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Best and worst practices for building branded apps

Alan Wolk
Best and worst practices for building branded apps Alan Wolk

One of the most common mistakes brands make in the digital space is the "me too" syndrome. A certain platform performs well for other companies, gets a lot of media attention, and suddenly it's, "We need one of those too."

Attention is paid to the "what" and the "how" of obtaining the bright shiny object, but never to the "why." Why do we want one? Why would someone want the one we're building? Why are we spending so much money on something that we're not likely to see much return from?

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It happened with microsites. And for the past year or two, it's been happening with apps.

Mobile apps. Web-based apps. Everyone wants one. There are many success stories around apps and countless articles on how apps are going to replace the web. So it's the rare brand manager or ad agency type who won't suggest an app as part of the newest marketing campaign.

But apps are different than ads.

Ads are, by their very definition, created to promote a brand. Apps are not. If apps were like ads, then television would be chock full of fun 30-second films created solely to entertain us. A good ad would need to be as clever as those unbranded short films. And if you've spent any time in front of a television, you know that's highly unlikely.

With that in mind, let's take a look at reasons why some branded apps flourish while others flop.

Asking "why?"
So if apps are not ads, that brings us back to the "why" part of the equation. Why do we need an app? What do we hope to accomplish? That's where things get hairy. Because for many brands, it's tough to find a compelling reason.

That may sound like sacrilege, but it's also the truth: Not every brand needs an app.

The right reason to build an app is that you've identified an unmet consumer need. Your app doesn't have to cure a disease, but it does have to provide the consumer with an easy way to solve a problem, get information, save money, save time, or just have fun. And it has to do it better than anything else that's out there, branded or not.

That means your restaurant review app has got to be better than Yelp or Urbanspoon. Not "just as good as," but better. They've got a headstart. If you've got a game, it's got to be more addictive than Klondike or Scramble -- not just more addictive than the one you had on your microsite a few years back.

Aesthetics matter
So after you solve for need, you also need to solve for look and feel. People like their apps to be pretty, and engineers -- the people who actually build the apps -- aren't always big fans of pretty. Clean design, easy-to-read type, simple-yet-intuitive interfaces -- that's the price of entry circa August 2010, and it's well worth the money you spend on hiring a good designer.

Promoting your brand's app
Promotion is the final piece of the puzzle. Too many brands assume that creating the app is enough. Send out a few press releases, and you've done your job.


You've got to let your user base know that you've created an app and that you're very happy with how it's turned out. Chances are you've got a whole arsenal of ways to do this -- email lists, in-store signage, banners and buttons on your website, a chunk of white space on your monthly bills, maybe even some real estate on the product itself. The key here is to let people know about the app, give them a sense of what it does, and urge them to tell their friends if they like it. If you've done your job right, the app will sell itself and your customers will be its most vocal advocates.

Timing it right
But that still doesn't guarantee you success beyond your fan base. Apps go viral, or become spreadable, because they somehow manage to tap into the popular zeitgeist at a particular moment in time. The app market is very volatile, and large-scale success often happens in brief supernova-like bursts.

Don't let that stop you. An app that thrills and delights your fan base -- one that lets them do something they've always wanted to be able to do -- is a valuable tool. Build it correctly, and it will make your core consumers even more loyal.

So we've outlined some best practices for building and rolling out your branded app. Now let's move on to worst practices. If you build an app incorrectly or for the wrong reasons ("everyone else has one"), you're in trouble. So let's go over a list of what some of those wrong reasons might be:

No one needs it
An app that lets you store important phone numbers might seem like a genius idea. Until, of course, you realize that every phone comes with its own built-in phone book and that unless yours allows for thought-controlled dialing, there's not a whole lot of need for it. Sounds obvious, but look at how many brands introduce apps that recreate existing functionality just because that existing functionality happens to be the subject of their marketing push du jour.

It's only fun the first time
Lots of apps have a novelty factor: They're fun or funny the first time you use them, but after that -- well, there's no real reason to go back, and users wind up deleting them. That's a lot of money spent on a single impression. Not to mention the fact that you risk leaving your audience with a negative impression.

It's an ad in app clothing
Consumers aren't that naïve. If your app is just an advertisement disguised as an app -- if you're not a retail store and your app is just an ecommerce device or a thinly disguised sales pitch -- then you are dead in the water.

It's ugly
Remember all those poorly designed, impossible-to-navigate microsites? They've been reborn as apps. And they are just as difficult -- and unappealing -- to use as they were when they were microsites.

It's too pretty for its own good
The flip side of the ugly app is the overly designed one -- the one with the eye-popping graphics, stunning typography, and über-cool icons. The one in which users have no clue what they're supposed to do with those über-cool icons -- because they can't read the stunning typography -- because the designer didn't want it to interfere with the eye-popping graphics. Enough said.

It doesn't work
You'd think this one would be obvious. But too many apps are released before all the bugs are ironed out. So they crash constantly. They don't deliver the information they're supposed to. They forget your registration information. These and many other potential calamities reflect poorly on your brand and send users racing for the "delete" button.

It's inappropriate
For the intended audience, that is. You're selling a product aimed at female retirees, and your app is a car-racing game. Unless your target is latter-day Little Old Ladies from Pasadena, they're not going to be all that interested and will wonder why you thought they would be.

Mistakes like the ones mentioned on the previous page are easy to avoid. You just need to be aware of why you're doing everything you're doing as you create the app. To make sure that happens, I always go through this five-point checklist to ensure my clients are on track.

Why are we building this?
What's the ultimate business goal here? Is it as simple as creating buzz or driving more traffic? Or are we trying to shift perception, increase loyalty, or introduce a new product line? The actual reason itself is far less important than actually having one that everyone in the room can agree on.

What's our success metric?
Number of downloads is never my measure of choice; it's just too easy to game. You want your metrics to tie back directly to your goals. They need to answer the question, "Why are we building this?"

What unmet need are we looking to meet?
Users need a reason to download the app. "Because it makes me smile, and I like things that make me smile" can be a valid reason, but it never hurts to do a little research to confirm the consumer need before the project starts.

Are we putting enough time and money against user experience and design?
Companies that think nothing about spending $400,000 to produce a single TV commercial regularly balk at spending $400 for a few hours of user experience expert or design advice. Given how critical these two disciplines are, you can file that under "penny wise, pound foolish."

How do we plan to promote this?
As I noted earlier, the "Field of Dreams" approach no longer works. You've got to aggressively promote your new app, and using paid media should definitely be one of the approaches you consider. You've spent time and effort creating the app. Why not spend some money to let people know about it? But whether your plan is for paid media, earned media, or word of mouth, you do need to let people know about it.

So there you have it: all of the reasons you shouldn't build an app, and a list of checkpoints if you decide you should. The key question to keep in mind should always be "why?" As in "why are we doing this?"

If you can answer that credibly and successfully, your chances for success are quite good.

Alan Wolk is managing director of social media strategy for KickApps.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia at @iMediaTweet.


to leave comments.

Commenter: Liz Zedo

2010, September 22

Definitely apps are not ads...but what about ads in apps? TechCrunch recently reported that apps have been downloaded over 4 billion times and there are ways to monetize off of this phenomena. iPhone ad tags for example, which runs ads before or after the app is used.

I will be posting a blog about this on Monday 9/27 at http://blog.zedo.com/. Make sure to check it out!

Marketing Manager

Commenter: Howie Goldfarb

2010, September 22

This is an awesome article Alan. Great insight and I am going to save it for when I tell a client truthfully what they want to do in the App world and what they should do are two different things. Tell IMedia you single handedly were responsible for me registering. Mobile is near and dear to me. I just ended phone shame and have had a Droid2 for less than a month. I also like Big Picture view points. I will give you three.

1] Agencies/Developers that create Apps are incentivized to picth them to Brands as a way of increasing billings even if they are wasting the Brands money.

2] I have now confirmed after downloading a bunch of apps that many sit unused and probably will be uninstalled at some point.

3] The Android Marketplace has 70,000 apps. That is 65,000 too many. 99% I will never know exist (you mentioned this that you need to tell people the app exists, technically using advertising/promotion outside the App store, ie print, email, social etc). If Android has 65,000 too many doesn't Apple have 145000 too many?

This morning I decided to add a Flashlight App and did a search. Android has 12 of them.

Commenter: Jeff Cannon

2010, September 22

Great writeup. It does go back to the basics, even when in branding of the who, what, where, when, why and how of the brand, the product, and the business.

Another call to think before running forward.

Think Cannon