Even now, with mobile supposedly a more mature and well-understood channel, the first request we agencies and developers get asked by brands is ‘can we have an iPhone app?’
For many brands, mobile is still all about the latest tech and most sophisticated use of software and hardware. No matter that SMS, which is now celebrating its 20th birthday, is still an amazing and usable tool. No matter that mobile sites get forgotten in the quest towards the shiny and new. No matter that the first question should always be, ‘what are we trying to achieve here?’
For me, a handy rule of thumb is that apps are good for building loyalty, usually among existing customers, whereas mobile sites are more useful for customer acquisition. Your website is what people searching for your brand will encounter first, and let’s not forget that in May 2012 Google reported that mobile search had grown 500% since 2010.
That’s a lot of potential customers to ignore in favour of those who might or might not download your app. Some searches will take place on the app store, no question, but they tend to be for brands with a well-known name already (often car makers, or global consumer brands).
Alternatively, the search might be for a tool people need, such as a digital tape measure or barcode scanner. So ‘utility’ might be a way into mobile for your brand, but only if you create something genuinely different, useful and valuable - and there are a lot of tape measures out there already.
So the default thinking for a mobile strategy should always be to get your mobile site right first, before thinking about an app. That’s where customers will land when they search, and if that site works out nicely for them you can try and persuade them to hunt out your app too.
That means the site needs to be effective on all smartphones, whether it’s just your desktop site optimised for mobile or a dedicated mobile site. Generally speaking, the latter is more effective if your service demands a mobile-specific approach.
For example, someone searching for ‘local pizza’ on a mobile phone will probably want to make an order there and then or book a table, but not read all about the history of the restaurant.
So if you want to be sure you’re taking the right approach on mobile, look at the SEO data and see how, when and why people are searching for your brand on their phones.
And it may sound obvious, but bear this in mind: an app is not a website. It may be wise to think of an app more like a product. After all, Rovio’s website isn’t Angry Birds - you don’t download the latter if you want to find out more about the former.
And in fact, most branded apps are, frankly, a waste of both time and money; it’s rare to get enough downloads to justify the initial expense and they require far more upkeep and ongoing investment than a mobile site (making them work for different platforms, offering regular updates updating them every time a new operating system comes out, etc).
In addition, an app needs to offer something of value. A game or personal organiser or plaything is all well and good, but just look at how many there are out there already and how few make any money. In essence, by making the app the priority you’re adding another product line to your brand, pushing it into a hugely crowded marketplace and assuming customers will find it and come begging for more.
Of course apps can work. Of course they can be popular. However, don’t make the mistake of thinking that they’re what mobile is all about. They’re just one element of the channel, and for the vast majority of brands they shouldn’t be at the top of the wish list. Certainly if you haven’t got your mobile site sorted first.