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Apps, relationships and the nature of money

By on July 12, 2013
Shared on CC license by mysza831 on Flickr
Shared on CC license by mysza831 on Flickr
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From Deputy Editor Zoya Street


On Wednesday this week, panellists at the Mobile Beat conference lamented the fact that Google had too few credit card details on file to monetise their users well. One day later, I got an email offering me a free ebook on Google Play.

The subject was chosen perfectly: a photography how-to for Android phones. I don’t know whether this particular campaign was chosen for me based on my search history, which I’m sure reveals me as a pretentious design wonk. In any case, I was eager to get a free book about photography, so I clicked the big green button with FREE written on it. And then Google asked for my card details.

I paused. Yes, the book was free. I was being charged a bill for $0. The bill didn’t look so different to those iTunes statements I get by email after downloading a free app. Nothing untoward here. After okaying the card details, I downloaded the book to my phone.

A quick glance at the product reviews showed that asking users for credit card details in return for a free gift had caused quite a stir, with 5-star reviews appearing to assure the writers of one-star reviews: ‘Nothing is charged to your account,’ ‘Google is not out to get you’. One-star reviews were not convinced: ‘Please, if it’s free you don’t need my credit card number.’

In the US, Google is trying to facilitate smoother mobile payments, and higher conversion rates, with a scheme called Google Wallet. Many people’s Google Wallets are empty: they have no cards in them. But the panellists at MobileBeat suggest that the problem with mobile payments–75% of shopping sessions on mobile drop-off before a payment is made, according to Aunkur Arya of Braintree–is not something to be solved with mobile wallets. John Collison of Stripe pointed out that when a mobile wallet functions well, nobody thinks of it as a mobile wallet; it is just another app. Uber, a service that hails cabs for you and pays them electronically, is not thought of as a wallet, but it enables seamless mobile payments with the frictionlessness that is sought from mobile wallets.

It’s widely believed that the reason Apple doesn’t have as serious a problem monetising its users is that most iPhone owners have a credit card associated with their account. I’d suggest that most iPhone users probably don’t think of their iTunes account as a mobile wallet: it began as a way to buy music. By the time the iPhone launched, mobile payments were only a password screen away. That account may be paying for microtransactions in other people’s apps, but it began as a relationship with Apple’s music store. It’s those kind of relationships that are enabling the commerce on iOS.

Not all of the users who felt uneasy at entering their credit card details into Google Play to get a free book were worrying about an immediate hidden cost for that photography guide. Some will have been aware that their relationship with Google was about to change–where Google had previously been a portal of information, now the relationship was becoming transactional. One purchase begets another, especially when the second is just a password screen away.

Still, Google’s generosity with this ebook shows that they might actually understand that mobile payments aren’t about wallets. They’re about relationships. It’s likely that on the whole, this freebie will have been a positive start to a lot of new relationships with potential customers, even if some of those relationships were soured by the collection of payment information.

App developers are learning about generosity following the example set by game developers. Jeff Drobick from Tapjoy pointed out, ‘most games have a virtual currency. Outside of gaming, that’s not always the case. That makes it harder to charge for premium content, because there aren’t ways for users to unlock that content for free.’ In his view, making it possible for users to unlock features for free doesn’t inhibit spending on those same features, but actually encourages it.

Your relationship with your players is the core of the mobile gaming funnel. That’s why generosity is one of the 15 Design Rules.

About Zoya Street

I’m responsible for all written content on the site. As a freelance journalist and historian, I write widely on how game design and development have changed in the past, how they will change in the future, and how that relates to society and culture as a whole. I’m working on a crowdfunded book about the Dreamcast, in which I treat three of the game-worlds it hosted as historical places. I also write at Pocketgamer.biz and The Borderhouse.