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5 new ways brands can go beyond the browser

Max Zabramny
5 new ways brands can go beyond the browser Max Zabramny

As the development environment changes, interactive agencies are taking advantage of a new class of tools to build custom applications that go far beyond traditional notions of web applications and widgets. For marketers, these apps make it possible to blur the distinctions between browser and desktop, online and offline, thus creating a relevant, engaging, high-value brand experience that's integrated more seamlessly than ever into consumers' daily lives. 

For these apps to fulfill their potential, though, both agencies and marketers need to understand what's now possible, why it matters and how best to leverage these technologies to execute successful campaigns. The following principles are drawn from our experience at Organic, working on the front lines with our clients on the next generation of interactive user experiences.

First, a few notes on the tools we're talking about:

  • Adobe AIR, the clear frontrunner in this space, lets developers use their existing skills to build web-based apps that don't have to stay on the web. HTML, JavaScript, Flash and Flex can be used to make the apps as interactive and animated as you want, with a completely customized look.

  • Google Gears extends browsers to enable richer web applications and lets you interact with Gears-enabled websites, even offline.

  • Mozilla Firefox 3, expected to arrive this summer, will offer similar offline availability.

The emergence of these tools comes in tandem with the realization by marketers that the browser is not going to be the only medium in the digital space. As brands seek to build a closer, more relevant relationship with consumers, mobile and offline environments will play an increasingly important role, as will a more holistic way to think about digital experiences.

To help you prepare for your journey down this path, here are five things you can do with this new class of apps on steroids.

Think big
As brands begin to come up to speed on the latest interactive tools, clients are asking their agencies for "widgets" -- often without knowing what they really mean. The definition is vague and implies limited capabilities. When you tell the client that you're building a full-fledged application -- with its own icon, real security, the ability to save things locally -- with the same tools used for a website, they almost don't believe it. The biggest challenge can be grasping the full range of what's now possible.

Take online banking, for example. Frequent travelers know there are certain things you can do on a plane (write emails, work on documents), and other things you can't (send messages, browse the web). Banking has traditionally fallen squarely in the latter category, but if it were possible, it would be a great way to make productive use of your time in seat 7A.

With AIR, you now have the capability of building an application that allows you to do your banking offline, using personal data, account information, etc., synced from your last active internet connection. Pay a bill or make a transfer no matter where you are; the next time you sync, your transaction goes through automatically without bothering you for a confirmation. The app would even live on your desktop, launched the same way as Excel or Quicken, with no need to open a browser.

Worried about security? With AIR, it's arguably even stronger than a website. Transactional data is encrypted the same way, but your personal information is even more secure because the first time you sync, it gets saved locally to your machine, along with your history, and stays on your PC instead of constantly jumping across the network.

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Blur the line between web and desktop
Web applications are typically limited because they don't have access to files on your machine. But consumers don't care about where information lives, what they're built with or why things might look different in one browser or another -- they just want things to work. With AIR, an app always looks the same no matter what platform it runs on -- and it can blend data from web and desktop within a single, seamless experience.

Nickelodeon has incorporated this idea into a puzzle game for non tech-savvy kids. Players go to the Nickelodeon website and find puzzle pieces by browsing, answering questions and other interactions. When they find one, they drag it to an AIR puzzle in progress on their desktop, where it snaps intuitively into place.

It's not hard to think of a grown-up version. Imagine an automaker that wants to enable drivers to create, compile and share their own driving playlists; after all, people love to socialize their playlists. Using AIR, you would be able to create an app that figures out what songs a user has on his desktop, then syncs it with his profile on the brand's website -- creating a much deeper brand interaction and relationship.

In both these cases, functionality is running on both the desktop and the browser -- and the consumer doesn't need to know or care.

Expand your brand footprint
Until recently, every brand experience online had to make one compromise: appearing within the same medium as everyone else's, mediated by that Explorer, Firefox or Safari window. With this new breed of apps, you don't have to live in that world anymore; your brand can constitute the entire environment.

eBay, one of first companies to work with Adobe while AIR was in beta, has created a desktop app that lets you do everything you do on the eBay site but in a more immersive brand experience, down to buttons, menus and icons with a distinctive eBay feel. It brings you a lot closer to the brand, eliminating that common web entry point.

Anthropologie is another brand that has rethought the online shopping experience. In the past, online shopping has borne little resemblance to walking into a store and trying things on -- it's all checkboxes and "shopping carts" rather than intuition and serendipity. Anthropologie used AIR to build an app that launches a full-screen, animated, deeply enriched experience: products move all around you in a beautifully designed layout and can be moved by you as well. It's much closer to replicating the ideal retail experience and makes a much more powerful brand impression.

Take it offline
A lot of times, we look at the browser to see what's possible in the digital world. But as a marketer, you have to realize that your audience might not always be connected to your site -- and also that they might want to take a piece of your site with them when they leave or access its functionality when they're far from a PC. An important thing to understand is that applications written in AIR don't need to be web-centric. In fact, they might never need to access the web at all, even though the tools used to build the app are based on the interactive world.

Consider scheduling tools. A desktop application is all well and good, but what about an app that lives at the conference room itself? To book a meeting, people could consult a touch-screen monitor at the door, find an open slot in a branded interface and sign up then and there. This is technology that lives in the digital world, with roots in the web, but not being used in a web way.

In a sense, this is a new way of thinking about "sticky:" It used to mean keeping people within your online brand experience. Now, it means keeping the brand experience with people -- even when they're offline.

Become indispensable
As the possibilities expand, digital marketing agencies now have the freedom and flexibility to look beyond capabilities and start with pure concept. Look at daily life, think about things that would be helpful to be able to do and assume you'll find ways to make it possible.

Equinox had a problem: Hour-long lines for popular spinning classes made for a dismal brand experience. Organic built an app for them that can be pulled into a mobile phone or onto the desktop to manage the user's entire brand experience: review the gym's schedule of classes; keep track of appointments for personal training; pull up account details and book reservations for a bike, then get a text alert back to confirm. It even syncs with Outlook. It's the kind of thing gym-goers dream of, and they'll use it every day -- all within a richly branded environment.

As you begin to explore and exploit the many possibilities of apps on steroids, it's also important to think about how you'll explain and sell your ideas to the client. Prototyping now plays a central role for us in communicating today's more complex digital concepts. Rather than trying to paint a picture -- or a movie --with words and static images, we put a functional version of the app itself into the client's hands. This is especially useful for helping the client socialize our proposal internally when we're not around to explain. Prototyping has been seen in the past as a costly extravagance, but today's more powerful tools and expanded skill sets -- combined with the sophistication of the concepts we now propose -- make it a practical and essential part of daily work for any digital marketing agency.

You might think there's a lot involved in getting this capability up and running within an agency, but developers don't need to acquire new skills; it's all the same as doing things on the web. Even better, in fact, because they are freed from constraints like load time and screen resolution that only matter online. On the other hand, the greatest pitfall with any exciting new tool is the temptation to find a way to use it. The concept must drive the technology -- not the other way around.

Above all, heed Organic's mantra: Empathy leads to Exceptional Experience. It's all about understanding the customer's world: how they use technology, what's useful to them, how they like to work and how they like to play. Look at how people live in the physical world and bring it back into digital. And make the brand a seamlessly integrated, valuable part of their daily life.

Max Zabramny is leader of the interface engineering group at Organic. 


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