Nagendra Singh
May 6, 2016

Is there an app that tells you when your brand should build an app?

Unfortunately, there's no easy formula to determine when it makes sense for your brand to develop an app. Nagendra Singh of Blue Hive Asia describes how to develop a comprehensive mobile strategy that may—or may not—include an app.

Nagendra Singh
Nagendra Singh

Never before in the history of advertising was there a time when people willingly carried an advertising-enabled device almost everywhere. It’s the first thing they check in the morning and the last when they go to bed, and the usage continues throughout the day. This device knows more about them than they do about themselves. It tracks their movement, things they like, what they are going to do in future, and therefore in a position to predict what information they might need at a specific period in time.

This should be enough to make the marketers jump with joy, for they finally have a medium unparalleled in reach and impact. But very few seem to know how to make best use of this device to the advantage of their brands.

Of course, it has to do with how people use their smartphones: Flurry estimates 86 percent of the total time spent is on apps, whereas only 14 percent is on browser. Out of the total time spent on apps, 36 percent of is on gaming and entertainment, 32 percent on social media, and the remaining 18 percent goes to news, productivity, utilities and other apps. Unless your branded app serves any of these purposes, and does it better than users’ existing favourites, it is unlikely to get a share of their attention, even if it gets downloaded. Considering 90 percent of the branded apps have fewer than 10,000 downloads, the chances of success are slim.

This hasn’t deterred the marketers from building apps for their brands. As per Salesforce, mobile apps were supposed to be one of the top three focus areas in 2015, with 34 percent of marketers planning to launch at least one app. By the end of 2017, market demand for mobile app development services will grow at least five times faster than the capacity to deliver them, according to Gartner.

Technical aspects aside, some of the prominent reasons why branded apps don’t deliver the desired impact are:

Lack of purpose

Users will only download an app if it provides considerable value in exchange for their personal data and time. It must solve a problem, entertain them, or connect them to their friends—and do it better than other available apps. Considering there are over 1.6 million apps on Google Play and 1.5 million on the Apple App Store (statista.com), it is highly unlikely the brands will be able to come up with something of universal value that doesn’t exist already.

Nevertheless, the quest for greater adoption makes brand move forward without giving enough thought to their brand purpose, which defines their 'justified territory'. They therefore go on to solve someone else’s problem, such as a power-saving app from an automobile brand. More ambitious ones get bedazzled by the Facebooks and Zyngas of the world, and undertake a hugely resource-intensive task like developing a game or building a social network, completely forgetting even the internet giants awash with money and talent have had limited success in this space. Remember that Google has tried and failed to build a social network, not once, but thrice.

Short-term focus

Most marketers think of apps as marketing campaigns. This myopic view results in apps making no progress on organic discoverability, and to overcome an already high barrier of millions of apps, huge sums are spent to get downloads. Since the content is usually not compelling enough, gratifications drive the engagement, and as soon as things start to look good, the campaign ends and the app is abandoned—along with the opportunity for sustained long-term engagement with the user. Successful apps are adaptable to change. They require sustained investments to fix issues, introduce new features, and continuously improve the user experience.

Lack of an engagement plan

App usage is bound to decline if it doesn’t incorporate well-thought-out content interventions shared at the right time. These content interventions play to the strength of the mobile and take advantage of spontaneous, geo-sensitive usage for short period of time. Even apps belonging to popular categories like shopping have to reach out to users through a mix of notifications, reminders and refreshed content to remind them about their presence on the device. Statistics suggest that 95 percent of apps are abandoned within a month. Loopholes in strategy notwithstanding, it is often the execution that fails to engage users at an opportune time or win the dormant/lost ones back.

A Forrester report nicely sums the situation and offers some way forward as well:

Customers aren’t finding our apps to be compelling or convenient enough to outweigh the inhibitors of discovering, downloading, installing, and customising them. Consumers are, however, spending an increasing number of minutes each month on mobile phones in apps that offer compelling utility or entertainment. That doesn't mean you don't need an app. It means you must develop a mobile strategy that goes beyond owning mobile moments to borrow, rent, and use them from a broader ecosystem of partners.

A comprehensive mobile strategy

A comprehensive mobile strategy largely consists of identifying and managing mobile moments—instances in which a person uses their mobile to get specific information. Customers typically have 150 mobile moments every day (KPCB, 2013 Internet Report) over a total usage time of 177 minutes. Most of them may not be useful to a brand as they pertain to personal activities like checking messages or posting updates. In these moments, users are not necessarily looking to engage with brands. But there are some moments where brands could play a role, especially when users are looking for information. The key to success lies in taking a proactive approach to map out such mobile moments first, understand the intent and the context behind them and build a list of permutations and combinations of responses to be fed into an intelligent multi-device system which is able to respond quickly across the purchase funnel in both pre-purchase and ownership stages.

Pre-purchase stage

The pre-purchase stage is divided into two sub-stages: before the ‘need trigger’ and after it. The need trigger could be induced by an event, or it could be a drawn-out, multi-step, seemingly dormant process in which the customer leaves a lot of abstract signals. These signals are complex and could change as per the product category, individual preferences and the loss in offline-online transition. With the internet of things (IoT) gradually becoming a reality, we should be able to sharpen the signals to extract meaningful insights. Until that time, marketers will have to rely on data shared by sensors on smartphone and other connected devices to make our responses more targeted and relevant, such as businesses that have been using GPS location to push localised offers.

The need trigger could come from offline or online sources, or a combination of both, as simultaneous consumption of media is becoming more of a norm (Millward Brown AdReaction, 2014). As a result of the trigger, the user is likely to engage in an information/solution search through available channels. This initiation of search is called the ‘Zero Moment of Truth’ (ZMOT).

At this stage, if customer awareness about a brand is low, most of the mobile moments will be category- or competition-based searches. On the other hand, if category/brand awareness is significant, the user is likely to search for brand terms or visit a brand or ecommerce website. Depending on the stage of the user in the purchase cycle, the intent could range from pure research to immediate transaction. Therefore, we should prepare for a variety of response to deliver the best possible response to user’s query.

At this stage, building an app doesn’t make sense unless there’s a superb engagement idea. A search-optimised mobile site should be able to cover all the bases, especially the informational search queries related to the product. Therefore, the investment should be channelled to improve the visibility (both paid and organic) of the website in search engines through context-specific content.

Ownership stage

A customer’s positive experience with a brand gives the company more attention and therefore a greater opportunity to drive engagement, especially in case of a high-involvement purchase. Most marketers get greedy at this stage, and start building an app, which looks good on their CVs but doesn’t deliver any significant business or user value. There’s nothing wrong with the intent of getting more out of the relationship, provided a sanity check is done against the three key reasons for failure mentioned above.

Mobile moments in the ownership stage will be related to the customer trying to understand more about the product, and seeking more proof points to justify his/her purpose. They could also be related to potential issues or service. A brand’s role here is to provide content that bridges any potential gap in customers' understanding and lets them take the full advantage of the product features while building pride in the ownership. ‘How to’ videos and interactive illustrations can be particularly helpful in bridging the knowledge gap, whereas infographics and larger-than-life videos provide customers with tools to flaunt among their social circles.

Again, most of the information needs can be fulfilled through a mobile-friendly brand website or social-media platforms like YouTube and Facebook. The need for a native app does not arise except in cases where the customer expects frequent interaction with the brand, such as the financial category. However, discoverability of the content could be a potential issue, especially when organic ranking takes time, and even then may not get to the desired levels. In such situations there could be a case for integrating such content into an app, which gets frequently refreshed and reaches out to the customer as per the engagement plan.

Brands can also forge partnerships with existing popular platforms like WeChat to ‘borrow and rent’ mobile moments. This will not only save development effort for multiple OSes, but also minimise user interaction and acquisition costs. Considering platforms like WeChat are becoming ‘all-in-one’ destinations for all mobile moments, it is prudent to take advantage of the existing organic traffic and build ‘lightweight apps’ that sit within the platform, yet don’t require a separate download or login (a major adoption barrier).

At present there are over 10 million ‘official accounts’ on WeChat, including celebrities, banks, media outlets, fashion brands, hospitals, drug stores, car manufacturers, Internet startups, personal blogs. Seeing the success of this model, the world’s biggest instant-messenger WhatsApp may also follow suit and start offering similar services to businesses. Why is it critical? Because it’s unlikely that your customers who own a smartphone don’t have at least one of these apps installed.

Brands have been using social platforms like Facebook, which imitate the functions of a website from awareness to conversions, and have invested huge sums to build these communities. We also need to start considering assistants like Siri, Google Now and Cortana in our digital engagement plans. Google Now was recently opened for brands, and some proactive brands (like Shaadi.com matchmaking services in India) have already got on the bandwagon. The only drawback this approach of ‘borrowing and renting’ moments has is the lack of brand control in terms of design and data. The platform provider will continue to define the rules of the engagement—something we can live with in immediate term.

Beyond mobile moments

Engagement opportunities can also come from studying users' interaction with a product, the context around it, and how such interactions can be simplified, enhanced or made interesting using a mobile phone. I call them product moments. And to my mind, they offer a more comprehensive, innovative and long-term solution to sustained engagement. When we have such product moments mapped out in detail and there’s a genuine value on offer to the user, building an app is recommended, as such deep integration can only be achieved with a native platform.

Let’s consider a real-world case of a customer who’s just bought a car and spends a significant part of his time in daily commute. After the initial curiosity around the product subsides, he will initiate very few mobile moments related to the car, except maybe, scheduling a service, keeping a track of service offers or finding the nearest service centre. The customer will not go beyond these basic requirements, primarily because they are the most important and frequent ones, and also because he doesn’t know what else could be achieved with the mobile phone.

Here’s an example of how we can discover the product moments by studying his typical weekday:

Obviously, achieving some of this would require product and process modifications. Such opportunities may also vary as per the product/service categories. A cost-benefit analysis should be done after exploring the product moments to assess whether including any/all of these functions in an app makes sense.

Summary

'To build or not to build' an app is not the question. The real question is: what are the specific brand challenges you’re trying to tackle, and how is a mobile app going to achieve that for you—in ways better than other platforms. A comprehensive mobile strategy based on mobile moments will definitely achieve greater impact than building a standalone app. Having a permanent base in the most personal device of your existing or potential customer is a grand vision worth chasing. However, it ultimately comes down to what value you’re adding to the customer's life.

Nagendra Singh is regional digital planner at Blue Hive Asia Pacific.

 

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