Well, the year is coming to a close and for many, that’s probably a good thing. A lot has happened during the course of 2016 that impacts the apps, some of it pretty awesome, and some of it hasnt been great. That being said, there is still a lot to be happy about as the New Year begins, and I want to take some time to look back on 2016 and what there is to look forward to in 2017.
The Year of Expansion
I have said on this site a few times that a year in the apps is not a year in real time. Its like 10 years. It feels like all of the apps that Topps Digital offers have been around for a long time, but many got their time in the spotlight for 2016. I think the reception of a new app has been exciting leading up to the launch, but to say that all new ventures have been a rousing success is definitely not the case. Although its fun to get a new license into the mix, Topps hasnt always shown that they are good at getting a new app off the ground with the right plan in mind. Apps like WWE and Skate did a good job at taking things slowly with their attack plan, and have seen a steady increase in participation as the year progressed. Others dove in quite fast to direct purchase and sales, and it soured what might have been a better release.
I honestly believe that it might be a while before the next license is signed, as Topps is finally starting to realize the resources that are needed to make a new app work. In addition to content, staffing and maintenance are a huge part of the user experience. Topps looks to have understood that spreading a small team even more thin, probably isnt the best way to go about a new brand.
All in all, the design across all the Topps brands looks stronger than ever, despite the added stress likely put on the team. I am continually impressed by the level of artwork within each brand, as its clear that the team has staffed the right people to design the content in each app. The only issue I see is that there are only so many things you can do with shots from the Star Wars films, and only so many ways to boost a card in the sports apps. Eventually, the art will need to be a compliment to new functionality that hasnt come. Now that expansion is completed, hopefully both will be on the front burner again.
Rogue One Takes Center Stage
Raise your hand if you expected Rogue One to be as good as it was? All of you with your hands in the air are liars! I think that the apps were banking on a great performance of Rogue One content released in SWCT, and because of tempered expectations, it may not have originally gone over as well as it probably should have. The movie was amazing, and since that time, Rogue One cards in the app have been hot commodities.
With a trilogy movie on the horizon, its only a matter of time before we start the cycle over again. Now that the user base has been roused by the way they movie turned out, Im curious as to how this will play out on a continued stage for 2017.
I think that Rogue One’s success will spell very good things for the way upcoming movie content will be delivered, and Im excited to see how Topps’ physical content for the license will continue to play out across the digital realm.
If we continue to see positive growth in secondary market value, and a continued awesome performance in delivering the content as we have seen lately from the SWCT team, this could be the recipe we have all been waiting for. I have seen a shift in the way users are digesting what is being released, and I hope that continues.
Physical Products Feeding Into the Digital Apps
To start the year, Topps Series One Baseball had in app redemptions of cards that could be found in physical packs. This was introduced in 2015 with the 5x cards that were extremely limited pulls across both Series 1 and 2, and I was extremely happy to see it make it to the apps again for 2017. What I wasnt expecting was entire products that were based on the apps themselves, and how they would be done so that both communities of collectors would benefit from their release.
Starting with the Bunt product, we saw a lot of promise that kind of devolved into a mess with release. Cards that were supposed to be exclusive to the people ripping physical packs were delivered out to digital users, something that killed a lot of value in a product whose sole benefit was exclusivity. Eventually it was fixed, but not before the damage was already done.
It was somewhat made up for in the awesome contest structure that was delivered through the app itself, offering some rare physical prizes that were only available to people who had the app equivalent redemptions in their collection. Hopefully programs like that continue if the product is back for a second year.
I think the way the SWCT physical product hit shelves was impacted by the lessons learned from the Bunt product, and that was a huge positive note. I love the redemption tickets and the different ways the physical product interacts with the app. I also like that there is a lot more content that is connected to the app itself, as that was a huge let down in the Bunt side of things. I was hoping for much more connectivity, and only a select few cards were redeemable in the app. SWCT had a much different approach and that was awesome.
Most importantly, this is probably a street that Topps Digital is carefully treading down. On one hand, the success of the product on the physical side isnt going to directly drive revenue to SWCT. On the other side, this could introduce digital collectors into the physical pack ripping part of the business, and could make customers a bit more sticky with their brands. It could also have an impact of physcial collectors heading into digital for the first time. I dont envy this position at all, but hope it is all taken in stride as helping Topps as a whole instead of in fighting over who gets credit for any successes.
The New Build Spreads to All Titles
What started with Skate and Bunt has finally made its way across the apps, and so far the reaction has been mixed. Although the speed and memory requirements of the new iOS apps has been great, there has been a fair share of glitches and bugs that still need to be addressed.
That being said, its good that this type of shift is happening. We have already seen the use of video based digital trading cards in Skate, and hopefully those wont be the last we get. We also know from some newspaper articles and LinkedIn posts that Topps opened an office in Orlando that functions as a place to run these types of initiatives.
If I had to guess, Topps is trying to move to a homegrown app state that allows them to advance product development further and more quickly through an internal team. That is a positive progression that is definitely necessary.
My only complaint is that there was a direction involved that seemed to be rolling out the app took precedence over fixing some of the issues inherent to the build. Similarly, user feedback on some aspects of contests and other things needed to be addressed as well, and I just dont see that happening. I would love to see a fully baked idea in place for a small pilot of the apps instead of rolling out a 3/4ths baked idea to all the apps.
Looking Ahead to 2017
Things have definitely ramped up this year, and they have big shoes to fill in 2017. With all the different pieces in place, we are desperate for some true innovation that I dont believe has been seen in an inexcusable portion of time. Video cards are nice, but that should be the appetizer, not the entree. We need to see Topps make strides in shaping the future of the app, because new content delivered the same way as it has been for 3 years isnt going to move the needle next year.
If the apps are going to grow, and if the apps are going to stay relevant in a growing competitive marketplace, there are feature enhancements that cant be left to rot. Whether its the user showcase, new contest formats, or even a new look to the app itself, Topps cannot sit back on their laurels and hope to see revenue continue to come from their user base.
If anything, Topps is burdened with the need to provide REASON for users to keep buying. If its a new sig or a new boost, how long before the community just gets bored with the constant flow of new content without new features? Its a finite time, and that is guaranteed. With how far things have come in 2016, and the open space hopefully now provided by the new build rolling out across the portfolio, hopefully that means there are resources to build apps that can stand the test of time.
My volume on this issue has gone from a 2 to a 6 over the course of 2016, and it will grow increasingly louder if we dont see true changes that start to take place. I am a huge fan of what Topps has managed to do with their growing digital business, but choices made during next year will have lasting impact.
Things like a long term plan for user creation and new user onboarding has to be as much of a focus as product development. In its current state, most of the apps are a ginormous pill to swallow for any new user. Not only do you have a user base that literally despises trading with uninformed newbies, but the functionality of the apps is not intuitive in any way.
Let me put it this way, look at the luck and effort that needs to happen for one user to become a paying member of the community, something that Topps needs for the business to grow. First they have to find the apps, among the thousands that are out there. Then they have to download the app and register their account. They are immediately thrown headfirst into the fray with no real resources or education. Likely, their first few trades are laughed out of the building, and thats if they dont stumble on the negatively charged commentary in the articles. So, you have a 1 star rating, a lack of understanding of how things work, but content that is really cool. Odds are insane, so this is where things really get messy. Lets say all the previous stuff goes right, and they want to buy a bundle. Chance that they pull something other than base? Really a crap shoot. So, if they do become a buyer, there is maybe a 20% chance they stay a buyer, right? Im not sure. It just seems like a small percentage, but im sure Topps has all those numbers. At some point, new users and user retention has to be a bigger focus.
Which brings me to my last point. Customer service and user interaction is the one thing that Topps really has a PR issue with. Even if they do the right things and do what they can to service the needs of the community, the image they have around customer service and general interaction with users is piss poor. They made their own bed in a lot of ways with this situation, and I hope they are seriously considering a way to create a team whose sole purpose is community management.
Because new users are seen as a scourge rather than a benefit by many users in the app, community engagement is a way to make sure they dont lose hope. Moderators in the articles and trade hubs, twitter staff to make things more fun, and a presence by the producers in the community was a great thing in the past. All of that seems to have disappeared. No one monitors the way things go in the articles, and even fewer monitor the spam in the fan feed. Users are left to police themselves, and when scams and bans take hold, there is very little support to really get things under control.
Even with all of these challenges, I am still quite confident that 2017 will be a great year for the apps. I think that user voices need to stay on top of them to keep them honest, but they have a good team in place. Its just execution, and if execution is done at a high level, the sky is the limit.