How to Avoid Building a Disposable App

I’ll never forget the first time I used my Kindle’s built-in 3G connection to buy a new book. It was like magic: connect, browse, click, and bam! A new book added to my ever-growing queue, waiting to be read.

But my experience isn’t all that unusual: it’s pretty much the same as purchasing other digital content in our increasingly-connected world. Downloading apps from the Apple’s App Store, buying a song on iTunes, or even renting an on-demand movie (either online, through your cable box, or through an on-demand Internet TV service such as the Xbox’s Zune Network) reduces purchasing to pure impulse by removing nearly all the “traditional” barriers – time, distance, and even having to come into contact with real money or plastic – to purchase. It’s a merchandiser’s dream.

So far it’s been a marketer’s dream, too. To cut through the cacophony of “noise” in the marketplace, more and more marketers have been turning to digital content – mobile apps or Facebook widgets, for example – as a way of building mindshare, increasing brand exposure, and increasing brand engagement. “Advertising” – ephemeral, intrusive, and ignored – seems, like, so 20th century, you know? All you gotta do is read the latest issue of Fast Company with its analysis of the mayhem on Madison Avenue to realize that, right?

Apps are where it’s at, baby…right?

The idea seems intuitively logical. Make a cool app or game or widget. Get consumers to download it and you’re in brand-engagement heaven. You’re not fighting for mindshare. You are mindshare!

Well, that’s the theory. In practice it ain’t so easy.

A 2009 study by Flurry, formerly Pinch Media, found that only 30 percent of people who’d purchased iPhone apps were using them the next day. For users who downloaded free apps, only 20 percent used them 24 hours later. Over time, use declined pretty steeply: 5 percent still used an app after one month and 1 percent still used it after 90 days.

There’s also an enormous amount of competition in the app space. A recent article by Richard Gaywood found that that there were around 35,000 games in the iTunes App Store and that’s not including free or lite versions. The same article also pointed out that online (generally Flash-based) games are more numerous than high-pitched squeals at a free Justin Bieber concert with reporting it has about 40,000 games on hand.

Digital content such as apps or advergames aren’t more of a marketing “silver bullet” than any other form of online marketing. A great advantage of digital content such as apps? They have a very low barrier to entry for consumers: click a button on your phone and it magically appears. But a low barrier to entry also means a low barrier to exit.

If you’re looking toward mobile to build your brand, you must do more than just make a cool app (or game) if you’re going to cut through the clutter and hold on to users.

So What Works?

A look at this list of the 148 top-selling iPhone apps of all time shows that what works are games: clearly it’s games – really good, familiar games. If you look at mobile content in general, this list of the top 10 mobile phone websites tells a more nuanced story as does this study that examined whether people used apps or mobile sites for various activities. Taken together both studies suggest that the more “focused” an activity might be (tweeting vs. reading blogs, for example), the more likely users are to turn to an app. On the other hand, more “general” activities (such as searching for reviews, reading news, getting sports scores, etc.) found users more likely to turn to mobile websites rather than apps. Surprisingly social media was split fairly evenly with 46 percent preferring mobile browsers versus 54 percent preferring an app.

Consider barriers to entry and exit. Apps with a higher barrier to entry – cost, time commitment, access, etc. – seem to be “stickier” than those built for more generic uses. Short-term, information-gathering activities – such as news, blogs, scores – call out for browser-based access while activities that require a longer time commitment – social networking, music, and games – seem to lend themselves better to apps.

The counterintuitive lesson here: If you’re trying to snag mobile users with an app, requiring them to do more to acquire it, manage it, and pay for it may lead to higher usage. If a user puts more into using the app then, they’re probably less likely to ditch it once the next cool thing comes around. Of course, all the usual stuff applies, too – it has to be well designed, do something that people want, etc. But evidence seems to point to single-use “cute” apps as eminently forgettable and ultimately not worth the time and effort they take to create if you’re hoping to generate brand engagement.

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