It's amazing to think that, just over a year ago, there wasn't a tablet computer market. Apple and its fast followers have been so effective at weaving this new product into our lives that in some ways it feels like we've had them for years. In other ways, however, the nascence of the tablet platform is clear, particularly in the efforts of marketers to come to grips with this new medium. Here are some recommendations to help you through the process:
Make it fit with the rest of the brand story
Whether the app is part of an individual campaign or a general brand experience, it has to ladder up to something greater. An app must be considered as part of a brand strategy and fill a key gap in consumer touchpoints. 76 Gasoline, for example, added in a nice complement to their We're on the Driver's Side campaign with the somewhat silly, but on-message Ticket Talker 3000 app, which serves up funny excuses for drivers to use if they're stopped for speeding.
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Comcast's new Xfinity app and the Time Warner Cable TV app also address this issue. To stave off countless upstarts seeking to cannibalize their customers, these two cable companies must fight the perception that they have old technology and establish a drumbeat of boundless choice; their apps fit seamlessly with their traditional advertising messages as a way to keep their consumers from looking elsewhere for entertainment and high speed data service. Demand was clearly there, proven by both apps presence near the top of the iTune's app store's "most popular" list.
Make it special
A tablet is still a special experience and the best apps make use of the medium. I recently had a client tell me they wanted a lot of "finger candy" in the app, meaning lots of things to pinch, expand, and zoom around the screen. My initial reaction was negative; why would we want to put in gratuitous features? But then I realized he was on to something -- for better or worse, the end user wants something to play with in order to show off their shiny new device. In practice, this means that even if your app and website both leverage a similar code base (see below), they shouldn't look the same. The New York Times app is a great example of this; a totally different layout makes it seem like a bigger deal, even though it provides the same information as their site. While they maintain some common UI paradigms, just the shift from vertical scrolling to horizontal gives it a totally different feel.
Make it extensible
Ah, the big "E," everyone's favorite buzz word, brought to you by HTML5. As Eric Schmidt said at Mobile World Congress in February: "HTML5 is the way almost all applications will be built, including for phones." HTML5 is certainly the foreseeable future for browsers and tablets. If you don't know about it, it's worth your time to get a basic education. In brief, HTML5 is a supported standard (one of the few) that Apple and Google agree on through Webkit, the engine that powers the display for Chrome and Safari across PC, TV, iOS, Android, and other platforms. HTML5 allows the same code to run across all of those platforms. The benefit of building a website with standards-compliant HTML5 is that by doing so you get an iPad (and iPhone) app nearly for free. Make some key style sheet changes to let the app have signature tablet characteristics, put it in a native wrapper, and you're up and running. If the app is simple, this is a great way to bring down development costs and get into the tablet game with low risk.
But remember, it's all about performance
If the app has heavy animation or your marketing strategy includes a game, HTML5 probably won't do it and you'll need to turn to native code, called Objective C. While there's no transferability from the Web to the tablet in this case, it's important to remember that there is nothing worse than serving up a bad user experience.
Make it useful
Nobody is going to download an app that's just a big ad for your brand. (If they do, ask them to install a bunch of your display ads on their desktop while they're at it.) You need to provide tangible value, ideally beyond what you can get on another platform. For instance, Chase Mobile lets you take advantage of the camera in the iPad2/iPhone to do home check deposit, putting an ATM in your hands. And Betty Crocker's recipe app goes beyond recipes and shopping lists to provide a "cook mode" that takes you through every step, and even makes a knuckle-sized hit state to account for cooks with greasy fingers.
Give it away, give it away now
I've been ranting about this for some time: Don't think of your app as a revenue stream. Marketing apps function best when they support -- not supplant -- your core product. CBS and Turner Sports' March Madness on demand is a great example of this. Sure, they probably could have sold a few thousand apps, but by giving it away instead, they achieve massive distribution -- cracking the top ten in the app store, driving more awareness of the TV broadcasts, and doing a premium sponsorship with Coke Zero. Nicely done.
Test and learn, test and learn
Remember that every successful property on the web started small. Don't try to make your first launch the biggest and baddest app of all time. Instead, try to launch the smallest, most gem-like and simple piece of software you can. Recruit some brand zealots to check it out before it goes out the door and let them give you some feedback -- they'll pay you back by telling the world how great it is when they see their feedback included. Once it's up, keep testing, figure out what works and what needs help and what people respond to. We've got a saying at our company: "Reverse engineer your power users." Often the serious users will tell you what to do next.
We've only begun to scratch the surface on how to market with tablets, but you can bet that we'll keep learning lessons and keep getting better at it as the platform evolves.
Andrew Solmssen is the Los Angeles managing director at Possible Worldwide.
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