“Retention is the new acquisition” is the mindset that has allowed Eric Ralls, Founder & CEO of PlantSnap,to turn his app — which allows users to capture an image of a plant or flower and identify it within seconds — into a habit for its 33 million users and counting. Plantsnap doesn’t just encourage nature lovers. It has inspired users to be a community of citizen scientists, using the app to feed into projects and initiatives to educate about global warming and monitor its impact. I chat with Eric about his creative campaigns (one that used perfect timing and precise personalization to increase retention rates by 61%) and the creative spark that gave him the idea for his app — and others coming in the pipeline. We also discuss AI, the innovation he has merged with his love for our planet, and get an update on his StartEngine crowdfunding campaign (you can get involved here) to build similar apps and grow their team.
But also nature, our planet – what could bring that better together better than this show and also at the end of the year, I am extremely pleased to bring on our guest today who is Eric Ralls, Founder & CEO of PlantSnap. Eric, great to have you here today.
Thank you Peggy-Anne, I appreciate it.
Absolutely, I mean, full disclosure, I met you at an event and I said okay, you have an app but you also have a purpose so you have to be on Mobile Presence. So, on that note, you know, tell us what is PlantSnap – the great thing about your app, it’s pretty intuitive, it’s going to be about snapping plants but we don’t quite get that so what does it do?
Okay, the concept is very simple – you open the app on your phone, take a photo of a plant and PlantSnap tells you what it is – it’s a really simple concept but incredibly difficult execution, took a long time but we just about have it about in.
I mean, it does, that’s the beauty of things that are really amazing is that there’s that magic of simplicity, I remember – I’ve been in the industry for 20 years so I remember when we used to talk about, you know, mobile being magic and if it makes things invisible, then it’s doing its job and you have innovation in this. I guess I would imagine it’s your own IP, right?
Most of it is our own IP – we came up with this idea back in 2012, I’ve always been a website guy, just a science nerd, so I’ve had websites since 2000 or maybe 1999 about science and 2012, I wasn’t even a plant person, I was in a friend’s back yard at a barbecue, saw this really pretty flower and tried to figure out what it was, nobody knew and I wanted to know because I wanted to have one for my house and I tried to type in the description on Google and that did not work.
So, that is what started the idea for PlantSnap – it was 2012 and it seemed like, you know, every year seems like oh my god, it’s the pinnacle of technology, how can we not know what kind of plant something is and it turns out that back then you had to carry around a bunch of plant identification books.
I have them!
Oh, is that what you used to do? One of my good friends did the same thing – he’d go hiking and have a bag full of plant identification books. So, it was one of those “there’s got to be a better way” kind of things, so I tried to build it back then but image recognition was not there yet and the best we could do was about 100 species and there are closer to 400,000 species, so that did not work.
And over the years, I built up the plant database and gathered images and would check out new technology that was coming along and could never get it right and then in 2016, I had – launched earth.com and that was going to be my new venture but I also discovered machine learning which is a form of artificial intelligence and read an article about it and it sounded like it would be perfect for PlantSnap.
So, I jumped back into it and was able to scale it to the number of species that we needed, got it to about 50,000 so it would cover the United States and all in English, I’d no idea if anyone but me cared about it so I did it anyway and it turns out it did very well.
Indeed – I was going to say, you have it as an app – can you tell us a little bit about how popular it is? I can imagine it’s got its own sort of little community going on but the downloads, the use, impressive – what is that now?
Yes, it’s up to about 33 million installs at this point and we have it translated in 37 languages and it’s used every day in over 200 countries. So, it’s become a lot more than an app, at this point it’s a citizen scientist project and we are hoping to be able to map every plant species on the planet within the next two years – it’s just invaluable data to find especially as we’re all living through climate change. It’s evolved into something that I never imagined, I just wanted to find out what kind of flower I was looking at.
I love the way you say that, citizen science project – it makes it sound like, you know, we are going to be a part of this, we can be a part of this. Is that what’s happening, are the users that engaged?
That is what is happening, that’s not how I presented it at first, it was just a utility app if you were curious about plants. People are stuck on their phones and there’s this thing called plant blindness where everyone walks around with their head in their phones and they don’t notice plants anymore, and plants are responsible for us being able to live on this planet and climate change is altering the planet eco system and being able to raise awareness and get people to notice plants, that’s the first step and then educating them about the importance of plants is the second step and you’ve got to do that by merging it with technology and making it fun to learn or they’ll go back to playing games.
So, what we’ve done is we’ve been able to partner with 1,200 botanic gardens around the world through partnerships with two organisations – the American Public Garden Association and BGCI – Botanic Garden Conservation International – and between them, they have this agreement and work with 1,200+ botanic gardens around the world that are going to distribute the app for us under the guise of this citizen scientist project. It’s learn about the plants at the garden and when you leave the garden, snap as many photos of plants as you can, become a citizen scientist, contribute to science, help us in the fight against climate change and have some fun while you’re at it.
I mean, I love, I absolutely love the idea, I did when I met you and now that I’m hearing even more about this, I’m enthusiastic. What about the community itself? As we’re out there, you know, it’s the whole idea of when you have mobile, you have two-way conversations – you know, we have apps that enables this as well but is there a way that there’s a community structure of saying, you know, we’re going to look at this plants, we’re feeding this in because if we don’t see a certain number or if we see a different type of environment, that’s important for climate change – this is data that is important for people, not just to get us involved but we can actually be doing good with your app and with mobile. Is that what’s going on at this current point?
That is what’s going on, all of this is going to be available to, as open source material, to scientists and universities and scientists we’ve spoken to are thrilled beyond belief, they think the data – I’ve heard dozens of ideas of what can be done with the data that we’re gathering. And you mentioned communicating with the community so we started out – this is a plain utility app and it’s grown to the point where there’s so many users, we wanted to allow them to communicate with each other so two months ago, about six weeks ago, we added an entirely new feature to the app called “PlantSnappers” – it’s a social media part of the app where people can communicate with each other, someone in the United States can chat and share photos and gardening tips with someone in Nigeria, for instance.
It’s a way to bring the planet together under one common cause which is plants and nature and gardening and just people love to look at photos and instead of looking at Instagram at what someone’s eating for lunch, we’re encouraging people to look at how cool plants are all across the world and talk about it.
And speaking about talking about it, you know, you have these 33 million active users which is incredible itself. I mean, let me hear a little bit of anecdote perhaps from you, tell me or talk about how you built this – is this totally organic, did paid advertising come in here anywhere? It’s quite a number and there’s a number of app developers and companies that aim for this and here you’ve achieved it. What would you say was essential to the success?
Well, it’s not 33 million active users because it is a seasonal app, you know, right now I live in Telluride Colorado and it’s covered in snow, so the active users in Telluride are not a very big number but in Australia, the numbers are a lot larger – thought I’d clarify that. And that’s another reason we added the social component just to – because we want people in Telluride and in Canada to use the app during the wintertime and interact with people who are in Australia, actually snapping photos.
But we grew, started as a paid app and grew through Facebook marketing and Google ads and did a really good job with it and eventually figured out that if we made this a freemium app, that it would be something that could grow into the hundreds of millions of downloads over time so we just recently released this year a freemium version of iOS and last fall freemium version of Android and doing that, it’s now growing organically at a phenomenal pace and we’re not doing any advertising.
And we’re hearing about it here so it’s a little bit of a – I wouldn’t call it advertising, I would say a bit of a scoop on what you’re going to be doing and doing next, because you also have some other news for our listeners as well. But we do have to go to a break right now, Eric, I hate to do it really, but don’t go away listeners, we’ll be right back after the break.
And we’re back to Mobile Presence. I’m Peggy Anne Salz with Mobile Groove – we have Eric Ralls, Founder and CEO of PlantSnap, an app that I feel excited and honoured to present here on the show because I love the idea of mobile for good, done quite a number of shows in that direction and here we’re talking about an app that lets us be citizen scientists, an app that lets us contribute and maybe do something about global warming – it is very much more of a purpose than just an app, a cause really.
But, you know, that’s one thing – I’m enthusiastic, you’ll get me and I’ve already downloaded it but the thing is how to get people coming back to the app. As you said yourself, Eric, it’s a seasonal thing so maybe you want to share a little bit of how you approach, you know, the retention side after of course you looked at acquisition.
Yes, well, the new phrase out there, retention is the new acquisition so we’ve reached a certain point of installs where now our organic growth is clicking along at a really good pace and we don’t have to focus on acquisition anymore but we want to keep the people that we already have and keep them engaged so I use a software program platform called Clevertap and it allows us to communicate with our users to see what they’re doing and to combine them in different groups – if they haven’t used it in a while, then we can send automated messages to them just reminding them that, hey, PlantSnap is here on your phone, most people have – you probably know this stat, Peggy, what is the average number of apps people have on their phones? I think I read 25...
25, I’ve seen 16 as well, but let’s go for 25, it sounds much more positive.
So you got 25 apps on your phone...
25 you use regularly, by the way, that’s of the hundreds that you have, so it’s 25 you use regularly.
Okay, that’s even a bigger number. It’s easy to get lost in the shuffle so we do things, part of our goal is evolved into educating and making it fun so we’ll do things like send people who haven’t been active for a while a fun fact about plants or about nature or about just the environment in general and it’ll say PlantSnap on this notification with the fun fact, “Did you know, blah, blah – that Redwood trees are the tallest trees on earth?” or something along those lines that will inform and educate and remind the user that, hey, oh, I forgot PlantSnap’s on the phone, let me open that up and see what’s new or play around with it a bit.
And we have had great success with that strategy, Clevertap also allows you to send emails, we don’t do a lot of emailing to people except to announce new features and then there’s also in-app notifications where if a person is doing a particular thing inside your app, you can remind them, like, Hey, we noticed that you did this – Sally over in the UK just took a photo of this plant, you should go to our PlantSnapper feed and check it out.
So, that’s how we try to keep people engaged and make the entire PlantSnap experience to look more like a community than just some tool you’ve got on your app that you would use every now and then when you’re baffled by a plant you encounter, or you see something at your neighbour’s house.
So, what I’d be interested in understanding is one of the things about engagement is that part of the battle, the big part, is segmenting the audience because you can of course give everyone sort of like, hey, we’re here, check it out, or here’s a fun fact but it really works best if you’re segmenting in advance – so, how are you segmenting your audience?
So, not to turn this into a Clevertap commercial...
No, no, no, I didn’t want to, I just wanted the strategy because it’s so important.
They have a feature that allows you to define what segmentation you want to do. So in our case, we segment – because it’s a seasonal app – we segment according, we have our settings to segment our audience according to how often they use the app and – there’s one category called “Hibernating” and hibernating means they haven’t used the app in a month so the hibernating audience would get a different message - and it’s all automated – would get a different message than the hero audience, I think is what it’s called – people who use it a few times a week. Or you can go in and set up, you create a segment on your own for a particular country, let’s say that the State flower of Texas has just started blooming and we could segment all the users we have in Texas and send them a notice and say, “Hey, did you know that the Bluebonnets are blooming – get out there and snap some Bluebonnets” or something along those lines. The tool allows us to get incredibly specific with our segmentation.
And you’re right, that’s very important because personalising messages is a much better way than just generalising them and sending the same message to everyone.
What I love here is not just the tech behind it but I like the thinking because you’re saying, you know, there could be a flower just blooming in a certain geo or certain area, put that into part of the message, part of the call to action – being very creative because part of this is always going to be the tech but what is always going to be the sustainable edge here, the competitive edge is how creative we are with it. What is maybe an example of a campaign where you’re like saying to yourself, “Boy, I’m really proud of my team and myself, we really nailed it with something completely off the wall” that maybe moved the needle on your app – what can you share?
Well, it’s very similar to the example I just gave you and it wasn’t Texas, it was a new country that we launched a language, just translated the language into, it was France in French. So, we sent a message to everyone in France, the country flower of France, and I can’t remember what it is right now, “It just started blooming, get out there and PlantSnap and snap a photo of...” - gosh, I wish I could remember whatever flower it was. And our engagement rate was I believe 61% for that particular notification campaign and we also personalised it with the person’s name. So, “Hello, Francois, did you know that this flower is now – it’s the official flower of France and it’s blooming in your area, go out and PlantSnap it – help us with our database”.
And, that got just an incredible response, right, so I think that’s the one that I’m the most proud of and we hope to continue doing that in the future as it warms up in the Northern Hemisphere.
And where are you on the app because when we met at the event, I was excited about the mushroom app because my husband is – I’m based in Germany, it’s a national sport and pastime almost to go hunting in the woods for these and then you say to yourself, “It doesn’t look like the book” because I’m taking the paper book and it’s like this doesn’t look like that picture. Just a quickie and just a one liner, where are we on that with PlantSnap, how’s that coming along?
They actually have a mushroom festival every summer in Telluride and that’s how I got interested in mushrooms and we also created Plantsnap, so it’s always been our plan to have other apps to identify other things and the first replicate we did was MushroomSnap and it is now in – it’s finished and ready to be released and we plan to release it at some point late January probably and – you’ll be the first one to know about it.
That would be cool because I really do need that one. I’ve had some, you know, those experiences where it’s like, yes, we’re going to take them home, we’re going to fry them up and we’re going to pray while we’re at it because we just don’t know...
Mushrooms are difficult and please don’t use the app, don’t count on us to say... what you’re going to eat but use it as a tool along with your other tools when you’re foraging to make sure that you’re eating something that’s edible.
Absolutely, and I’m sure there’s going to be like a sort of a community around that because if there’s anyone who has a community, it’s the mushroom hunters.
Oh, it’s amazing, my colleagues say it’s so fun to hear them talk, they’re so passionate and mushrooms are difficult to identify to the species – the genus level is a little easier for an algorithm but the species level, you’ve got to dig underneath to see what’s on the underbelly also, so it was quite a challenge from the algorithm perspective. But, the rest of it was basically just taking PlantSnap and using it to identify a different thing.
And speaking of digging around, that’s exactly what we’re going to be doing, we’re going to come back, we’re going to dig around, we’re going to talk about what’s next for you at PlantSnap and maybe also a couple of tips for people who want to be nearly as creative as you Eric, so listeners, don’t go away, we’ll be right back after the break.
And we’re back to Mobile Presence. Eric Ralls, Founder and CEO of PlantSnap is my guest today and we have been having a great time, Eric, talking about your app but also talking about like the strategy behind it because there’s some heavy duty AI and technology behind it indeed. I mean, looking at technology, here we are almost in 2020, what are the innovations or the technology that top of mind perhaps with you or maybe something we can look at in PlantSnap coming right around the bend – what would you like to share?
Well, auto-detection technology and augmented reality are going to play a role in future releases or PlantSnap and MushroomSnap as well, and we are – it’s always been my goal to have an app in your pocket like a Tricorder from Star Trek that you can open up and will identify any living thing on the planet. So, we’ve got plants covered, we’ve got mushrooms covered and what we’ve learned from our PlantSnappers Group, people take pictures and post them and ask, “What is this bug on my plant?”
So, we have begun building InsectSnap that will help you identify any bugs, anywhere, particularly on your plants so that you can know whether or not they’re a pest, if there is a way to get rid of them without having to use chemicals or if they’re completely harmless and you can let your kids play with them. So, that’s what we’re working on right now for hopefully summer release.
And some other things going on at PlantSnap, you are in the middle of Start Engine crowd funding campaign – what do you want to tell me about this, what is it for, what’s the purpose and how’s it coming along?
We are, we have launched a Start Engine crowd funding campaign raising money to build InsectSnap. There are literally 960,000 species of insects, so all this AI is wonderful and fantastic but it requires a lot of people - engineers, coders and that’s how I got here is hiring people that are a lot smarter than me to make all this happen and I need to give credit to them for everything they’ve done to get us to this point and now we need to add to that team so that we can finish InsectSnap and then move onto the next EarthSnap app and this crowd funding campaign on Start Engine is meant to help us accomplish that.
And we’ve got details for that, I mean, we’ll have those in the show notes, this is startengine.com/plantsnap-inc – of course, we’ll have that all. What’s the most interesting aspect of this campaign? I mean, is there something that you can share about the reaction to it, the impact, the pace of it, because I’ve talked to a lot of people who do crowd funding, there are different ways to approach it, different experiences and it’s always, always an interesting anecdote to share. So, what could you add?
We’ve had a great experience so far because the concept of our company is very simple to understand and you can go and download it and use it before you invest. It’s an app, you take a photo of a plant and it tells you what it is, so people get it, it’s not complicated. And Start Engine platform makes it easy to invest with a credit card or through your bank account and also right now, Start Engine has put a 10% bonus stock offer on all campaigns that are on – that they have live right now so if you were to purchase stock in PlantSnap, you would get 10% bonus stock on top of whatever you purchase for the next, I think it’s 10 days.
Okay, and we’re going live, so we can have a little bit of a call out on that, also on Mobile Presence across social media, because we support you, Eric, I like what you’re doing and I also, you know, very interested in understanding a little bit more about your model, so when people download your app, you say it’s a freemium app – so what is that user experience?
You can download the app for free, use the app forever for free and just watch ads which is like you would see on Facebook or Instagram or any other app that you have, or if you hate ads, then you can subscribe for – I think the average price is 99 across all languages, 99 cents, 99 for the year which will give you an ad-free experience and unlock a couple of extra features.
We’re adding an entire new section at the beginning of January called PlantCare that’ll tell you how to care for any other plants that – any other houseplants that we have in our database, how much light they need, how much water they need, how much – what kind of soil etc, etc. So, at that point we will be – have everything you need to know about plants all in one place and all for free, if you choose to go the ad route.
And of course this is great to enjoy the physical world which many of us maybe haven’t seen, I’ve been on a few projects, I haven’t seen too much of the outdoors but enjoying that coming up over the holiday break and beyond. You mentioned AR and VR – I’m just curious, what’s that going to be here? Is that going to be sort of seeing this in a different scenario or bringing this into – bringing things to life? It sounds intriguing, I’d love to know more.
Well, we currently have AR integrated into the app but just to a small degree you can push the AR button as you’re zoomed over a plant and it will tell you about - if it’s a flower, it’ll give you a little lesson on photosynthesis with an animation that’ll show a bee coming in and how it pollinates or how the sunrays shine on the plant and then it gives a little extra note about photosynthesis and we will be adding to that for different types of plants and just making it a fully immersive interactive experience which makes it more fun and if you make something more fun, it doesn’t feel like learning so we’re going to fool people into learning about nature.
And I’m going to not fool people, I’m going to give them the opportunity to learn more about how to keep in touch with you, Eric. I mean, how do we do it, how do we keep in touch with you, maybe over at PlantSnap – I didn’t look, maybe you’re blogging, talking, doing things out there or maybe just doing your job – so in any case, what’s the best way?
Plantsnap.com – a lot of cool tools too, there’s a feature called “The Explore Map” and you can go on a map and see anywhere in the world, what photos that people are taking for this particular month and saving, and it’s neat to zoom into, let’s say, Singapore and see what kind of plants people in Singapore are taking photos of. And there’s also a Contact Us form on the website as well. So, that’s how you reach me and that’s how you can play around and learn more about PlantSnap and how it’s being used around the world.
And see that’s great timing, Eric, not just because of your crowd funding but also we got some downtime coming for people in the industry, you know, you can take the time, you know, check it out, take some time over the holidays, you know, look around, learn about life.
And of course, listeners, if you want to keep up with me throughout the week or find out more about how you can be a guest or sponsor on Mobile Presence, then you can email me, email@example.com, Mobile Groove is where you can find my portfolio of content marketing and app marketing services.
As always, can check out this and all earlier episodes of our show by going to webmasterradio.fm and you can find our shows on iTunes, Stitcher, Spreaker, Spotify and iheartRadio simply by searching Mobile Presence. So Eric, you’re the last show of the season for me, thank you so much for being on the show today.
It has been a pleasure, I really appreciated it and happy holidays to everyone.
Absolutely, so friends, until next time and that will be on the other side, over in 2020 – remember - every minute is mobile, so make every minute count. We’ll see you soon – bigger and better in the New Year.