Branded content: why there isn't an app for everything

Are marketers using apps as a sticking plaster to hide the fundamental flaws in their digital strategy?

Branded content: why there isn't an app for everything


Smartphone users worldwide will download more than 45bn apps this year, almost twice the figure for last year, according to fresh data from the research group Gartner.

By 2016, it estimates there will be more than 300bn apps downloaded annually, more than 10 times the amount downloaded in 2011. As the appetite for apps increases, however, is there a risk that marketers are using them to mask fundamental flaws in their digital strategies?

Toby Barnes, product strategy director at AKQA, says the digital problems brands are trying to solve often can't be fixed with an app alone.

'Many brands assume their app is the only one on someone's phone or machine, but people use a multitude of apps, services, devices and sites,' he says.

The app 'black hole'

Many apps fall into a 'black hole', by solving a problem that never existed, or never make it to consumers' phones in the first place.

Daniel Harvey, director of experience design at SapientNitro, says that brands need to think more carefully about how they market an app. 'This isn't Field of Dreams: it's not a case of "build it, and people will come". Finding an app in the Apple app store is a shitty experience, and there is a big percentage of apps that have never been downloaded,' he explains.

Privately, some marketers complain that too many agencies are creating apps in a vacuum, simply to boost their bottom line.

An app is a much easier sell than a fundamental change in the digital business ecosystem of Britain's leading brands.

Jon Carney, managing partner at mobile agency Somewhat, says that many brands have focused on apps as a way to drive innovation in isolation. In other words, this appetite for innovation is not reflected in their broader digital strategy. 'The fundamental question is not "is there an app for that?". It is "how do we make our brand more relevant across all our digital platforms?",' he adds.

For those at the vanguard of digital marketing and ecommerce, the app is no longer the be all and end all. Christina Plakopita, founder and chief executive of Netrobe, a 'virtual closet', says that for some brands, creating a standalone app is a waste of time.

She argues that these resources would be better spent embracing responsive design, to ensure consumers can easily shop on all a brand's sites, across all platforms. 'It is so much more helpful (for a brand). You might download a number of fashion apps but never use them,' she adds.

Many experts at the cutting edge of the industry insist that adaptive design will remove the apps obsession. James Chandler, head of mobile at Mindshare, contends that over the past two years, many marketing directors have focused on apps at the expense of getting the digital fundamentals right.

'I know lots of brands that you can't find on mobile search,' he says. 'If you have locked yourself out of your house, it is unlikely that you would download an app from a locksmith rather than go straight to mobile search.' He argues that brands need to think of apps as a retention device, while mobile search is the key tool when it comes to acquisition.

In-house pressure

Privately, many marketers tell of facing pressure from 'analogue chief executives' proclaiming they must have an app built, as if doing so is a creative idea in its own right.

In some cases, this approach has been supported by mobile advertising agencies, who recognise that selling a standalone app solution is a more simple new business win than unpicking the entire digital approach of a brand, and the often complex IT systems underpinning them.

In several companies less focused on digital, a chasm is emerging between digital natives who have grown up with touchscreen technology and those struggling to comprehend the impact of mobile technology on consumers' lives.

At more forward-thinking brands, such as Bupa or the Financial Times, an integrated approach with responsive web design at its heart has superseded the belief that apps are a solution to any given marketing problem.

'Responsive design should be your number one priority, and it will save you money,' says Chandler.