Branded apps vs. platform apps: Which should you choose?

Any advertiser worth his or her salt today knows he or she must reach consumers on every screen and that marketing to an increasingly mobile audience is a critical component of any ad strategy. But when it comes to your next advertising campaign, how do you choose whether to create your own app or tap into an existing platform? Since both have their own advantages and drawbacks, which is the best solution for your target audience and your brand? Let's take a look at the pros and cons of each.

Branded app: Pros

The key advantages of branded apps are their ability to aid in the management of customer relationships and to build loyalty with existing patrons. By rewarding customers for repeat business and designing apps that continuously to appeal to them, brand affinity is cultivated and strengthened. For example, Walgreens partnered with Starbucks for a coupon campaign last November that encouraged users to download the store's app to receive discounts and specials on Starbucks products. In this way, the convenience store chain was able to directly connect with millions of shoppers who already had their app by pushing out value-added promotions -- thereby influencing consumer actions as a result.
 
Though brands must commit to investing in both updates and rewarding content in order to successfully reach their audience, this works brilliantly when it happens. Food stores, retail chains, and lifestyle brands that have a regular daily or weekly relationship with their customers often do this best.

Another benefit is that users are already familiar with seeing an advertisement or commercial that prompts them to download an app to receive more information or to access exclusive content or services. Since there's no new behavior to teach, advertisers don't need to worry about educating the consumer to the same extent as with a platform app.

Branded app: Cons

As the number of "must-have" apps has become unmanageable for the average consumer, serious brand app fatigue has set in. No one wants to download an app for every magazine they read, chocolate bar they eat, or shampoo they use -- especially when they ultimately just clog up devices, slow them down, and make it difficult to locate what's actually needed.

On the back end, branded apps can be prohibitively expensive to create and market from scratch -- and then there's the task of keeping the content current or facing decay post-launch. In order for a brand's app to maintain a coveted space on users' devices, it must provide more than one benefit and prompt repeat usage -- such as the ability to make mobile purchases, locate a nearby store, access coupons, and view a menu, for example. Without multiple strong value propositions, there's a good chance users will simply neglect the app and eventually remove it from their phone altogether.

Platform app: Pros

Few brands would consider launching their own social network or microblogging site, preferring instead to create a Facebook page or start a Twitter account. In a similar vein, instead of investing time, energy, and money into building a branded app, advertisers should consider partnering with new breed of platform-based apps like Shazam, Vine, or Flipboard to access their existing, growing single-app audiences.

The key advantage of platform apps is their ability to aid in the acquisition of new customers. Additionally, these types of apps are also effective for brands that don't have consistent customer connections -- like products that are impulse buys, for example. Since most of these platforms have an established user base, it's likely they already live on your target audience's phone or tablet. Word will spread faster when marketing to these built-in audiences, and there are opportunities for cross-pollination if you are working within a multi-brand company. Apps like Pinterest and Instagram have built-in feeds or catalogs so that users can easily explore other items of interest once they have the app open -- which means they may find your brand even without directly searching for it. This can provide a tangential boost to your campaign's visibility, and it's an option that branded apps lack.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly for a company's bottom line, is the fact that launching a campaign through a platform app is much more affordable. Costs to build the app itself are lower (or negligible), and brands don't have to spend a fortune on technology upgrades. Instead, they can just roll out new advertising campaigns through the platform app as they occur.

Platform app: Cons

It's typically much easier to create a new consumer behavior, like "tweeting" or "Instagramming," via one consistent app, as users will begin to associate the platform itself with the action they need to take. However, the caveat with utilizing an emerging platform app is that brands must be willing to invest in strong promotion to educate the consumers about what they need to do and why they should do it. Especially when the behavior is relatively new -- like using Shazam to "listen" to a song or using an AR app to bring a print advertisement or package to life -- marketers must dedicate significant ad copy or social media promotion toward telling users how to use the app.

Whether you choose to use a branded app or a platform app for your next advertising campaign, you must ensure that you've taken into account what is right for your brand and your target audience. If your brand's app already has millions of downloads, then it will make sense to continue to use it in future promotions. However, if it will be easier for potential users to fire up an app that they already use frequently, then a platform app is your best bet.

Jess Butcher is the co-founder and CMO at Blippar.

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