Driving revenue with rap battles and Alexa

Staff Writer Jun 14, 2023
Alexa Skills

Rap battles have long been a cultural phenomenon, showcasing the art of storytelling and lyrical dexterity. But what if you could take this excitement and combine it with the latest technology? Fire up the Rap Battle skill on Alexa, and you and your friends can do just that. This dynamic skill is equipped with a series of custom-written raps, and it's up to you to guess the final word in the rhyme:

"Do you have what it takes to be the best emcee? Step right up, that's right, we'll see.

Alexa will spit you some crazy flows. But they're missing the very end of the prose. You'll have to finish, so think on your feet Spit it right out, and keep up with the—"

If you answered "beat," you get a point. If you answered "fleet," don't worry—you can try again next time.

Rap Battle is the brainchild of Mitchell Harris, a seasoned software developer with a passion for creating novelty Alexa skills. Inspired to code by his dad, Harris has created over 40 skills and transformed his hobby into a successful revenue stream.

Combining creativity with voice technology

Harris has worked as a software engineer for nearly 20 years and holds a master's degree in Computer Science from Brigham Young University. His father, a now-retired developer, instilled a love of coding in him from a young age.

"My dad worked on the old Apple II computers," he says. "In school, I actually grew up playing educational games that he wrote."

Harris first started working with Alexa when he joined RAIN, an agency focused on voice and artificial intelligence. "At RAIN, I developed Alexa skills professionally for several clients," says Harris. "I managed a team that wrote about 50 branded skills."

Harris also began to develop his own skills for the Amazon Appstore.

"I built some of these skills on my own, like Rap Battle, but I also built a lot of them with my dad."

Together, Harris and his father built skills like Bark Like a Dog, which lets users request any breed of dog to bark or howl for them, and Truth or Dare, a skill that presents a series of truth or dare prompts for users to play.

"Rap Battle is my favorite skill to play, but Truth or Dare was even more popular," Harris says. "It's such a simple skill, and it tends to be the one that Alexa uses to encourage people to play a truth or dare game."

Building a profitable and engaging rap battle skill

Out of the 40-plus Alexa skills developed by Harris, Rap Battle was his favorite to create. "I saw a YouTube video of someone doing a clever rap battle, and I thought, 'You could probably do that in Alexa,'" he says. "But I'm a software developer, not a writer. I hired some people to create some rhymes that I could put in the skill, and they were really fun and snappy. I launched it in all the English-speaking locales like the United States, Australia, and Canada, and it did well for many years. Then, about two years ago, Amazon called me and asked, 'Hey, would you consider putting in-skill purchasing into one of your skills?"

In-skill purchasing lets developers sell premium content and subscriptions, such as game features and interactive stories, which users can buy seamlessly through an Alexa skill. In-skill purchasing lets you sell premium content, such as game features and interactive stories in custom skills. Buying these products in a skill is seamless to a user. They might ask to shop for products, buy products by name, or agree to purchase suggestions that you make during their skill session. Customers pay for products by using the payment options associated with their Amazon account.

"If I was going to put in-skill purchasing in Rap Battle, I was going to do it right," Harris says. "I partnered with a professional screenwriter to write a bunch of really good 'raps'."

Harris implemented a $2/month subscription for Rap Battle, which provides users with unlimited tries to guess the rhyming word. With the free version of the skill, users can play twice a day, and their turn ends when they lose a round. If a user guesses the wrong answer twice, the skill bounces them to a subscription request screen, incentivizing them to sign up.

"Before, Rap Battle would launch, give the user about three or four raps, and take them out of the skill because I wanted to increase the number of invocations," says Harris. "I'm grateful for in-skill purchasing because the feature let me convert the experience over to something much better for the end users."

Maximizing revenue through great content

Through Harris's hard work and creativity, Rap Battle has become a much-loved skill that resonates with users. Every week, it sees an average of 3,000–4,000 unique customers and can get up to 25,000 utterances.

For new Skill Builders, it can be a challenge to get off the ground. If you're a developer looking to make money with your Alexa skill, Harris offers three key tips that helped him make Rap Battle into a successful skill:

  • Get to the heart of the customer first. You want to make sure that your skill is valuable, meaningful, and doing something for the user. Instead of focusing on the bells and whistles at the periphery, focus on the value you want to deliver and work to bring your users to you. A meaningful skill is more likely to make an impact.

  • Think of monetization in phases. If you want to ramp up your revenue and tap into more engaging experiences, implement in-skill purchasing. Try out new monetization options offered by the program and see which one works best for your skill and users.

  • Don't be afraid to experiment. Take the learnings and customer feedback from your Alexa skills and use them to make your offerings better. Alternatively, you can apply those learnings to whatever skill you build next. Don't be scared to make changes to improve the experience—your users will thank you.

The future of voice and ambient computing is full of endless possibilities. Although Harris is taking a break from Alexa development to spend more time with his children, he's excited to see where the technology goes next.

"Alexa can do a lot more now than it used to," he says. "You might have to create several experiences that aren't going to do well at first to learn these capabilities, reach your audience, and write a high-quality skill. It's all about creating content that people want to come back to."

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