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Mobile apps for marketing: A best practice guide

19th Nov 2015
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Mobile apps went through a bit of a wobble back in 2010. The tech was clunky, brands only seemed to use them to push marketing content and there was simply no relevancy for users. Subsequently, most people quickly became app-fatigued. However, with smart brands such as Nike and Visa proving that apps can be interesting, creative, unique and relevant by producing consistently good experiences, there’s been a renewed fervour amongst marketers and consumers alike that the app can indeed be mutually beneficial.

“Brands are really starting to see the appeal of apps again,” says David Skerrett, managing partner and head of mobile for Nimbletank, a multi award-winning mobile agency with clients including ASOS, Universal and the BBC. “Some are now using mobile as a customer service channel and this in turn is reducing their costs. A great client example is OVO Energy, they came to us last year and we rapidly designed and built a new native app for Android and iOS in 90 days. It lets you view your usage and submit meter readings. This has resulted in 10% of customers downloading the app, and has the benefit of reducing inbound call handling costs meaning the project had a positive ROI in just three months.”

The State of Marketing report found that 46% of marketers are now using some form of mobile marketing (SMS, push notifications, mobile apps), compared with 23% last year and location-based mobile tracking and mobile apps are the two key areas where investment is being funnelled. What’s more, mobile loyalty campaigns are now the most popular mobile marketing activity while SMS promotions take third and fourth spots. That said, with the vast array of apps on offer, making the grade can be a challenge. Google recently reported that smartphone users have an average of 33 apps installed at any given time, though they typically only use 12 of them each month.

Finding your ‘mobile moment’

However, with the big players Facebook, Google and Amazon still dominating the app landscape, spotting a niche for your brand’s app can be tough. Research body Forrester coined the phrase ‘mobile moment’ which is defined as “the point in time and space when a consumer reaches for their phone to get what they need immediately”. According to its research, this averages out to around 150-200 moments a day. That is the space in which your brand needs to be. But going head-to-head with app giants isn't easy and the struggle doesn't stop once a brand secures an app download. “Apps that try to cram in an old-world desktop web experience simply fail,” explains Skerrett. “You need to ensure you do fewer things, better. Less is more. And ensure that you create an experience that is quick, has empathy for the user and lets you do key actions within three or so taps. Avoid bloated apps at all costs basically.”

So what are his secrets of success? “Starting with the customer in mind is the key. With mobile there is will always be the next shiny new piece of hardware, API, SDK or operating system version. You have to not get distracted by the shiny and stay focused on the customer. What do they gain from the communication, or the mobile service? Will they care? Will they share? Will they tell their friends? If it’s not useful or interesting or at least going to make that person look more interesting then it might be wise to reconsider.”

Unsurprisingly, then, it is a good idea that you understand the app habits of your audience before you decide what to build. 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. This is vital, because once a brand loses a user to poor customer experience, it’s unlikely that they will want to use the app again, Therefore, making a good first impression is key.

App retention is a huge problem, and  there is typically a 75% drop in the app after initial use. Therefore, the key is to ensure your app is relevant and engaging, otherwise the user is likely to delete it. 

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. Apps need a marketing plan to ensure it is visible enough so that it is actually going to get some downloads and brands shouldn’t launch apps unless they have a paid media budget to promote them.

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.

“Creating a team to deal specifically with app creation and implementation is a good investment,” adds Jamie Brighton, product and industry marketing manager at Adobe. He believes a stand-alone mobile-dedicated team is the best way to streamline mobile and evangelise best practice across the other marketing streams.

Getting it right…

There is an increasingly long list of brands that are chalking up app success but online taxi-booking company, Uber which currently has over eight million users, makes it high up on Skerrett’s list: “I have 50 billion reasons (because of their current valuation in dollars!) why I like Uber. The first time you get out of an Uber you will remember it, because it feels weird to not do anything. You don’t reach for your wallet anymore or need a receipt, it all just happens automatically. You can review your driver and view your history, but the app is streamlined, it’s not trying to do too much. It’s trying to give you a great experience through simple and considered interactions across just a few key user journeys. It is simple to use, with a powerful tech solution behind the scenes. And this is even more the case with the Uber watch app where you just press the small screen a couple of times and that’s it!”

The supermarket sector is also reaping success from mobile apps. “Asda’s a great example of a brand doing apps well,” says Ollie Smith, mobile developer at full-service brand agency Studio Six who produces digital campaigns for clients including Lloyds Bank, BP and Hitachi. “They wanted to create an app that made shopping quicker and more convenient for its customers and achieve 10% of grocery online shopping orders through the app. It knew its target market were mobile savvy, busy mums and wanted to align all of this with its long-term objective of creating 'stores without walls'. Feedback showed that customers wanted an app that was simple and easy to use, so the resulting design included a recipe finder, barcode scanner, and a store locator.”

This customer-led approach has been integral to the success of the app. Not only has it helped shape the technology and improve the user experience rather than vice versa, but it has helped Asda integrate new features such as live petrol prices and merchandised banners. “The app exceeded its objectives and mobile now accounts for 18% of all grocery home shopping sales, 90% of this from the app, it has built brand loyalty and has had more than 2 million downloads,” says Smith.

App-y ever after?

Once you’ve created your app, know that it is relevant and interesting and likely to be downloaded, there is yet more work to be done. Ray Pun, head of mobile at Adobe says that those excelling in mobile as a marketing stream, so-called ‘mobile leaders’, measure, test, and optimise far more than those who are just getting started. “Three-quarters of mobile marketers measure app engagement over time, typically on a weekly basis while more than half optimise conversions with A/B testing.” In fact, says Pun, successful brands continuously improve all of their apps by moving through four phases: design, measure, test, and optimise. Then they repeat the process. “The point is that you should never be “done” with your app. It needs to be continually tweaked and improved,” he enthuses.

Similarly, keeping your app relevant and visible in the app stores is also crucial. “Maybe you’ve created a good app, and it is sitting in the app store waiting to be discovered,” says Pun. “If so you’re lagging. Forty-two percent of mobile leaders say that they updated their apps as frequently as once per quarter, while 32 percent provide updates every four to six months.” The reason this matters is that frequent app updates help maintain the quality of the user experience.”

With consumers viewing branded apps as primary sources of accurate and relevant information, the desire for quality content is growing. If Nielsen’s research is correct and seven out of every eight minutes that consumers now spend on their smartphones is being used in apps, it builds a pretty compelling case for getting your branded app at the fingertips of your customers.

Verity Gough is a contributor for


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