Speakaboos: A Case of Story Time

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THE PROBLEM IN DEPTH
The Arthur Celebrity Audiobook proved a hit with children, parents, and teachers when it debuted. The quality of its audio tracks—including readings by actor Kevin Bacon, talk show host Kelly Ripa, and singer Clay Aiken—and its supplementary educational materials earned a No. 4 ranking on Amazon.com’s books Bestsellers list and a Teacher’s Choice Award from children’s book publisher Scholastic Corp. The title’s success, combined with recognition within the company of "the potential of digital distribution," ultimately inspired the Stories for Heroes team to add animated illustrations to the Arthur audio tracks "to more closely mimic a storybook reading experience," Millholt says, and to make it and other children’s titles available online for "anytime, anywhere viewing."

Over the next year and a half, the company recruited and recorded additional celebrity readers for videos of iconic stories by Aesop, Hans Christian Andersen, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, "Mother Goose," and other authors; commissioned original artwork from professional illustrators; and changed its name to Speakaboos. Behind the scenes, its creative team worked to develop a fully featured website that would include dozens of storybook videos; supplemental work sheets, arts-and-crafts projects, and story guides; and fun diversions such as games, e-cards, printable coloring books, and story-writing contests. Besides making the videos available for free online viewing, Speakaboos wanted to give site visitors the option to download single tracks for 99 cents or albums (collections of stories) for $8.99, with no associated taxes or fees, for playback on computers and portable media players or for burning to DVDs.

While researching solutions that could administer such transactions, product manager Ronit Shaham and her team discovered that most traditional payment gateways charged processing fees that were too expensive for Speakaboos’ business model. They also were dismayed to find that options such as Amazon.com and PayPal were pricey and complex, lacked transparency, and offered poor customer service. And so began the hunt for a flexible platform that would support micropayments and macropayments, charge reasonable fees, integrate seamlessly with the site they’d spent so much time developing, and, above all else, be transparent.

THE SOLUTION
By March 2008, Shaham’s team had researched and was ready to sign a contract with Javien Digital Payment Solutions. Javien’s ecommerce platform—the Javien Total Commerce Solution—includes built-in support for online and off-deck mobile sales of digital content. It also leverages the company’s patented micropayment technology to aggregate and batch transactions according to various business rules, adapting those rules, when needed, based on an individual buyer’s behavior or the collective behavior of a category of individuals over time.

According to CEO Leslie Poole, Javien’s core platform "was built as a ‘Software as a Service’ [SaaS] offering long before SaaS or cloud computing became the hot topic." The approach "was most efficient from a development standpoint," he continues, "allowing us to support our customers more easily and to streamline our processes. Through web services, application programming interface (API) customers can implement the platform quickly, for a speed-to-market advantage. And upgrades are naturally built into the process, so the newest features are available without additional implementation expense." With Javien, he adds, "merchants don’t assume the cost of Payment Card Industry (PCI) compliance, which can be a very expensive proposition."

Features that "bolt on" to Javien DPS (the core transaction engine) allow merchants to offer subscriptions, pay-per-view, and pay-per-download, while various e-wallet features allow consumers to set up accounts for themselves and others; take advantage of coupons, promotions, and gift certificates; earn referral points; receive payouts of real or virtual currencies; and pay off items through a variety of alternative payment methods and international currencies. With Javien New Media Gateway, merchants can choose one of several payment gateways with which Javien is certified or can opt to use multiple gateways to support their ecommerce efforts. "We believe the merchant wins when the consumer has choices," Poole says of this capability. With Javien Micropay, merchants pay fewer transaction fees because high volumes of small purchases are aggregated before they’re sent for processing.

"Javien’s solution was the only one we found that could help us with our micropayments," Shaham says of Speakaboos’ decision to partner with the company. "We have a business model similar to that of iTunes, where each product is sold for 99 cents. We can’t afford to pay the additional fees and charges that we would incur on individual sales of our stories." Plus, she adds, "Javien securely manages our customers’ sensitive credit card information," making it possible for repeat customers to enjoy a one-click transaction on future purchases.

According to Millholt, the process of customizing and implementing the Javien Total Commerce Solution began in May 2008. "We use Javien as a gateway only, with all front-end services managed by Speakaboos," she explains. "We process through PayPal, as well as through Optimal Payments. For the customer, the purchasing experience is transparent: The shopping cart looks and feels like the rest of the site, and email communications come from Speakaboos."
    
THE OUTCOME
Speakaboos launched the beta version of its website to the NEA and educational institutions in July 2008 and to the general public that October. In its first 3 months of operation, the site had 35 titles available for viewing and downloading; by year’s end, that number had grown to 65. Thanks to the outreach efforts of The Creative Coalition, Millholt says celebrities are "eager to work with Speakaboos because of the fun and educational nature of the stories and because a portion of the proceeds goes to charities that benefit children." (Indeed, the roster of readers now includes rapper/actor Nick Cannon, comedian/actor Harry Shearer, and actress Kerry Washington, among others.)

Given the site’s relative infancy, Millholt demurs when asked about the number of transactions completed to date, but she says she expects site traffic and download numbers to "grow exponentially" as additional "marketing and distribution partnerships" are solidified. Speakaboos’ YouTube channel and Facebook page—also launched last year—should help build name recognition as well.

Since its rollout, the site has grown to include an online diary tool that, according to the Speakaboos blog, "will help children develop proper speech, language, and writing skills." This month the site will unveil "Record Your Own," a feature that allows visitors to record their own voices reading and singing their favorite stories; Kid’s Karaoke; and a "Kidipedia" encyclopedia akin to Wikipedia. And in late 2009, Speakaboos hopes to leverage the Javien platform to make subscription-based purchases possible. New storybook videos, songs, games, and ancillary content also will be added on an ongoing basis to deliver what the company hopes will be "the best possible storytelling environment for children, parents, and teachers on the web."

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