Aaron Hillegass, founder and CEO of Big Nerd Ranch, was involved in one of the most important mergers of our lifetime: He was working at NeXT when it was purchased by Apple. Eventually, though, he left Apple to create Big Nerd Ranch, a training and consulting firm that specializes in creating mobile apps and other emerging technologies.
Nineteen of the top 25 most popular apps, such as Facebook and Spotify, were created by teams who got their training from Big Nerd Ranch. Based in Atlanta, Big Nerd develops native mobile apps and web apps for some of the world’s most respected brands, including Airbnb, Smithsonian Channel, and Nextdoor.
Hillegass is the author of three popular books on software development, including “iOS Development: The Big Nerd Ranch Guide."
CMO.com recently lassoed Hillegass at the Ranch to find out what mobile technologies and strategies he thinks are important and what the marketers he works with are saying. Said Hillegass, “Newsflash! Customers don’t really want to engage with your brand. What they want is something that’s going to be a benefit to them.”
Read on for more, especially toward the end, where we hear an inside story about the creation of the iPod and a marketing revelation from Steve Jobs.
CMO.com: You are at the technology forefront of what we would consider mobility—that is, being more than just mobile. It’s wherever, whenever. So how does the technology you are working on connect to what the senior marketer of a global brand is looking at?
Hillegass: When I think about advertising and marketing, I think about the olden times when Coca-Cola would make an ad that everyone in the world would see. They would sell their products to everybody. However, that has changed because two really important things have occurred.
One is the maturing of our understanding of strategy. [Harvard professor] Michael Porter has said that you don’t have to sell a product to everyone in the world. You can create a company that focuses on a particular niche. You can create products that are flawless within that niche for that audience. So that’s one big change.
The second is ubiquitous computers. You always have a cell phone with you, and your car has a brain, and your TV has a brain. This scenario enables us to really implement Porter’s idea about reaching particular segments: being able to identify your audience and create an experience specifically for them. Your audience identifies itself when it downloads your app or bookmarks your website.
CMO.com: So this has changed the landscape for marketers how?
Hillegass: Mobile is certainly changing the landscape, but not just mobile. We expect several emerging technologies to have a huge impact as complements to mobile. These include conversational interfaces, such as Alexa and chatbots, and the internet of things.
With all these technologies, we will use analytics to evaluate how effective our efforts are: How are customers engaging with your brand? How are they using your product? What challenges do they have, in general? And then, the most important part, being able to use the software as a tool to actually increase the utility of your product for those people.
When we did the first round of apps for marketers, the phrase we always heard was “getting people to engage with the brand.” But the question really always needs to be: Why does the audience want to give their attention to your app? What’s in it for them? Is it more convenient? Does it have network effects? I have a Facebook account because my friends have Facebook accounts. Or maybe it’s just fear of missing out. My friends are sending people Snapchat pictures, and I’m missing out. So that is a good reason to download an app.
So we really need to always be thinking: What is in it for the user? Because—newsflash!—they don’t really want to engage with your brand. What they want is something that’s going to be a benefit to them.
CMO.com: It sounds as if this is the nexus of technology and marketing in that you can’t really build what’s going to work if you don’t understand the marketing reason behind it.
Hillegass: That’s exactly right: Strategy should drive the creation of technology. And then using what we learn from the technology in the analytics, we need to adapt our strategies to the reality.
Strategy and technology should co-evolve in a virtuous cycle. And that virtuous cycle can only exist if we are brutally honest when we look at the data.
CMO.com: Do you build analytics into the apps?
Hillegass: Yes, we always build analytics into the apps. Even if you are creating an app that will only be used internally by the client’s employees, you still want to see how it is being used every day and by whom. And that knowledge informs version 2.0.
We can go back and look at the analytics and say, “You know what? Nobody used this feature; let’s just trim it out and make the user interface that much easier. Or one group is using this app this way and the other group is using the app this way; should we divide this into two separate apps?”
Without analytics, you can’t get the data necessary to be confident making investments in your software.
CMO.com: Who do you find yourself working with—the IT people? The CTO? The CMO?
Hillegass: It depends on what the purpose of the app is. A lot of things we do are to enable a mobile workforce. So, for example, we work with a well-known extermination company. We wrote an app for their home inspectors, and that really was about making the employees more efficient, so they could get more to the bottom line. With something like that, you deal directly with the manager of the inspectors because they know exactly what their users need.
Recently, we rewrote the Android tablet applications for the Smithsonian Channel, which was driven largely by their marketing side. The marketers there saw that a large audience wanted to be able to watch the Smithsonian Channel when they traveled. They really needed the app, so we worked with the marketing side of the equation.
Simply put, if it’s external, we typically work with the marketing team; if it’s internal, we usually work with operations.
CMO.com: The makeup of the marketing team has had to change over the years. Marketers must now understand technology and analytics. So I’m curious: When you’re working with marketing, do people at these big brands get technology now, or is it still a little difficult for you to work with them?
Hillegass: It’s difficult to keep up with technologies that are evolving so quickly. And as the technology evolves, so do user expectations. So we do a lot of educating the marketing team. They will come to us with their fantasies, and we will say, of the 10 things on your list, two of them are completely impossible, the other eight are possible. But one of these possible things is going to be really expensive and risky. But these other seven are easy.
We will also work with them on the user experience, creating an app that is intuitive and attractive to their audience. That design has to be honed for each platform; users have different expectations on iOS, Android, the web, on the car dashboard, and on TV-based devices like Apple TV.
Educating the marketing team on that is actually a really pleasurable thing. They really engage with those questions and appreciate the help that we give them.
CMO.com: Do you see any trends in what marketers are looking for along these lines?
Hillegass: Yes. We find ourselves dealing with a lot of location-based services. People are in a particular location: How do we get them to their local store? If they want this, how far is it to get them there? Are there other people in their community who are a part of this group? Maybe we need to get some kind of conduit for them to coordinate.
Location-based services often make mobile applications much more compelling. Where is the customer, and is there a way that we can make our product more useful to them by using that information?
CMO.com: What other tech trends do you see on the horizon?
Hillegass: Many of our customers are thinking a lot about the next billion smartphone users. Over the past 20 years, 1 billion people have risen out of extreme poverty. These people are a significant market, and the first computing device many of them will have is a smartphone.
More and more, big brands are thinking about reaching out to China and India by creating apps that will run on a $73 smartphone on an unreliable network. There are really interesting technical challenges—and also cultural challenges—to creating a really great experience in developing nations. Everyone is interested in reaching out to those consumers, especially as those nations become wealthier.
Another trend we’ve started hearing a lot about is designing for older users. In the early days, the adopters of mobile apps were mostly young people. But more and more, it’s about older users. We work hard to create controls that are easy to see and use with, say, a shaky hand. That is a more important factor. Older eyes struggle with low contrast visuals, for example. A lot of the young 20-something designers really like designing gray text on a gray background, and older users can’t see it at all. We are giving more and more thought on how to design for older users.
And there’s one more sort of trend, and that’s these streaming devices, such as a Roku box or an Apple TV and your Chrome TV. More and more, these are becoming people’s home computers actually up on the TV screen. So designing apps and websites and things that can use these streaming devices effectively is going to be more and more important as we progress.
Looking at trends, you could make a case that a baby born today will never own a PC or laptop. They will have a mobile phone, maybe a tablet, and certainly some sort of streaming device on their TV.
CMO.com: What do you see going on in the internet of things area?
Hillegass: Lots of little computers, and ones that often will have no screen at all. As computers become more and more ubiquitous, users become more and more choosy about what they give their attention to. This creates an interesting tension: The analytics is telling you more and more about your customer, but you need to be more and more careful about how many notifications you send to that customer.
We can put computers everywhere, and we can make them beep at you with certain notifications, or type messages to you, and eventually you’re going to just become tired of them and turn them off. So the primary challenge for a marketer is to use these devices to learn about the user and their needs and then, very quietly in the background, make their lives better. You should be reluctant to be a nuisance to users.
CMO.com: So you are suggesting that pushing a brand message or an ad is not the way to go?
Hillegass: Right. For example, with Alexa, you can’t really set up something that every hour would send a message verbally to the person. Alexa is there for you. You are not an audience for Alexa.
CMO.com: You worked at Apple with Steve Jobs, who was known as a master marketer. What did you learn from those days that you have brought to what you are doing now?
Hillegass: What I learned from Steve Jobs is that strategy is mostly about things you don’t do, that a company has only so much energy. The audience that you are selling to has only so much attention. You have to choose what is really valuable to them, create that, create it flawlessly, and then create the message that reaches out to those consumers.
Here’s a great example of that. At the time the iPod was shipped, every MP3 player had an FM radio. And Steve said, “No, this is an MP3 player. People are going to use it to listen to their own music. They don’t need a radio.” It was really very radical, but, in hindsight, it seems obvious, right? And that’s really what I learned from Steve: Strategy is mostly about choosing things you’re not going to do.
CMO.com: What would be your advice to CMOs these days in terms of what they should be keeping an eye on in the tech world?
Hillegass: The best advice I have for marketers designing technology is that they must think about how that tech will be useful to the company that is pushing the technology. Think deeply about how it’s useful to the consumers who will be using it. If you don’t, the number of people who actually install their apps or go to their websites will drop significantly, and it’s a really easy way to flush a lot of money down the drain.
So the first question marketers should always ask is: What is the upside to the people who will be using this? How can I make their lives better?