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Beware the Native

  |  July 14, 2011   |  Comments

A dose of reality for the world of multi-platform, transmedia marketing.

By this point, you've probably heard of transmedia storytelling - telling a story across different platforms and formats. Well, in today's climate, we need the same thing: transmedia marketing. Brands need to educate and tell a single, cohesive story as consumers make their peripatetic way from medium to medium. One of the best ways to achieve successful transmedia marketing is through the use of apps, but be prepared: everything is going to change. Again.

Where once there were, effectively, two types of apps, there's now a bewildering proliferation of operating systems and devices, and marketers have to change their approach if they want to keep up.

First, let me review the current situation, then explain what's changed. Mac and PC applications have been pretty straightforward for the last decade. With more than 95 percent of users on one of those two platforms (mostly the PC), software companies developed for one or both and knew the audiences they were targeting. Then the iPhone opened up the App Store in 2008 and a cottage industry was born. As we all know, Apple's app marketplace has been incredibly successful, with over 15 billion apps downloaded and $2.5 billion dollars paid out to developers. Those scrappy app-building startups were quickly followed by advertisers who realized the iPhone was a new marketing platform. (I've written extensively about the two types of apps and I'll be focusing this assessment on marketing apps from major brands, not the revenue-based app developers.)

apple-ios-logoSuddenly, every brand needed an app, and the App Store was flooded with them. When the iPad arrived in 2010, the playing field got broader and the opportunities for marketing apps even greater.

These apps were nearly all native iOS applications. (iOS refers to the operating system for iPhone, iPad, and soon, Apple TV.) Native apps are written in Objective C code, the same language that's used for Safari, iPod, Calendar, Weather, and the other out-of-the-box programs on an iOS device. Because they can harness all of the device's processor and graphics power, they tend to run smoothly and function seamlessly.

android-logo-whiteNext up was the Android app store. Although it had a slow start with some less-than-perfect devices, Android has now eclipsed iOS as the most popular smartphone operating system worldwide. Marketers have adjusted and many have created Android versions of their apps, seeking the broadest possible penetration with consumers. Most Android apps have been developed using native Android code, a Java-based solution (but not the same Java code that runs on the web).

And now, we're looking at many more platforms and many more standards becoming available to consumers.

platforms

A proliferation of Android tablets (nine to be released this year) have different screen sizes, aspect ratios, and processing power. Google TV and Apple TV add a different screen and different input controls to the ecosystems of the two dominant players. In addition to Android and iOS, marketers still need to be on the web, of course - but that's not even where it really gets complex.

Each one of these platforms has app environments in the field or in development: Verizon FiOS, traditional cable companies like Comcast and Time Warner, browser web apps (like the Chrome app store), Sony's PlayStation Network, Microsoft Xbox and Windows Phone 7 platforms (which use totally different types of code), IP-connected TVs, Blu-ray players, and BlackBerry. Whether you like the trend or not, apps are going to be everywhere.

Almost every one of these platforms has its own native code, and guess what? Not only are marketers unprepared to create applications on all these platforms, but so are most agencies. As a quick quiz, ask your agency how many Lua (the language used to program for Verizon FiOS) developers they have on staff. Chances are, they've never heard of it.

Of course marketers want to be in front of customers and potential customers at every opportunity, but the barriers to entry are going to get a lot higher, and nobody but the largest and most willing-to-invest companies are going to be able to afford it.

The biggest problem? Most companies don't even realize how expensive it's going to be to play in this area - and they're going to learn the hard way. We're used to creating a website, or an app, or both. The use of resources for web development and maintenance tends to look like this:

web-development
Development

web-maintenence
Maintenance

Year 2 and beyond costs of maintenance, upkeep, and feature rollout tend to be 15 to 25 percent (a rough guideline) of the initial Year 1 development costs. But things change when you're trying to develop on a greater number of platforms. For starters, the development team has to be much larger because it needs a wider array of skill sets:

multi-platform-development

If you need a separate team for each platform, it's pretty obvious that you'll need more people. But in Year 2 and beyond, the staffing projections are more like 60 to 70 percent of that larger team, which is a huge difference from what we've all gotten used to. That's a lot of bodies.

multi-platform-maintenence

There are other reasons why trying to support a big set of native platforms is going to be a killer. Take updates, for example. A smart go-to-market app strategy includes releases after the initial launch; updates remind users to go back to that app, see what the update includes, and get a brand impression. Suddenly, that one little app represents a pretty massive workload.

So what to do? Cut down on your consumer touchpoints and roll the dice? Bankrupt the marketing budget?

Actually, there's another way.

Take a look at Netflix, which is currently on more than 300 devices. That's a truly amazing number, and Netflix could never support native code on every platform. Instead, it's achieved this scale by creating as many apps as possible in HTML5.

netflix-logo

HTML5 allows for nearly the same code to run across almost all of the platforms listed above. Instead of creating apps from scratch each time you ramp up for another platform or device, you just make minor changes to the code and the interface to accommodate it. That means a much smaller development team and a much, much smaller maintenance and enhancements team. They've even taken herculean steps to create an environment where HTML5 can run on the Sony PS3.

And at Netflix, it feels that HTML5 isn't just more efficient; it's also better. As John Ciancutti, VP of personalization technology says, "The technology is delivered from Netflix servers every time you launch our application. This means we can constantly update, test and improve the experience we offer." That means Netflix loses out on the marketing aspect of updates, but gets to make sure that every user gets those updates the day they are released.

Facebook is moving in the same direction with the hush-hush Project Spartan, rumored to be an all-HTML5 way to bypass the Apple walled garden. Perhaps that explains why Facebook has yet to release its official tablet application? Stay tuned...

While HTML5 can't currently do everything that native does - the offline data storage needs work, for one thing - that gap will close quickly. Not all of the platforms above can display HTML5 yet, but expect them to move to accommodate it in the near future. But even Google's Eric Schmidt sees it as the way forward, saying at the Mobile World Congress in February: "HTML5 is the way almost all applications will be built, including for phones."

And he's right. Only a very few enormous companies are going to have the appetite for coding and maintaining native code and being on as many platforms as they want to be. And, with the right investment, those companies will find success. The others? They're in for a rude awakening if they follow the native-only path. As apps start to be everywhere, HTML5 is the smart, viable plan for transmedia marketing without breaking the bank.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andrew Solmssen

Andrew Solmssen serves as managing director of Possible's Los Angeles office, leading the firm's West Coast client teams and determining best practices for engagement management.

He previously served as managing director at digital firm Schematic, where he played a key role in developing some of the earliest advertising models for delivering broadcast content via the Internet. Andrew was also responsible for providing strategic guidance to clients such as Comcast, ABC Television, and NBC Universal in the areas of digital strategy, content distribution, mobile entertainment, and Internet TV. Before Schematic, Andrew served as executive producer at Web design and consulting firm Kaufman Patricof Enterprises.

A frequent speaker at industry events such as Digital Hollywood and CES, Andrew is also regularly quoted by business and trade media on the topics of digital advertising and technology innovation. Prior to his involvement in digital media, Andrew lived in Namibia as part of the Harvard Institute for International Development.

Follow Andrew on Twitter @asolmssen.

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