How Cellfish developed a slam dunk iPhone app for the NBA

May 27, 2011

As you prepare to watch the Miami Heat take on the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 NBA Finals, you might want to tap into the NBA FanCam app before tip-off. Developed by Cellfish, the free app lets users take pictures of themselves that are then uniformed with gear from any desired NBA team. As detailed […]

As you prepare to watch the Miami Heat take on the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 NBA Finals, you might want to tap into the NBA FanCam app before tip-off.

Developed by Cellfish, the free app lets users take pictures of themselves that are then uniformed with gear from any desired NBA team. As detailed by Appolicious Advisor Dan Kricke, NBA FanCam “might just help you be that superfan” that still has posters and pennants up on their wall (at least virtually).

In this edition of Meet the Makers we sit down with mobile media pioneer and CellFish CEO Fabrice Sergent, a serial entrepreneur who started the company in 2004. Sergent discusses how CellFish secured a partnership with the NBA, how FanCam became a top selling free sports app, and the specific differences in creating and marketing apps on iOS versus Android.

Appolicious: Cellfish came into its own in 2006 — eons ago in the mobile media space.  How profoundly have the iOS and Android application platforms transformed your business?

Fabrice Sergent: The iOS and Android application platforms have transformed Cellfish’s business profoundly. A pioneer in the mobile media space since 2006, Cellfish had been focused primarily on feature phones. However, with the proliferation of other mobile device platforms, Android and iOS has incentivized us to rebuild our business models and marketing strategies. As our focus broadens to include smartphone-centric users, we have become more nimble in our innovation for building applications, implementing different marketing strategies and creating more exciting products. We have recognized the insatiable appetite – with ever-changing tastes – of smartphone users, and realize that we must differentiate ourselves from the crowded marketplace by appealing to their existing brand fanaticism. As a result, we strategically partnered with iconic brands that possess robust fan bases, affording us access to their millions of loyal followers.

APPO: As an early mover in both the Internet and mobile media industry, compare and contrast the climate today for mobile applications with what existed during the dot-com boom in the late nineties.

FS: The climate today for mobile applications is both similar and different with what existed during the dot-com boom in the late nineties. Whereas consumers didn’t even know what applications were less than a decade ago, there were few successful revenue-generating business models, despite the growing base of Internet users inflating the bubble. Today, we have a similar user base for mobile, but based on our ability to learn from why the dot-com bubble burst, there is the opportunity to create sound business models to maximize revenue. Mobile devices such as iPhones and Androids have revolutionized the industry, exploding it into mainstream consumer awareness and adoption.

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APPO: Last month you teamed up with the National Basketball Association to launch the NBA FanCam application.  How were you able to secure a partnership with the NBA?

FS: In Fall 2010, Cellfish acquired Airborne Mobile, a leading mobile-application publisher, which combined Cellfish’s original-content publishing activities with Airborne Mobile’s distribution of renowned brands, including the NBA. Immediately, Cellfish began focusing on creating and distributing branded mobile content for high-usage value.  However, we had to leverage and extend the existing NBA relationship that was part of the acquisition to also include smartphone applications. Within three days of launch on April 28th, the NBA FanCam application reached #1 in free sports apps, besting competing apps from WatchESPN, ESPN ScoreCenter and NFL Mobile. Even more noteworthy, the same app ranked 25th overall and generated 92,752 downloads since launch (as of 5/17/11).

APPO: What exactly do you mean by the term “fan-fueled” mobile content, and how do you plan to incorporate that into future apps?

FS: Instead of pre-packaged images and ring-tones, Cellfish offers users a platform to design and customize their own branded content, along with the unprecedented, in-app ability to share it with their social networks. Since launching in 2006, Cellfish has focused on music fans. Leveraging the global popularity of ring-tones, Cellfish created BlingTones, the world’s first wireless record label, featuring exclusive, original content for fans. Over the past two years with the proliferation of smartphones, Cellfish has evolved with more engaging, exclusive, “fan-fueled” content beyond music fans through the recent acquisition of Airborne Studios. Today, Cellfish targets television fans (FOX’s Family Guy, The Cleveland Show) and sports fans (NBA, NHL, NFL, NFLPA). Through these exclusive licensing agreements, Cellfish offers Android and iPhone apps, videos and widgets. The recent convergence between mobile and social finally enables fans to share their passions with other fans via their mobile devices.

APPO: Are there any plans to bring NBA FanCam to Android users?

FS: Yes, bringing the NBA FanCam app to Android users in time for next season is in our Fall 2011 road-map.

APPO: Describe the challenges and opportunities that exist developing apps for both the Android and iOS platforms.

FS: Because Android and Apple are different platforms in development, monetization and regulation, we had to quickly determine ways for minimizing and balancing the differences to best maximize the strengths of each. Many developers currently focus on iOS only, but we immediately embraced both platforms in order to reach the largest audience.

More specifically, for Android: The cost of developing and designing for more than one handset type and manufacturer is challenging. From a marketing standpoint, the lack of a unified application store for Android makes it difficult to cross-promote, upsell, etc. For example, we have apps in the Android Market that also are being sold on Verizon’s V Cast App Store and Amazon’s storefront. As these apps are all available on the same handset, it can create consumer confusion.

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More specifically, for Apple: That said, the application review process is much stricter with Apple. While it is challenging to target a specific launch date with Apple, it certainly protects us against probable brand infringement. In the Android Market, there are hundreds of cases of brand infringement every day, and it’s often a struggle to reconcile them.

APPO: For an app like NBA FanCam, after the initial buzz and publicity, what do you do to drive downloads and keep momentum going over time?

FS: For driving downloads and maintaining momentum, Cellfish is harnessing and integrating mobile and social media. The NBA has integrated our NBA FanCam app into their social, mobile and application media, which delivers constant users to our apps, allowing them to upload photos to their personal Facebook wall to be shared with friends. Additionally, the NBA FanCam app allows users to post to the NBA Wall, enabling consumers to share their photos with the NBA’s 8 million fans, while creating a perpetual stream of social traffic (down the road, this can be expanded to the 30 individual teams, reaching 18+ million fans). Moreover, the NBA is promoting its partnership with Cellfish via Facebook posts, tweets via the NBA and its 30 teams, NBA website, NBA mobile site, NBA GameTime app and NBA SMS alerts. The consumer call-to-action is to download content such as applications, wallpaper, themes and ring-tones, available on iPhone, Android, Blackberry and Java- and BREW-feature phones.

APPO: What are the three biggest things that keep you up at night in the mobile media space?

  • How can mobile media play a greater role in charities’ donor outreach efforts?

  • With mobile content discoverability in its infancy, how and when will it evolve?

  • With broadband access being cost-prohibitive in developing countries, will smartphones soon become globally ubiquitous?

APPO: What’s next for you and your company?

FS: With 100 percent growth year-over-year of smartphone sales in the U.S. and close to 50 percent penetration, the market is close to a tipping point. More importantly, social media is growing rapidly, and is increasingly being accessed via mobile phones. The convergence between mobile and social is most exciting to Cellfish as it continues to position itself at this crossroads with applications maximizing both of these technologies.

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Brad Spirrison

Brad Spirrison is the managing editor of appoLearning and Appolicious Inc. In this capacity, he has sampled and evaluated thousands of iOS and Android applications. He also holds an M.A. in Education and Media Ecology from New York University.

Spirrison worked in concert with appoLearning Expert and Instructional Technology Specialist Leslie Morris while curating and evaluating educational applications.

A longtime media and technology commentator and executive, Spirrison is also a regular contributor to ABC News, The Huffington Post, TechCrunch, Bloomberg West and The Christopher Gabriel Program.

Spirrison is married and lives with his wife and young son in Chicago. As his son was born just weeks before the debut of the iPad, Spirrison takes his work home with him and regularly samples and enjoys a variety of educational applications for young children.

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