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Post-Zombie: Checking in with Six to Start’s Zombies, Run!

I’m not very good at regularly exercising, partly because, while I like running, I’m rubbish at self-improvement and I get bored easily without some external form of entertainment. My quest to overcome this has lead to some exploration at the intersection of fitness apps and podcasting, which largely takes the form of finding things to keep me running without having to listen to my own thoughts too much.

It was this search that led me to Zombies, Run!, a platform that combines audio storytelling, gameplay that’s akin to LARPing, and exercise tutorials. In a nutshell: you’re made to run from imaginary zombies, which is a formula that seems to work better for many people, including myself, than your standard “couch to 5k” course.

As I’ve become more familiar with the app — which has just published season 8 of the main storyline, and now contains around 400 episodes you can run/play — I’ve been thinking more and more about how what it delivers relates to podcasting. In many ways, Zombies, Run! is a serialised audio fiction show, albeit one that is interrupted often as the runner requires encouragement or unlocks a reward. It also has some pretty serious writing talent behind it, in the form of a London-based team headed by the games writer and award-winning novelist Naomi Alderman (author of Disobedience and The Power, among other books, and also the immersive podcast The Walk). The app has also started adding non-zombie-flavored narratives into the mix, an effort to diversify the genres and styles the runner can experience, which ranges from a historical exploration story set in the US to a hunt for Jack the Ripper.

I recently caught up with Adrian Hon, CEO of Six to Start, the company behind the app and the stories, to find out why they’re expanding beyond zombies and how he sees what they do within the larger audio industry.

“The way in which it’s different from a podcast or an audiobook is that we interleave the story with your own music, which is a really important part of the experience,” he said. “So it’s not just 10 or 20 or 30 minutes of straight story, it’s like three minutes of a story and then one or two of your songs and then another three minutes of story. And so we found that works out to be a really good mixture of motivation and story. The other part of it is that you collect items as you run and that’s something that also exists in some of the new adventures.”

Hon started Six to Start in 2007 after studying neuroscience and psychology at Oxford and Cambridge. He abandoned a PhD part-way through to pursue his love of making video games, which led him to start this outfit. “It was the 2000s! You could do anything back then,” he said. The company now has 10 full-time employees, who work remotely from all over the world.

Alderman is a long time collaborator — they’ve been friends for years, Hon said, and the pair first worked together on an alternate reality treasure hunt game called Perplex City in 2004. The idea of a zombie-based running game came up over lunch in 2011, when Hon was pondering the idea of developing a fitness game and Alderman had just joined a running group. One of her fellow runners said that they were there to run “because they wanted to survive the zombie apocalypse.”

Hon was initially sceptical — ”I was sick of zombies, they’re over done, they’re a fad” — but he was persuaded to see that “they’re just such a good story engine” because “they provide a cast iron solid case for why you actually need to run”. Plus, he pointed out, “there’s a reason why The Walking Dead just keeps on going on forever.” People just really enjoy stuff about zombies.

Zombies, Run! now works on subscription model — the app used to cost around $8 to download, but in 2015 they switched to a subscribe-to-unlock system, partly because of changing smartphone user behaviour meant that focusing on new downloads was less viable. “The average number of apps that users download in a month now is zero,” Hon said. “Basically people don’t download new apps anymore. . . Even if you get your app featured on the App Store now it’s not worth anywhere near as much downloads as it used to be.” They’ve never paid anything to advertise or market the app, he said — it’s reached people entirely through word of mouth.

The subscription costs $35 a year to unlock everything in the app (free users have to accrue credits and wait to access new episodes, and also sometimes hear adverts). The app has over 200,000 active monthly users and nearly 50,000 paying subscribers. “They’re really loyal as well,” he said. “Most of them remain subscribed after the first year.” He also pointed out that the app’s position at the meeting point of fitness, gaming and storytelling is really useful when it comes to monetisation, because people are completely used to the idea of paying for a gym subscription or to unlock more levels of a game, even if paying upfront for podcast episodes isn’t quite so standard (yet).

They’ve experimented with delivering podcast-style adverts and sponsor reads to free users at the start of missions in the last couple of years. “We sell them via Midroll, although we have had some companies come to use directly.” They’ve had some success with this, Hon says, but have found the fact that they can’t report direct episode downloads like a conventional podcast makes it a bit more difficult.

“We can tell them how many mission plays we’ve had, and we have great stats around that,” Hon said. “We control the app so we know that people are playing them and you can’t skip them. . . But I think from a business point of view what we found is that obviously most advertisers just want a one stop shop.” The advertising is a useful bit of revenue, but “we never thought it would be, you know, the primary way we would make most of our money,” he concluded.

Six to Start has done some audio work outside of the fitness apps: they’ve made a 90-minute drama set in the Zombies, Run! universe for Audible. Hon and the team also collaborated with Panoply (back when the company still dealt with content) in 2018 to turn one of their other apps, The Walk, also co-created with Naomi Alderman and funded as a fitness initiative by the UK Department of Health, into a first person podcast drama. That was one of Apple Podcasts’ “most downloaded new shows” last year and hit plenty of best of lists. However, Hon said that, in spite of the so-called podcasting boom, he’s always been sceptical about pivoting the company too far in that direction. “We didn’t really understand how most podcasts actually made money,” he said. “It just seemed like a very tricky business to be in.”

Hon’s preference is to stick to the subscription model rather than branch out into pure podcasting for the sake of it. “Fundamentally we don’t really want to be a content provider to another platform,” he said. “I think that that does work out really well for some people. But we like controlling our own destiny and monetizing directly.” Adding new stories that aren’t set in the original Zombies universe is their next big step, since it keeps them in the fitness zone that has worked for the past seven years, but potentially brings in new runners with different tastes.

Hon added: “It’s as if we’re Netflix but we’ve only had one TV show — one amazing TV show, but only one of them. And now we’ll see what happens if we add some more stories. If people like them, this gives another way in.”