Why apps fail as marketing channels

When I hear someone talk about how nice it would be to have a companion iPhone or Android app to a website, I want to know why. There are two reasons, and I think that one is more valid than the other:

  1. They want to provide the customer with a better user experience.
  2. They think that if the user has their app installed they’ll be more likely to use their product. Thus, it’s a marketing channel.

I don’t think reason #2 holds up to scrutiny. First, I have 5 pages of iPhone apps, but two of them, Tweetie and Dan Bricklin’s Note Taker, account for more than 90% of my app usage. Many of them I haven’t touched since installing. Second, after the initial flurry of installing and trying out apps, I rarely install a new app because I don’t need more apps that I don’t use.

Now, I’m not a typical user, but I’m inclined to think that most casual iPhone users either don’t install many apps, don’t use many of their apps, or both.

Another angle, though, is that to me, it sounds kind of arrogant to think that just because you have your app on someone’s phone they’re likely to use it. That’s like the marketer who thinks that if they get a nice commercial on TV, sales will roll in, even if the product isn’t remarkable. I think what Seth Godin says in Purple Cow is right: you have to be remarkable to be noticed. I don’t think you’ll be noticed just because your icon is on peoples’ iPhones.

I think some people are attached to this idea, though, so much so that they’ll argue to project managers or developers that it will provide a better user experience, and express doubt over the ability of alternatives, like HTML 5 mobile sites, to provide a good user experience.

2 Replies to “Why apps fail as marketing channels”

  1. I think there are obvious exceptions to this. I dont think you can market a product, but you can easily market your brand. Take North Face or Audi as an example, both apps dont sell you their products but provide useful information/amusement in a branded application promoting their brand.

  2. I don't think I made my point clearly. I think having a user install the app can get them to return to it, but only if there's something remarkable about it. Providing relevant information or amusement is remarkable. The vast majority of apps fail at this. After checking out both of those apps, I think they succeed, but only for certain niches. And the numbers agree: the Audi app I tried has more reviews than Tweetie does.

    It's commissioned mobile interfaces for websites, done as native apps, which seem to be asked for by many website stakeholders, that I'm ranting against. If there isn't something remarkable about the app, yet users install it and don't remove it, I don't think having the logo on peoples' iPhone home screens helps market the product very much. It's like a tiny banner ad with a lot of impressions going to the same person.

    I looked at the websites of both of them on my iPhone. thenorthface.com is flash. 'Nuff said. audi.com works, but isn't tailored to mobile devices. They do have a mobile site, but I only found it when I followed a link in Audi's app. I don't know how I would have found it otherwise.

    I don't think the app development slowed down the development of their mobile sites. I think that was a separate issue. I think the apps are a good idea, but that they should build out mobile sites as well.

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