Armed with the mantra of getting youngsters and young adults to get outside and play instead of staying indoors and playing video games, Just Football is a mobile app that brings together the physical and digital worlds.
The Swedish company combines real-life and mobile gaming through their app which allows players to compete in fun, on-pitch football challenges whilst bringing in big digital, gaming and social ingredients.
In this wide-ranging conversation we talked to company CEO Kasper Ljungstrom Skov.
Reading about your company from a couple years ago to now, the change that seems to have occurred is that there is a much heavier gamification focus. There seems to be a big investment into the augmented reality aspects of the app as well. Take me through some of the changes that have occurred?
Kasper Ljungstrom Skov: “The initial idea was to help people find other players nearby, locate an available pitch, arrange games, and we then wanted to add scorekeeping and leagues in the app as an extra layer. You could compare it to meetup.com, but for football. After testing the first version for a few months, we realised that the gamification aspect was an undiscovered market opportunity, and something especially young users absolutely loved. This was the point where we decided that we wanted to build an innovative product by combining real-life football activity with a mobile game. Users have since explained Just Football as ‘FIFA in real life’ or ‘PokemonGo for football’.”
It’s interesting that there is this merging of real and virtual gaming. Describe the merging of football activities and virtual gaming?
KLS: “If we look at applications in the field of fitness such as Strava and Nike Running, they are very focused on delivering pure statistics. I believe that apps can become more attractive by gamifying statistics – especially when targeting a younger audience. The app, Zombies Run, has been rather successful at creating a gamified running experience where you run in real life while being chased by zombies in your headphones, which pushes you to run faster in order to reach your next safe point in the game.
“Another app that is doing a great job at gamifying statistics is Duolingo. Instead of telling you to learn new words the old fashioned way, Duolingo entertainingly keeps score while you really get the satisfaction of levelling up through the progression ladder.
“We asked ourselves how we might apply some of the same ingredients to get young people to play more football instead of video games. It’s amazing to see how we can now send a push notification to our users saying they will get double points for the next two hours, and we instantly see thousands of players going to the football fields to play. This is possible due to the environment of Just Football where prestige, achievements, and performance matters in a new way.”
Just Football is available worldwide but you’ve really focussed on Sweden and the Netherlands. How do you decide what markets to enter?
KLS: “We’ve seen that it is crucial to understand the football culture before entering a new market. We’ve worked very hard to find the right local partners and often have people on the ground to give us better insights and feedback from the users in each market. This has meant that we’ve been able to partner with organisations such as Cruyff Foundation in The Netherlands, Generation PEP in Sweden, and DGI in Denmark, just to mention a few. We’re now looking to partner with clubs and brands around the world to boost growth internationally. We had a lot of plans around Euro 2020, which we’ve had to postpone due to COVID-19, and we’re now finding alternative channels to get the word out about Just Football during 2020.
“We’ve also been working on some exciting AR/AI features which will require rather new phone models, we have to take this into account when deciding on which markets to focus on. Therefore we do thorough research on potential markets such as phone penetration for our target age, access to mobile data, access to football pitches and, of course the general interest in football.”
While we’re talking about the coronavirus pandemic, how do you use this global crisis as a way of giving your company time to consider how you can innovate and change?
KLS: “It is a very unfortunate situation with COVID-19. The tragedy aside, we have noticed that the demand for our app has increased significantly. We try to adapt our strategy and work hard to have a finished product on the market earlier than expected. Our users have been requesting a single-player game mode so they can play at home and in their backyard by themselves. Without revealing too much about Just Football 2020, it is safe to say that this will be in the first release this year.
“The interest from brands and organisations has also been unprecedented and we’re excited about what the future of these might bring.”
With such a social based app and platform, how difficult of a challenge is it to overcome right now?
KLS: “Although Just Football and football generally are social activities, there are things you can do from home or on the pitch by yourself. For instance, we have had plans since last year to introduce a lot of different freestyle challenges in the 2020 version. We did this due to the high demand from our users to provide a single-player game mode. This obviously gives us an advantage in the current crisis so we can keep focus on delivering a quality product as opposed to having to change direction due to COVID-19.”
What keeps users sticky, what keeps users wanting to keep playing, challenging and progressing. What are some strategies to keep engagement strong?
KLS: “Last year we worked with improving social features such as push notifications based on your friends’ activities. We gained the understanding that our users cared about sharing their accomplishments within the app and on social media. We introduced ‘Team of the Week’ and ‘Player of the Month’ to promote and acknowledge users’ performances. It resulted in more satisfied and engaged app users who continue to use Just Football year after year.”
I’ve noticed those concepts lead your social media marketing as well.
KLS: “I remember how trends from school caught on at a rapid pace, like Pokemon. During this time, all we cared about was finding the rare Pokemon. We see similar patterns in our users’ lives and football communities as well. Our users want to be the best player in Just Football, and I believe this mentality becomes vital to why they become loyal and dedicated to our product.
“By connecting the Just Football game to social media, we tap into the existing behaviour of striving for recognition and status as a football player. Earning the right to exposure and fame has proven a strong driver for our users, so we decided to utilise existing social media platforms to extend our reach.”
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We’ve talked about the social and gaming aspects, but ultimately one of the big goals is boosting health and fitness. Describe how motivated you are, and the company, to lift the health and fitness standards of young people through Just Football?
KLS: “Combining technology, sports, and gamification drives and motivates me. The targeting of younger people makes it even more exciting. Our ultimate goal is to encourage a healthy lifestyle and finding a balance between screen time and physical activity.
“There are so many games and apps using psychological mechanics on their young audiences to keep them coming back to increase their time in front of the screen watching content and ads. I believe this becomes an unfortunate circle that is unsustainable for us app developers and society as a whole. We try to distinguish ourselves and contribute to the common good.”
There is a problem in thinking about where the next generation of fans is going to come from.
KLS: “I think that is an interesting question. Multiple football clubs and organisations have reached out to us and been telling us how they have been suffering due to a drop in young players and fans. Their concern is if their fanbase will get smaller when this generation grows up five, ten, twenty years from now, and that’s the foundation for much of their revenue and existence. Many see Just Football as a possible solution since our product is not only targeted at the best players, but is also getting non-footballers introduced to football. We’re currently doing a pilot program to integrate clubs, their players, and supporters into Just Football to increase fan engagement, player activity and give clubs a platform to communicate with their younger fans in a natural way.”
Given the complex change that we are all experiencing, what are some milestones you could hope to achieve as a company in the next 12 months?
KLS: “There have been a lot of changes for many companies in the last couple of weeks. Instead of seeing this as an obstacle, we see it as an opportunity where we believe Just Football can grow.
“High interest from brands and clubs have given us high expectations this year. We keep improving our strong partnerships and expect to grow our user base around the world to identify key markets for 2021. We are looking for partnerships where we can activate young people and keep building a sustainable business at the same time. We believe that our B2B arrangements will become a major revenue source soon as we continue to prove the value to our partners.”
How do you plan to improve the business model?
KLS: “B2B and strategic partnerships are our short-term strategy and focus. It could be sports brands, general advertisers, sports clubs, and associations.
“Our short term focus is on B2B and strategic partnerships – these can be clubs, organisations or commercial brands. This will lay the foundation for our product development and expansion strategy.
“In the long run, we believe B2C will be very successful. We are in the strong position of providing a product that parents would much rather support and pay for than buying another video game or skin in Fortnite. This is why our core values are so important, because it’s not only about what we offer, it’s why we offer it; to encourage physical activity and a healthy lifestyle in the digital world we live in.”