Mobile marketing strategy: To app or not to app?

We speak with a range of mobile marketing industry experts to find out how brands can gauge whether to build a mobile app

mobile app icons
mobile app icons

There’s no doubt about it, the mobile apps market is booming. According to Gartner, mobile apps will be downloaded 268 billion times by 2017, generating revenues of US$77 billion and making these bite-size software pieces one of the most popular computing tools for users globally.

And with the rise of wearable technologies and machine-to-machine communication, apps are set to become even more prolific in future.

But does that mean your brand needs to build a dedicated mobile app in order to to be successful? And if you are going to make the investment, what key considerations should factor into such a decision?

To find out, CMO spoke with local and global digital marketing experts to ascertain when marketers should take the plunge, and the potential pitfalls to be aware of when developing a mobile app as part of your mobile marketing and brand strategy.

Identify an app’s role first

According to Saatchi & Saatchi worldwide director of digital and social, and author of the book Mobile Magic, Tom Eslinger, marketers need to understand the role a mobile app will play for their brand first and foremost.

“There are some things can only be done with an app. For example, Nike couldn’t build its skateboarding experience where skate kids are filming and making demonstrations if they had to connect to the Internet via mobile in the middle of the desert,” he says. “But does Ikea need an app? Probably not – the company has a great mobile site you can communicate with. Amazon has both a mobile site and app.”

Intel’s Asia-Pacific creative director, Jayant Murty, agrees it’s only worth building an app if you have an ongoing and genuine consumer need to fulfil.

“If I was an athletics footwear company, and building an app meant I gave you a complete running experience wherever you are in the world, or provided you with something that allows you to be a fitter, better person, then there is a reason to build an app,” he says.

“Likewise, if it’s something that hasn’t been there before, or you’ve done things in a way that’s simpler for a consumer as well as relevant to them every day, it makes sense.

“But if I build an app to outline the best way to buy a refrigerator, and you’re only going to buy one every five years, that’s a waste of time. It’s only worth building apps if there is a genuine need and it’s likely to be used regularly.”

Murty points out there are more than 600,000 apps on the iTunes app store today, yet consumers have an average of just 40 on their phone, many of which are not even all used.

“Mobile apps are a bad place to start, but a good place to end if you’re going to make a difference to a consumer’s life,” he claims.

Rob Marston, founder and managing director of mobile consultancy group, Zeus Unwired, divides mobile apps into two camps: Entertainment and utility. To be successful in building an app, he advises brands to make sure they do at least one of these well, adding that it’s rare to succeed in both fields.

For a utility-oriented app, the key is simplicity and making it easy to share, while with an entertainment-based app, the focus needs to be driving loyalty and usage.

Head of strategy and commercial at tech consultancy Tigerspike, Phil Herborn, positions apps in terms of product and services enhancement, or marketing campaign activity.

“When it’s done as a product or service, then there’s a good long-term case for moving into the app space; short-term campaigns can be hit and miss and often leave people disgruntled, or result in negative post-campaign app store feedback,” he comments.

“The real opportunity is in that product and services innovation area, especially for marketers. They often don’t get to create product… but they can play a significant role in products and service through the app space.”

As a way of understanding the right approach for clients, Eslinger says Saatchi & Saatchi works to first understand the most frictionless path between a brand and its customers. “That could be making content and partnering with an agency, or doing a campaign powered by Instagram only, using someone else’s API, or making a cool little game, like we did with Faberge for the Easter egg hunt here,” he says.

Herborn advises brands to look at the opportunity digital creates, not just mobile apps.

“It could be about building on something that exists – for example, a membership group could create an app as an extension of its offer. But we’re also getting approached to do greenfield product opportunities for clients, where the product is formed from a mobile-first approach.”

Keep the focus on simplicity and functionality

While the trend just a few years ago was to rush out and build an app, agencies claim intelligence has matured across the industry around what it takes to do this successfully.

James Kirkham, the global head of social and mobile at Leo Burnett and co-founder of boutique consultancy Holler, says we’ve moved away from a time when big brands started by asking ‘what can the app be?’ to thinking about mobile as part of a wider engagement piece. Kirkham is speaking at this year's ADMA Global Forum.

“From a broad marketing and brand perspective, marketers initially saw mobile apps as a new channel to do some advertising in, much like websites,” Kirkham says. “I think brands now realise apps often fulfil specific needs for consumers. It needs to be a utility, and provide stuff that augments our lives or make our lives easier. That’s not the easiest thing for a brand to muscle in on, because they are not always the most useful things, or serve that same purpose.”

Kirkham adds keeping the functionality of an app simple is vital. “Punters don’t want loads of stuff on an app, they want something that’s pure and simple and serves a single purpose,” he says. “Historically, a brand would have seen an app as a way to cram as much stuff about their brand as they possible could into this new space, and that naivety led to app blindness.

“Now, whoever you speak to, if the resolution is the idea would work perfectly in an app, then chances are it has a real usefulness, and is aligned to the proposition of the brand.”

Herborn agrees brands are getting smarter about rationalising what’s provided through an app. “You need a few key features that improve people’s lives. There’s also more sophistication around user design and a better understanding of what makes a good versus great app,” he says.

To illustrate, Herborn points to Woolworths and Accor Group’s loyalty apps, which are designed to help members get the most out of the membership programs. He also highlights Westfield San Francisco’s ‘dine in time’ app, which allows consumers to pre-order food, and pick it up from the food court at a specified time.

“It’s a frictionless experience, and an enhancement of its existing product, which is the dining area,” Herborn adds.

Related: CMOs using mobile apps to drive customer loyalty, finds report

Kirkham encourages brands to look at ways to tie their mobile app to other media channels and consumer interactions. As an example, he highlights a beach campaign by Nivea that brought together traditional print advertising and its mobile app while also emphasising its sunscreen product range. The print ad featured a detachable, location-aware child’s wrist strap that enabled parents to monitor their children digitally while at the beach.

“Generally, we’re finding brands are more welcome to a slightly broader or sideways look at their role and therefore what an app can do for them,” he says.

As a CMO, the trick is to keep it simple: Do a few things exceptionally well and then promote it, Herborn says. “Often these apps get overcooked; you need to iterate and evolve over time.”

Both Saatchi & Saatchi and Zeus Unwired encourage clients not to build apps unless they are committed to them long-term. Eslinger compares an app to getting a dog – “it’s for life” – while Marston points to the ongoing need to update content to keep consumers engaged.

Marston also believes marketers who devise a pure mobile strategy are looking at things the wrong way.

“The right way of looking at this is by asking ‘how do I mobilise all of my assets across my entire communications piece?' For example, how can you use mobile in conjunction with TV, or using mobile as a way, or to leverage outdoor advertising?” he asks.

“You need to look at how mobile fits across all of the channels, not just as a push SMS campaign or building an app. That’s part of a mobile strategy, but it’s not a mobile strategy in and of itself. It’s a tactic within a strategy.”

Focus on content distribution

Building the app is one thing; promoting it is a completely different ball game. Kirkham says supermarkets, which already have loads of advertising and in-store footfall, have a ready-made distribution channel to promote utility-based mobile app offerings.

“If the app is something people can gradually get onto, that augments their lives, and there are natural ways to get that app seen, then that’s a lovely opportunity for a brand,” he says. “Unless you already have a lot of real estate, it’s hard to get that cut through.”

Marston notes the often-overlooked area of App Store Optimisation (ASO) and making sure your 'metadata' is all in order, such as name and category.

“Getting your app into a prominent ranking in its category means you can benefit from a significant amount of 'free' organic traffic to your app,” he claims. “There are companies that already see their app store rank in a similar way to their rank in Google search listings.”

This is particularly important on the iTunes store, Marston claims, pointing out the algorithm works on a number of factors including install rate velocity, uninstall, rankings and feedback sentiment. “Work this channel as you would your social media presence and engage in dialogue,” he suggests.

Don’t be afraid to stop at one

For brands that do want to make the leap into the apps space, don’t be afraid to stop at one. Several agencies advise investing in multiple apps for discrete factors and needs. In the case of a retail brand, for example, this could be an app for loyalty members, and a separate app for ordering or recipes.

“Nike has created a suite of apps and if I liked football, then the Nike football app was for me, but the Nike running app wasn’t. Brands can have multiple apps and promote them accordingly,” Kirkham says. “It’s not like you expect everything from a single TV channel or site; they all have a purpose and reason for being. That clarity of purpose is key.”

The location-based functionality of mobile devices is another area apps could be better utilised. Herborn notes rising interest in iBeacon technology and using location-based to drive marketing offers, and says there are other interesting things brands can do to personalise the real-time experience for customers.

One is changing the state of a mobile app based on where the user is located. For example, if a user is 500 metres away from a restaurant, the app could help them get to that location or entice them to that location. When in-store, the app could change into a tool for product-decision making, while at the point-of-sale terminal, an app could offer frictionless payment experience, he explains.

Whatever way you look at an app, Marston emphasises that the build process doesn’t stop with the launch.

“Personally, I’m not a huge fan of apps, largely because they’re expensive to build, you have to maintain them, it’s expensive to get people to download them and then you have to keep coming up with ways to update them,” he says.

“Having said that, if you have built an app, it has an audience and people are engaging with it, then the fascinating thing in the Web world… is you can advance, change, iterate and consumers don’t see that as a failure.

“It again reflects that digital is not a destination but a journey – that’s even more apparent in mobile.”

When NOT to invest in an app

Here, we offer a checklist brands can use to identify when they definitely don't need to invest in an app:

  • If you don’t have other mobile touch points in place: “You need to do these first before jumping into an app, such as having a responsive site,” Herborn says.

  • If you’re searching for a reason for its existence: As Kirkham makes clear, not every brand needs to build a mobile app. “The moment a brand is searching for one, they probably should stop and invest in other areas,” he claims. “Using technology for the sake of it is the worst thing in the world. You have to start with the idea, and what resonates with people. If the idea has human resonance, then it’s one to follow. Technology should be the facilitator and secondary.”

  • If you can’t support or look after it: Today’s consumers expect apps to be continuously evolving to respond to their needs. Investing in an app for a short-term campaign only to stop support a month later could lead to negative post-campaign feedback on app stores, Herborn points out. Those brands who don’t plan on any long-term innovation of their mobile app should think twice before making the initial investment.

  • If you lack the data to measure and tweak it: Today’s customer demands a high level of user experience and innovation. Brands that lack the data or ability to measure their mobile app to meet these changing expectations quickly and efficiently, could wind up wasting time and money, Herborn says.

  • If you don’t have the money or channels to promote it: Just like any content you produce, mobile apps need to be marketed and positioned. If you have no ability to promote your app, you’re probably better off spending the money elsewhere.

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