature who live behind our screens. They live in our iPads, in our iPhones, in our computers, on television, and have the mission of making learning fun for kids, and makes life easier for parents, and is content they can feel good about giving to their kids.
Can you talk about what StoryBots looks like now?
Gregg Spiridellis: We've got four products in the market right now. Our ABC video series are 26, one-minute songs about the letters of the alphabet. They are designed so that parents will love them too. The tracks on these are really great, and are not what you're used to seeing in kids songs. We use super fun tracks, and each video features the StoryBots, who help kids learn letters, identify what the shapes and sounds of the letters of the alphabet are. They're available on StoryBots, and on YouTube as well.
We also have StoryBots "Starring You" videos. On the web, parents can upload photos of themselves, family members, and friends, and put them into a video alongside the StoryBots, in classic kids songs. We have four free ones up right now on StoryBots. We also have an activity center, when parents can download printables. Those printables, ironically, get kids off of their computer and from in front of a screen, and instead let them sit at a kitchen table with crayons. Those include mazes, word finds, tracing, and coloring sheets.
We also have got Beep and Boop, a tool for encouraging good behavior in kids. They are two StoryBots, one named Beep, and another named Boop. When your kid does something good, they can earn a Beep, which counts towards a reward or prize that you, the parent, can define. Every time they get a Boop, it takes away a Beep, which moves them further away from their goal. I built the app for my own kids, and for my brother. We put it out in March with no promotion, and we now have seven thousand parents, eleven thousand kids, and 150,000 Beeps and Boops given out so far. It's very experimental, but it's doing really well.
You mentioned you've pulled together a big virtual team to put together your content, both for JibJab and Storybots. Can you talk about that?
Gregg Spiridellis: We're not only trying to reinvent story formats and distribution strategies, we're trying to reinvent the production model around content. The typical model, is to have lots of people in one place cranking out videos, animation, and programming. Instead, what we're doing is creating a network of artists, all over the world, creating content. For our ABC video series alone, we had people in Argentina, Italy, the UK, and here in house in Venice, and other places around the world, producing those videos. It's a way for us to take advantage of technology and the Internet, not just for distributing our content to our audience, but also for workflow and production systems, to enable us to engage the best talent all over the world.
You guys started as the quintessential viral video, but have now moved to more of a sustainable model. Can you tell us what you learned most about the whole business of content and the industry?
Gregg Spiridellis: We were producing viral video hits in 2005. That was pre-YouTube when we were really focused on that format. At the time, there wasn't a lot of noise in the system, and you could really build a brand with distribution. That was our goal with the initial, viral videos. We built a brand, and we still do that format--we produce a Year in Review every year in that two-minute, musical format--but the bottom line is, it's not a good business. The odds of becoming a hit with more and more content out there is going down, and even when you have a hit, the economics just don't work. If you have a hit, and it's a one-off video, where you don't have the ability to do a follow on, you might make $50,000. That's not a lot of money relative to the risk, effort, and cost that goes into producing that video. We see that linear, two minute short viral video format as a way to keep our brand out there, but it's more of a marketing expense and less that a source of revenue.
What's the big vision for StoryBots?
Gregg Spiridellis: Our vision for StoryBots is hundreds of apps, all focused on different areas of interest to kids, Pre-K and Kindergarten. We'd like to see every vertical of learning that kids are exposed to at any age, obviously the ABCs, the planets and the solar system, and things like learning to count money, learning musical notes. There is really a huge spectrum of vertical opportunities we think that we can create really fun, engaging experiences for kids, and where we can use StoryBots as a means for making it super fun.