How SwiftKey Gets Millions of Android Users to Buy Something None of Them Need
No Android users need SwiftKey. In fact, SwiftKey, an alternative keyboard system for Android-based smartphones, seems like one of the least-necessary apps in the Android ecosystem.
After all, every smartphone comes with a keyboard and at least some rudimentary language technology. Yet Swiftkey--a smartphone keyboard that adapts to how users write and predicts what they want to say--is the top ranked paid app in Google Play and is also licensed by top-tier phone makers, including BlackBerry.
At SXSW this past weekend, I caught up with SwiftKey CMO Joe Braidwood in the Austin Hilton lobby to find out what if any traditional marketing the tech company does to get Android users to pony up $3.99 for a better smartphone keyboard. Answer: not much. In fact, his trip to SXSW cost more than any media buy he's made -- and is more effective.
SwiftKey is one of many mobile startups that, along with Samsung and Google, are plying their wares in Austin, Tex., in a bid to gain to gain traction among early-adopters, tech opinion-makers and agencies. And like the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Apple is nowhere to be seen.
Paid downloads and licensing helped the SwiftKey's revenue reach seven figures in 2012. SwiftKey's chief competitor Swype was acquired by communication technology company Nuance in October 2011 for more than $100 million as a comparison.
This is all despite being shut out of Apple's App Store--iPhone users typically spend far more on apps than Android users--and spending only $20 on promoted Facebook posts and another "100 quid" on a recent Adwords campaign. The company's growth can be almost entirely attributed to its community management, its relationship with Google's mobile team and embedding itself with the tech community by way of attending events such as SXSW.
When SwiftKey noticed that one member of its online community was an especially active commenter on its VIP member board, for example, Mr. Braidwood hired him away from his job as a panini waiter to be the company's community manager. Likewise, the company integrates user suggestions into new iterations of its product.
"We empower everyone among our elite members to feel like they're really meaningful," Mr. Braidwood said. "They get early access to everything we build and they get to kick the tires on everything we build."
In SwiftKey's case, this has meant allowing its users to cut down on their finger-tapping time by recognizing their language patterns in various formats, auto-populating text fields accordingly. When posting to a friend's Facebook wall via an Android phone, SwiftKey knows what colloquialisms a user is likely to punch in. Likewise, the keyboard can help users maintain a more professional tone when drafting an office email. One user said that whenever he texts his wife, SwiftKey suggests "where are you" before a single letter is typed.
But it's the first part--SwiftKey not being allowed to bring its keyboard to the iPhone--that illustrates how Samsung and Google have used SXSW to engender themselves to the members of the mobile tech community that Apple has shunned. Samsung and Google--however complex their relationship may be--have made a point of reaching out to the mobile tech community and allowing them to improve their ecosystem of products while Apple has opted to keep its closed.
"What Google did with Android was it allowed you to choose any keyboard," Mr. Braidwood said. "That's one of the tenets of [Google's] open philosophy toward its operating system: You shouldn't control the user experience. And that's where Google stands directly against what Apple does."