For award-winning ad man Tom Darbyshire, white-labelling an audio tour app seemed like the perfect way to find an audience for his New York City walking tours. “It sounds cool to have your own app,” he says, “but I didn’t anticipate the headaches”.
Marketing was turning into a fulltime job. Tom also found GPS playback unreliable. At the beginning of 2022, he decided to try moving one of his tours over to VoiceMap, where he publishes as TellBetter. GPS playback worked well. Tom became “a GPS convert” and moved the rest of his tours across. When he crunched the numbers at the end of 2022, he realised VoiceMap was responsible for 83% of annual sales.
Tom Darbyshire grew up in the Deep South, with storytelling in his DNA. He took his talent to the world’s most creatively awarded ad agency where he became Executive Creative Director, helping many of the world’s most famous brands to tell their stories. Twenty-five years and an Emmy nomination later, Tom saw no reason to stop storytelling when he took early retirement.
One day, after years of commuting into the city, he felt a tug of curiosity about parts of New York that he’d passed through so often, but never really stopped to learn about. He took a few guided tours of the Rockefeller Centre and each time felt he could have done better himself. This was the spark that ignited Tom’s new mission: to create audio walking tours that offered listeners an experience more memorable and moving than anything he’d so far encountered in New York City.
Before he knew it, he was enjoying the process so much that his retirement project more closely resembled a new job. His dedication to the craft was just one reason that this new pursuit was taking up so much of his time. Finding an audience for his audio tours and his new app also came with plenty of work that had nothing to do with storytelling. He wasn’t motivated by money, but if he didn’t do any marketing, people wouldn’t find his tours, and he’d be no closer to his goal of sharing them with the world.
He decided to give publishing tours on VoiceMap a try, using VoiceMap’s Basic Plan, which has no upfront or recurring costs. He found VoiceMap tours to be a better product that is easier to make and distribute, with better results. He was persuaded to try VoiceMap’s GPS playback, which he hadn’t used with his own app, and it worked reliably. He began publishing more VoiceMap tours. When he crunched the numbers, they spoke for themselves: 83% of his 2022 sales came from VoiceMap, and just 17% from his own app.
Tom’s experience convinced him to transition away from his own app and he now has eight tours of New York City available for purchase through VoiceMap’s website and apps, with more coming soon. His tours complement one another, and can be taken in any order. But you’re unlikely to stop at one.
Challenges and Solutions
Tour Production Challenges
- Tom had created a self-guided audio tour once before, for his hometown, but he now had to work with a white-label vendor and build his own app. This extra technical complexity was a distraction from what Tom does best: storytelling.
- When he first approached VoiceMap about publishing his tours, Tom was convinced automatic GPS playback was unreliable. He’d chosen to do without it in his own app. “When GPS doesn’t work, it’s worse than manual playback,” says Tom. “But they convinced me to give it another try and, since getting it right on VoiceMap, I’ve become a GPS convert.”
- Reading scripts and recording his voice came naturally, but Tom also aspired to incorporate sound effects and carefully chosen music at every stage of every tour. He wanted the final product to be remarkable, but audio editing wasn’t really in his wheelhouse.
- Keeping the listener engaged on a self-guided tour isn’t easy. “You have to be a really good storyteller to ask people to stand for 60-90 seconds while they listen to something.”
Tour Production Solutions
- Working with VoiceMap’s team to publish his tours came with hands-on support and ”quality control” from editors so that everything works as it should, says Tom. That’s because VoiceMap has designed its publishing tool, Mapmaker, to give publishers the benefit of experience gained from producing thousands of tours over the last nine years. GPS autoplay is just one example where years of iterative improvements to the apps has paid off.
- Mixing and mastering audio is difficult, he says. “But Gary [VoiceMap’s Head of Content] has made me a better audio editor by suggesting particular tools,” says Tom. “VoiceMap holds me to a standard. It’s like being back in advertising and having directors and producers.”
- People like excitement, says Tom. “My wife jokes that there’s at least one explosion in every one of my tours!” He also uses humour to keep people entertained. Another key technique for keeping listeners engaged is to put people in a specific time and place. “For example, you could just tell people that this is where a factory fire inspired changes to labour laws, or you could ask them to imagine that they are a 14-year-old immigrant girl arriving for work at a garment factory and climbing the wooden stairs to the workroom on the top floor. She gets trapped when the fire breaks out and must decide whether to burn or jump.” Tom aims to keep listeners moving, wherever possible. “When people are walking from one location to another, it gives you the perfect opportunity to revisit the arc of a story, or tell them an epilogue.”
Discovery and Distribution Challenges
- Tom’s first tour went live on his new app, TellBetter, in September 2020. It didn’t exactly sell like hot cakes. “Make it and they will come,” he had thought. But he simply didn’t have a route to market. Without a competitive number of ratings and reviews in the App Store and Google Play, new apps like Tom’s drown in a sea of thousands of others being released every month.
- Tom wanted his tours to be recognisable by name, and was set on ‘TellBetter Tours’. It’s the main reason he paid a company to build him an app, rather than selling his tours on a platform like VoiceMap from the start. “It sounds cool to have your own app, but I didn’t anticipate the headaches,” says Tom. “Marketing alone could be a full-time job. Google’s algorithm requires you to post weekly content on a blog before you inch up in the search results. And you have to feed the social media beast if you want people to discover your product through those platforms.”
- The company that Tom paid to build his app (one of several services it offered) didn’t provide much more than self-service support. Once the app was built, he was more or less on his own: there was no after-sales service or around-the-clock tech support for users who ran into issues. “I’d only find out that something wasn’t working when I got feedback from my app’s users – and then, because it’s your app, it’s on you.”
Discovery and Distribution Solutions
- As soon as Tom started selling tours on VoiceMap’s apps, his sales picked up pace. Because VoiceMap’s apps are the number one search result for “audio tour” and “audio guide” in the US, UK, and a number of other countries, there are only a few steps between people searching for a tour in New York City and finding one of Tom’s. VoiceMap’s thousands of 5 star reviews in the App Store and Google Play are also an important quality signal. Both marketplaces use them to rank search results and make apps easy to discover. Reviews help get users past discovery too by convincing them to actually go ahead and install the app on their device. A case in point: it took less than a year for Tom’s tours to get 120 ratings on VoiceMap’s apps. Meanwhile, after two years, his own app still had fewer than 20 ratings. In 2022, 85% of his tours were sold via VoiceMap and only 15% via the TellBetter app. Tom has since kept just one tour for sale on his app, with eight tours available exclusively on VoiceMap.
- Tom’s VoiceMap tours are published under ‘TellBetter’ – like many other companies who use branded publisher profiles. Once Tom realised he could brand his VoiceMap tours, maintaining a standalone app began to seem like a lot of work.
- “VoiceMap has the scale to market the tours sold on its apps on behalf of content creators,” says Tom. “Because VoiceMap shows up in Google search results, my tours pop up and people find me easily,” says Tom. “It would take years of tremendous effort for me to get there.”
- VoiceMap offers a more focused product because audio tours are all it does. Its community of publishers are supported long after their first tour goes live, through a range of tools including online forums and one-on-one assistance. Similarly, VoiceMap provides ongoing tech support to the users who purchase publishers’ tours because, ultimately, a negative user experience reflects negatively on VoiceMap. “VoiceMap’s interests are aligned with the interests of creators,” as Tom put it.
Tom believes that a walking tour should feel like “a moving audio experience.” Engaging his listeners isn’t enough: he wants to hold them in the palm of his hand. “Audio has the power to do things that cost millions with video,” he points out.
Tom reads voraciously to learn as much as he can about the area where he’s creating a tour, sometimes devouring entire books in search of the perfect anecdote for a particular scene. He especially enjoys dog-earing pages in second-hand guidebooks and pinning interesting locations in Google’s My Maps, and he’s well on his way to being a destination expert.
Tours present publishers with a chicken-and-egg problem: do you start with research, and then decide where your tour should go once you know what’s most interesting? Or do you pick your tour’s location and then do your research with a clearer focus? Tom’s does a bit of both. “Sometimes while I’m reading or gathering information for a tour I’ve already mapped out,” he says, “I realise there’s another tour to be made somewhere else.”
Tom often sets out to cover far more ground than he ends up including in a tour. While planning his tour of Central Park, for instance, he quickly realised it’d be best to divide the park into four quadrants, and map a route within one. “Once you’ve picked a rough route, when you get to a fork in the path, choose which story is better,” he suggests. “It’s a fun puzzle to figure out, and thinking in the dimensions of time and space is a special kind of challenge.” Once he’s settled on his tour’s route, he plots it in Mapmaker.
The script comes next, and this is where Tom’s skills really have a chance to shine. Every story needs a few key ingredients, he says: “You need to identify the characters, and set the scene. The situation will also need some stakes.” This, he says, is the difference between a bunch of facts that are strung together and a story. Tom also believes that every story “demands” to be told in its own way, and that each writer should consider what they do well.
Tom writes his first draft in a Google Doc before pasting the script into VoiceMap’s Mapmaker. “VoiceMap’s tools are good, so that part’s quick. But you’ll need to make some tough decisions about what to keep and what to cut.” VoiceMap’s Mapmaker calculates exactly how long or short each part of a tour’s script needs to be, so that talk times match travelling times, and automatic GPS playback for the current location doesn’t interfere with GPS playback for the next location. “VoiceMap’s tool does a great job of calculating the number of words required,” says Tom, “And the editors hold my feet to the fire when it comes to the word count!”
With his script sufficiently trimmed down, Tom gives it another edit, scrubbing his writing for all traces of the passive voice – “something was done by someone,” for instance – and asking himself: “Who did what to whom? What did it smell like, or sound like?” By approaching a tour’s script as if it were a screenplay – containing scenes within scenes, each with a hero to bring the events to life – Tom’s latest “moving audio experience” is almost ready for the audio and recording stage. But first, it needs a test walk to make sure everything plays at the right time.
After years in advertising, Tom holds himself to extremely high standards and spends lots of time in production before he even starts recording his script. “How much effort you choose to put into sound effects and music is up to you,” he says.
For Tom, music is instrumental in bringing stories to life, and he takes as long as he needs to find just the right music for the right moment. It’s not an easy task, not least because of restrictions around licensing. He also prides himself on having a different voice for each character in each tour, calling on a group of friends to help with voiceovers.
Adding sound effects comes next and, with that, new challenges like learning to make certain things sound far away. When it’s time to record, Tom listens to the music that will accompany each track through his earbuds while he reads the script, to get the tone just right. “Is it a love story, or an adventure? My voice needs to fit the music.”
- The average rating for Tom’s tours is 4.8 out of five, and people have spent over 2,000 hours doing his tours on VoiceMap so far.
- Tom’s commitment to the craft of storytelling has helped him to create extremely immersive and memorable audio tours that fulfil his goal of making something he’s proud to share with the world.
- A year after his first tours were published on VoiceMap, sales in Winter 2023 are already higher than in Summer 2022, meaning that momentum is building.
- It’s not only tourists who get something out of Tom’s tours. “Sometimes, born-and-bred New Yorkers say ‘Wow, you showed me things I never knew,’” he says.
- “I’m really enjoying this!” says Tom. “It’s like learning to play a musical instrument: it’s hard but tremendously rewarding. It’s an art form; it makes people laugh and cry. Every time someone buys a copy of one of my tours, I experience a little bit of psychic joy. First New York, then the world!”