So you spent countless hours in internal meetings, fought detractors for budget allocation, and worked tirelessly with a new crop of "everyone-knows-them" vendors on design and development. The fruits of your labor have culminated with your shiny new app. Congratulations, you are now at the starting line!
As the app garnered more attention for the mobile phone than virtually anything since the phone call itself, companies of all sizes have been seduced by its potential. Brands, content publishers, and developers filled the Apple catalog with great enthusiasm. But often overlooked on the speedy path to the consumer's pocket were necessary overall strategies and marketing plans.
For many years now, mobile, as an overall platform, has offered opportunities for companies to interact with their audiences' handsets. Whether it is text messaging, interactive voice response (IVR), or custom-built expensive applications, brands have experimented with essentially what Apple opened to the world with the introduction of its third-party app platform. Due to the iPhone's -- as well as the iPod Touch's and iPad's -- tremendous popularity and the ease of use of the App Store, Apple's catalog of available programs swelled to beyond the 200,000 mark. In that success lies several basic challenges that all companies now face with their new apps. How and why would a consumer find and use a new app in that enormous sea of opportunities? That is the tactical question. The business question is, of course, how can the app generate increased consumer engagement with your brand and return on investment?
Gentlemen, start your revisions
The common path into the app world is the introduction of an iPhone version, which is logical. Apple offers access to a large and active audience with an expectation of using apps, and has a built-in distribution channel through the iTunes App Store. However, in a well-thought-through app plan, this is just the first step. If a company is committed to engaging mobile users following its app's premiere, it needs to address revisions immediately, as well as versions for other smartphone platforms.
Unfortunately, most apps are developed in the vacuum of internal conversations and developer offerings. This means that once an app is sent into the wild, users may have quite different reactions to marketers' sterling concepts and will find usage faults that QA testing teams have missed. In developing apps, this user group should be a brand's most prized asset. And the App Store is not just a pretty distribution outlet. It is an instant-feedback board, enabling users to applaud and critique any app, and shows that even the best apps have room for improvement. Quickly incorporating the different user voices, ideas, and collective group-think into version 1.1 is essential. It lets brands actively show their attention to their customer base, and provide real value to them -- as opposed to settling for internally perceived value. Revisions need to be a constantly ongoing process -- and budgeted for in an initial plan -- where the first one or two improvement sets need to be deployed quickly.
Conversely though, many companies become gun-shy about updating their app, with fear that they might disturb the users. In fact, the update is a highly valuable marketing tool that can actually increase the app's overall usage. An update notice appears on the consumer's iPhone (as well as on the PC version of iTunes), and can be a simple reminder to consumers that they even have a particular app. Due to the number of free apps available, consumers often collect multiple pages of them. Further, the newest operating system enables users to create folders, which group apps and move brand logos off the first level of the phone-top. The app update may be intended to provide a better experience, but it can generate greater overall value from the existing install base.
Expand the field
While the iPhone is a heavily used smartphone platform, it is not the only one, and companies need to address the larger market segment in order to garner a larger audience. Currently in the U.S., Google Android and BlackBerry are the next most common avenues, due to growth potential and existing handsets sold, respectively. However, each smartphone development environment is different, meaning that separate efforts are required to even provide the same feature set.
A primary benefit of the Apple world is that due to its exclusivity in the U.S. with AT&T, an iPhone is an iPhone is an iPhone. The other two operating systems add two significant variables into the development equation by using a multi-carrier, multi-handset strategy. This lets manufacturers expand to a wider potential audience, but the sacrifice of homogeneity can cause many kinds of new challenges and, often, app breakdowns altogether.
For example, some of the bells and whistles that work perfectly on one carrier's Android handsets, such as location-based services, fail to function on another's. The good news is these are the types of app fixes that can be done with revisions. In fact, the Android environment most resembles that of the iPhone. It was built from the ground up to work with third-party applications, and Google and partners actively promote the Android Market for consumers to shop for apps.
In the BlackBerry world, the deployed devices vary greatly in terms of operating systems and screen sizes, in addition to being used across every major wireless network. Needless to say, development is difficult and apps have a reputation for working inconsistently, or not at all, across handsets.
The BlackBerry's roots lie in mobile email first and foremost, and the other features like mobile web, apps, and even calling were add-ons. To further cement the issue, its consumers do not think of these as app devices. This truth is quite apparent when you consider the mere 7,000 apps in its official catalog. That said, BlackBerry still has the largest existing install base of smartphones in the U.S. market, as it had a good running lead, and is additionally attractive due to its high concentration of business users.
Smart mobile strategies understand the possibilities and limitations of different mobile avenues and technologies, and always put the consumer first. With more smartphone platforms either here or coming -- a new release of Windows Mobile, Palm (now an HP property), and the Nokia-heavy environment outside the U.S. -- distraction will continue to abound. And this says nothing of servicing the "dumbphone" audience. Marketers need to plan their attack, resources, and budgets appropriately to continue to grow their engaged audience efficiently.
Promote, promote, promote
The app is the newest of a company's consumer assets and needs to be supported in order to get it into users' hands. This is a reality that many marketers are in denial about or just miss outright, with budget being the most common scapegoat. In fact, the required promotional expense may be more than the development and operations of the app itself. A marketing plan cannot bank on the distant hope of Apple or Verizon featuring its app in a commercial or that the Twitter-verse will fuel "organic growth" by passing on its praises and download links for an app. Consequently, marketing is a crucial component of any app plan before a single line of code is written.
Take Kraft Foods for example. It is widely considered an early winner in the app environment. Ed Kaczmarek, the company's director of innovation, recently said that roughly two-thirds of an app budget should be allocated towards promotion. Even if other companies are not prepared to be that aggressive, a zero dollar budget can lead to minimal downloads, and virtually no ROI.
Instead of being overcome with fear, marketers should realize the great range of options available to cohesively and cost-effectively support their apps. One key to this strategy is to leverage the brand's existing assets. (Unfortunately, this can carry the steepest challenge, due to internal politics.) This means adding links and tabs on the company's PC and mobile websites; this means adding language and imagery to traditional advertising in print, TV, radio, mailings, and on-package. The app is a new component of brand identity, and app stakeholders need to raise the consumer awareness every way possible.
Now add in the most direct route to a consumer's hand: buying mobile media. The most widely available advertising consists of small, interactive banner ads on other mobile websites and apps. Clicking on the banner can directly move the consumer to download or purchase an app. The placements can take on different physical variations -- full page takeovers, pre-roll video, etc. -- but because the goal is to get consumers to acquire an app, it is very easy to do on the same device where the app itself runs.
Mobile advertising additionally offers significant advantages over its traditional web brethren. The lack of clutter existing on the mobile screen, with one ad per page being the norm, lets a brand stand alone with the content in this intimate environment. This is a primary driver of higher interaction (click-through) rates compared to that of a PC. Despite this apparent opportunity, most companies have still not engaged in mobile campaigns -- even those companies that have built apps. Isn't it a bit hypocritical for a company to believe in the value of being on a mobile device to engage audiences and alternatively argue against the value of advertising there?
Buying ad space is relatively straightforward right now. However, buying smartly requires guidance and experience, which can be "bought" as well. Some platforms are significantly better than others in terms of operations and understanding of their own capabilities. In fact, some large media companies that buyers assume are proficient in mobile fall near the bottom of the barrel in terms of quality of executions. The savvy mobile ad buyer identifies where the strongest options exist to engage the right audience for its app, and at the right price. As there is currently a good degree of chaos in the mobile media market, this should be exploited to significantly stretch any app budget.
Selling mobile advertising: A whole new race
While brands and marketers work one side of the mobile aisle, the other side belongs to the platforms and publishers. Where the largest mobile ad networks were born in the mobile industry, many companies have charged their own sales teams to sell mobile ad inventory directly. Magazines are an easy example here, where management determined that sales teams should just sell space in a mobile app as they do in print and online. This is setting the staff up to fail or, at minimum, get taken advantage of.
Mobile is unique. Apps, even more so. Education for how to sell a mobile program needs to consist of more than merely placing a new slide in the PowerPoint deck. Otherwise, salespeople rely on their own general experiences as consumers to support their efforts and can too easily make significant mis-assumptions and false promises.
There needs to be an understanding as to what mobile -- and more specifically, your own mobile app -- can do and what can be easily built. The advantage of the app is the customizable experience it creates, as well as the multiple direct consumer actions it offers. Want a consumer to connect to a sponsor's call center with a single touch on an actual phone? Done. Want to be able to determine users' locations and drive them to the closest retailer's store? No problem. How about playing an exclusive sponsored, behind-the-scenes video launched by a reader waving the app over the print issue itself? This is the easy stuff, and there are hundreds of different elements that can be crafted into a larger program to meet the goals of advertisers. This comprehension is critical. Knowing the mobile market landscape is as well, and bringing in advisors to help internal teams on both fronts can rapidly move them well ahead of the proverbial curve and competition. The secret for publishers is to determine how to creatively couple their content, app platforms (and other mobile resources), and traditional assets to enable clients to reach consumers in new, effective ways.
If a publisher sells its app media as just more banner space, it greatly discounts its value and revenue opportunity. If it doesn't take advantage of building full programs, it might as well leave the sales in the hands of the ad networks alone, who will just add it as a commodity in their lists of publishers.
Mobile is clearly an area that gets a good deal of buzz, and the app is still the king of that. But it is only one tactic in what should be a larger mobile strategy. Companies that rushed to get their apps into the market can still take a step back, reorganize from a higher level, and fortify their approaches. They can still generate significant value from existing and new assets by applying a cohesive strategy and marketing plan. This medium is about connecting directly and intimately to consumers. Regardless of the hype cycle, that component won't go away.
On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.