Mobility has swept over the business and marketing landscape like a giant supernova. With a smartphone in hand, consumers increasingly tap, pinch, and swipe their way to messages, promotions, and purchases. For businesses across a wide swath of industries, mobile interaction now accounts for more than 50% of online activity, and the figure continues to rise.
The upshot? “Mobility has hit a critical threshold, and it is now an important part of people’s lives,” said James Landay, a professor of computer science at Stanford University. “At the center of the mobile experience are smartphone apps.”
In many cases, these lightweight programs offer rich and powerful functionality across a narrow set of tasks and activities. “They may seem like Web pages--and in many ways they are Web pages under the hood--but they also use sensors and features on the phone to deliver remarkable capabilities,” Landay told CMO.com.
Of course, designing and building the perfect app is an elusive, challenging task. Attracting consumers and delivering a high level of usability at a reasonable cost is paramount. Moreover, apps present both security and privacy concerns, including how data is stored and used. Said Nisha Sharma, managing director at Accenture Mobility: “As the digital experience shifts more heavily to mobile, marketing executives must think about their role and how to build better apps. The technology can produce remarkable results.”
Apps Drive Change
For marketers, there’s no escaping mobility. As consumers look to engage in more relevant, contextual interactions and use their smartphones anytime and anywhere, the ability to interact in real time is critical. While a mobile Web browser can connect a business to its customers, “The ability to use the sensors built into phones--GPS, compass, camera, accelerometer, and microphone--transforms the experience,” said Satya Ramaswamy, vice president and global head of the Digital Enterprise Unit at Tata Consultancy Services, in an interview with CMO.com.
In today’s app-centric world, shopping apps capture product images and bar codes so a consumer can gather more information about products and services. Some retailers, including Starbucks and Macy’s, rely on apps and geofencing techniques to deliver targeted messages to consumers when they are near a store. Still others embed payment systems, coupons, and loyalty points in apps. Yet mobility isn’t so much about any particular feature or function; it’s about tapping a variety of functions in order to simplify transactions and interactions.
The best apps introduce wormholes through previously complex and time-consuming processes. For example, only a few years ago a person would hail a taxi from the street or call for one using a phone. Sometimes the driver would have trouble finding the customer. However, using an app such as Curb or Uber, it’s possible to tap a button on a smartphone, order a taxi or car, and have the driver show up at the exact location within a few minutes. At the end of the ride, it’s also possible to pay through the app and receive an e-mail receipt. Meanwhile, airline apps make it easy to check in, change seats, download an e-boarding pass, and tackle other tasks--before stepping into the airport.
Of course, the challenge is assembling all of these tools, technologies, and processes in a way that appeals to consumers and delivers results for the business. A disorganized menu structure, mediocre graphics, and lagging functionality serve as red flags for customers. In fact, consumers increasingly judge companies and brands on usability, as well as the “cool factor,” and make buying decisions based on these factors, Ramaswamy said. “The bottom line is the experience matters. People are looking for faster and better ways to accomplish things. This means that an app must be sophisticated but simple to use,” he said.
Loni Stark, senior director of strategy and product marketing at Adobe (CMO.com’s parent company), said the perfect mobile marketing app is “effortlessly useful” and creates “a moment of joy” in a person’s day. “The experience delivered by the app should be relevant at that moment in time based on the context of the user,” she told CMO.com. “The smaller screen size and hypershort attention spans of the mobile user means brands must truly listen to all relevant sources of data and have the ability to almost instantly make a decision on the most relevant experience to deliver. This requires not only the creatively of the marketer, but also the agility of the marketing technology to make this all possible.”
She also pointed out that mobility introduces a level of connectedness that can be transformative. “Numerous studies have shown that the cross-channel customer is far more valuable than single-channel customers, who are disappearing. The full potential of a mobile app is only unlocked if it is part of the experience that connects to tablet, social, desktop, and even in-person touch points in a meaningful way,” Stark said, adding that there’s a need to deliver more “human” experiences through digital and focus on an omnichannel relationship through highly connected apps.
Within this new mobile order, the traditional enterprise application development model is a blueprint for failure. In the past, organizations typically took months to update a design and upgrade functionality. But that paradigm doesn’t fly in the mobile app arena, where an agile and iterative framework that’s measured in days or weeks is imperative.
“Marketers must be highly responsive to changes in technology, the marketplace, and consumer preferences,” observed Arvind Sarin, founder and CEO of Copper Mobile, an app development firm that has worked with eBay, Coca Cola, Holiday Inn Express, Verizon Wireless, and others.
There’s also a growing need to look beyond the flat horizon of a company-centric product or service. The ability to use groups of apps together--typically by connecting them into a platform via application programming interfaces (APIs)--exponentially increase the possibilities and opportunities to engage consumers and market in a way that wouldn’t have been imaginable only a few years ago.
For example, a Fitbit or Jawbone fitness band may stream data to its own app but also connect to other independent apps, such as MyFitnessPal and RunKeeper--as well as Internet-enabled exercise equipment and scales--in order to provide a more complete snapshot of activity level, calories burned, and calories consumed over the course of a day. The sum of the data--and the entire ecosystem--becomes both a product and a marketing opportunity.
Marketers must balance design, usability, functionality, and speed, along with development and operational costs, to build an app that works in the real world. They must think creatively and understand how to balance marketing with consumer preferences to encourage customers to come back often--and escape the harsh reality of mobile app abandonment rates, which hover in the 80%t to 90% range.
“Too often, apps don’t work the way people want to use them. They underdeliver or serve up a confusing array of features and options,” Sarin told CMO.com.
Designs On Marketing
Although many organizations have already developed an app, or more than one app, for different purposes or platforms, the goal of creating better apps that drive up usage--and sales--is often elusive. Accenture Mobility’s Sharma said it’s critical to understand a customer base, what needs and preferences they have, what devices and platforms they use, and how they go about accomplishing basic tasks. In some cases, a mobile Web browser that’s simpler and less expensive to support across multiple operating systems--IoS, Android, Windows, and Blackberry--may be sufficient.
But, at the same time, Sharma cautioned against forfeiting key features and functionality by clinging to a mobile browser. Among other things, it might curtail or eliminate the ability to incorporate audio and speech, camera and imaging functions, geolocation, and contextual tools, such as beacons. “You consistently get a better experience from a native app,” she said. “You can do more things offline and incorporate a richer and broader array of functions. Also, in many cases, consumers view mobile Web browser functionality as somewhat boring compared to a dedicated app.”
Tata Consultancy Services’ Ramaswamy said that marketers must focus on three primary issues: context, simplicity, and personalization. Context involves using tools and technologies, such as Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, beacons, and other geolocation methods to understand a person’s location and what he or she is doing at any given moment. It also requires a business to plug in analytics data and possibly use clouds to process data and automate decisions about a person’s behavior or habits in real time. “The effective use of contextual data allows you to target people when they are open and receptive to an offer, rather than bombarding them with promotions that make no sense,” he explained.
Simplicity translates into using the chips, sensors, and feature sets in smartphones to streamline processes and accomplish things that aren’t always possible on a conventional computer or other device. Speech capabilities, such as Apple’s Siri and Google’s Now, are good examples of how it’s possible to simplify processes. They help a user bypass lengthy strings of finger tapping and typing to accomplish a task. Likewise, cameras increasingly capture visual data and translate it into useful information by hitting back-end applications and databases. The goal, Ramaswamy said, is to design apps for mobile use that revolve around the idea of “anticipating the needs of people who are on the go. In many cases, the app must work well in a specific environment or situation.”
Finally, personalization is all about recognizing that a mobile device--particularly a smartphone--is a personal tool and that traditional shotgun marketing isn’t effective. “You must know the consumer’s preferences, how they behave, what they desire and what they expect so that you can deliver the right set of features, promotions and messages,” Ramaswamy pointed out. “Today, marketing is more than simply slapping their name on the message. It’s all about understanding them and creating a very dynamic but consistent experience.”
Copper Mobile’s Sarin said that the process starts with an analysis of the business, its purpose and mission, and what it aims to accomplish through a mobile app. To build an effective app, it’s critical to obtain cross-functional input, identify the desired features and functionality, establish UI and UX standards, and develop a road map for tackling goals--with internal skill sets and cost limits in mind. All of this requires careful analysis of how the application will work in the real world, including possible bandwidth constraints and offline access to data.
In the end, “An app must be scalable and future-proof,” he explained. “There must be a complete understanding of where data resides, how it’s exchanged, and what type of security and privacy protections are required.”
It’s also important to balance design and usability trends with the very real world of users--and not get caught up in hype or cool features that bog down performance. In fact, Sarin warned that it’s possible for organizations to change interfaces and features so often that customers wind up confused and turned off by the app.
On the other hand, “Sometimes users find changes annoying at first, but if the changes translate into improvements in design and usability--and the changes don’t occur at too fast or furious of a rate--you can win them over fairly quickly,” he said. “The incremental and iterative nature of mobile app development translates into the need for smaller and more subtle changes, rather than an abrupt 180-degree course correction.”
Some, such as Jason Underwood, an instructional designer at Northern Illinois University, said that businesses have an opportunity to redefine touch points and relationships. The use of innovative features, social media connections, and more precise data elements promise to revolutionize industries and redefine business connections and interactions. In a world where marketing and branding are evolving beyond discreet activities and instead span an entire relationship, “People expect companies to deliver sophisticated features and functions,” he said. “They expect to see value delivered through mobile apps.”