Build a better branded app

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Apps are a hot topic -- it seems like everywhere you turn, companies are touting their new branded applications for mobile phones and social networks. Unfortunately, the influx of new apps varies greatly in quality. From a brand perspective, the best ones provide a useful service in an easy-to-use format but also make it easy for users to find more information about the company's products or services. The best of these apps are a win-win for all parties involved.

At the end of the day, it's still about a big idea -- finding a way to express your brand or present your product that connects with consumers. Here are a few key lessons that have helped brands break through the noise and make sure their apps stand apart. By following these steps, you can create deeply engaging social experiences for your users, and ensure a greater rate of success.

Make sure your app matters
As our social media strategist Alan Wolk has said, "Your brand is not my friend." His point was that brands can no longer just sell; they must engage, too. The digital revolution has caused a dramatic shift in consumer behavior. Consumers have more access to information than ever before, and are in a new position of power. The company is no longer the sole source of product information, and consumers have little reason to care what companies say about their own brands. Apps, on the other hand, provide a new tool for companies to engage with their customers, to again be a source of information, and to become -- dare I say -- a friend?

But before you start building anything, you first need to take a good long look at your audience and consider what it will take for them to download and install your app. This starts with an understanding of how and why consumers use your site, and what about the app is most likely to appeal to your audience.

Audience understanding can influence choices about:

  • Platform: Where/when do your customers need your content most? When they're at their computer? When they're on the road? What's the use case?

  • Content: What content are they trying to access? Do you have to hold their hands while they explore or can they find some information on their own?

  • Functionality: What areas of your site/tools are most valuable from the platform they're likely to interact from?

Once you understand your audience's platform preferences, content needs, and functional desires, it's time to think about what you can provide that will meet all these needs. Is your app entertaining? Is it informative and easily utilized? Does it offer an incentive? Knowing your audience is an essential step in building an app that engages them. As a brand, demonstrating this understanding will bring you one step closer to being a friend.

Examples of winning apps
A great example of an informative branded app is TripAdvisor's iPhone app. It not only locates hotels and restaurants in a given area, but also provides user reviews. It's a successful app because it blends branded content with user data to help consumers make better purchase decisions.

Last year Pizza Hut created an app for mobile users that allowed them to build their own pizzas by dragging and dropping toppings onto virtual crusts and sending their orders to the closest Pizza Hut restaurant. And Lego, keeping the younger profile of its customer base in mind, produced an app that turned any photo into a Lego-pixelated image. Imagine how many hours parents were able to keep their kids entertained with that simple idea.

Another company, Vitaminwater, created a "FlavorCreator" Facebook app that let fans vote to determine the brand's next flavor. The company offered $5,000 to the winning flavor creator, further incentivizing the experience.

One of the great advantages of apps is that they're not necessarily confined to a corporate website or a company's own distribution on the social web. Viral syndication of an app can drive meaningful brand awareness and turn customers into brand ambassadors.

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