Mobile apps have earned themselves a reputation as something of an over-indulgent marketing folly. As hyperbole has built, so every business appears to have hopped aboard the branded app bandwagon.
“There have been apps for the sake of apps,” summarises Daniel Rowles, author of Mobile Marketing, and a course director for CIM on digital marketing. “It happened with social media when everyone wanted a Facebook page without thinking why. And it has happened with apps – everyone said ‘we must have an app’.”
As such it’s easy to forget that there is a sound basis for the interest in apps in the first place. ComScore MobiLens research from last year, for instance, demonstrated how consumer behaviour was shifting in favour of apps, with more content downloaded via apps than through browsers for the first time. And according to Ovum it is no flash in the pan, with mobile application adoption expected to increase sharply from 2013 across developing countries.
All of which means that apps provide brands with a platform to increase awareness and build relationships with a huge audience. And, as Dipesh Mukerji, senior director of product strategy and marketing at Kony adds, it can also provide an opportunity to learn more about your customers.
“Data is a marketer’s best friend, you reap what you sow and apps are a vital way to collect information about your audience, as well as push out brand information to them. Nike has been lauded for the success of its Nike+ app, where user information was combined with Nike’s tech products to create way for individuals to track, measure and improve their fitness. This adds massive value to the user and provides an incentive to keep on updating Nike with your latest information.”
Unsurprisingly, then, brands feel there is sufficient motivation to continue to dedicate time and resources to the development of apps, irrespective of the platform’s reputational issues. And the flexibility of the app business model also adds to their appeal – businesses can build free apps designed to entertain and engage consumers, and drive online or offline transactions; they can build free apps that are supported by ads; build freemium apps that drive in-app commerce; or build paid-for apps that generate download fees.
ICT trendspotter and former Gartner research director Johan Jacobs believes that of the three categories of mobile – web, browser and apps – apps have become the most fashionable approach and the one that organisations now most commonly take when starting out on the mobile path. He says: “One of the benefits of apps is that if you only want the customer to do one thing or two things you can programme those in the mobile app and the customer won't have access to other stuff that might clutter the screen.”
James Marscheider, head of marketing at Oxygen8, adds: “Mobile apps enable businesses to keep customers in their branded and purpose built environment. Using in-app advertising or in-app video is a great way for advertising what a company does in a unique way; this can also be done through push notifications when customers are on the go. With mobile apps, content can also be sorted and accessed offline when no mobile or internet connection is needed.”
Getting apps right
So, plenty of good reasons to build a branded app – why then do so many turn out to be a waste of time and money? Stats by Deloitte suggest that 80% of the branded apps it analysed had been downloaded less than 1,000 times, despite the fact that Apple’s App Store, Google Play and Blackberry App World generate almost two billion downloads every month.
In many cases it appears to be that in the rush to build an app, brands are failing to take stock and put the same detail and diligence into the planning process that they would any other channel. For instance, organisations should ensure they are doing research to see if their audience is even using apps in the first place.
Despite the proliferation of smartphones, Ovum’s recent Consumer Insights Survey suggests that two-thirds of consumers have no appetite for downloading apps in the Western world, though penetration is far greater in markets such as China, India and Brazil.
Forrester’s Melissa Parrish recommends that you understand the app habits of your audience before you decide what to build. “About half of US adults have a smartphone, but that doesn’t automatically mean they’re using it in sophisticated ways,” she notes. “You can likely find users of all ages among those who have apps, but demographics affect the size of your app audience. For example, about one-third of smartphone app users are Gen Y (ages 23-31), and another third are Gen X (ages 32-45).”
Mukerji also recommends that brands are crystal clear about the goals of the app initiative. “Marketers, CRM specialists or anyone tasked with developing an app should consider exactly what they want to achieve,” he says. “Is their objective to generate revenue, build relationships with customers, gather or share information? In most cases, it probably needs to tick all of these boxes. Once a goal has been established, they should be looking at how tech-savvy their users are, how many people they’re trying to reach, what industry it’s aimed at, what type of content will most resonate and how they want to consume it. The answer to such questions determine the best approach for development.”
Marscheider agrees that this level of preparation is fundamental. “When creating an app for a product or service there should be clear objectives set out and a clear view of the user in mind. Once a business loses a user to poor customer experience, it’s unlikely that they will want to use the app again; so making a good first impression is key.”
Mukerji continues: “The key is to ensure your app is relevant and engaging, otherwise they’re likely to delete it. App retention is a huge problem in the mobile ecosystem because there is typically a 75% drop in the app after initial use. This is almost always because of a badly designed user experience. Most are used to intuitive, premium technology so anything less than this is guaranteed to disappoint. You only have one chance to make a good impression, so it better be a good one.”
But even building a clever, well executed branded app may not guarantee that you successfully achieve your marketing goals. Given the huge number of apps that are available, businesses must ensure that they create awareness of the app, rather than just rely on consumers finding it in app stores.
“Even if you’ve created the most fantastic app, it’ll just go into the iTunes store and get lost in there,” says Rowles. “Apps need a marketing plan to ensure it is visible enough so that it is actually going to get some downloads.”
Parrish agrees that brands shouldn’t launch apps unless they have a paid media budget to promote them. She explains: “Most users find apps within the app store, but findability of any one app in the vast recesses of the app stores isn’t something you can count on. Just for kicks try this: Go to your app store of choice and try browsing the recommended apps and top apps in various categories. Note how many of them are apps from brands.”
Findability isn’t the only factor that brands need to be aware of. There’s also the small matter of ongoing maintenance costs if they are to ensure that their app won’t date and cause more harm than good.
Rowles says: “What happens is that you build the app, you get it marketed, you’re starting to get some downloads….and then the next iPhone comes about and suddenly the app doesn’t work on the phone anymore! So you have then got to maintain it or you’ll start to get negative reviews and nobody will download it anymore.”
Parrish emphasises that an app is “a commitment” and that you have to make sure you’re prepared to support, manage, and iterate on this asset over time. “You might be thinking your app will have a three-month flight time, but once that app is on a user’s device, it’s usually there for good. Do you really want to serve your customers out-of-date content and services indefinitely?” she asks.
Many brands choose to run ads within a mobile app in an effort to build awareness and generate demand. Mukerji has the following advice.
“It’s always best to be subtle with mobile app advertising. Users get annoyed if brands are too forthright with marketing messages and logos. The goal is to place relevant, but not intrusive, ads in a place that fits into the user journey but doesn’t diminish their overall experience. By doing so, user engagement is far more likely to occur and click through rates will be higher. For instance, Draw Something, one of the most popular social drawing and guessing game on iPhone and Android operating systems, allows players to use the app for free and then offers them the option to purchase additional functionality once each round has finished, rather than interrupting play.
“Another tactic is to accentuate branding within the mobile app, without directly advertising. Your ability to do this very much depends on whether you’re building a native, HTLM5 or hybrid app. If you’re building a gaming app, you could consider naming assets in the game that allude to your brand. Areas such as the launch or home screen can also be branded. The mobile app or relevant channel and experience has to suit the consumer for the brand to get its message across. The beauty is that there are many available options – key is getting it right.”
The decision to build either a native app, where components can be stored primarily/mostly on a user’s device, or to build an HTML5 (web) app, or a hybrid combination is not a decision to be taken lightly. Which technology is chosen depends on the objectives set out, as each offers its own pros and cons, with budget, usability, device and speed all coming into question. Ultimately, each method has its pros and cons. Owing to the importance of this issue, MyCustomer.com will be dedicating the next feature in this series to this topic.
But for now, consider this: there have been more than 40 billion cumulative apps downloaded from the Apple App Store and Google Play. The question isn’t whether people will use apps, Parrish notes, but whether they’ll use yours. As such, you should be realistic in your expectations of what you will achieve with apps.
Neil Davey is the managing editor of MyCustomer. An experienced business journalist and editor, Neil has worked on a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites over the past 20 years, including Internet Works, CXO magazine and Business Management. He joined MyCustomer in 2007.