Blowing Up The Bubble

Tech research giant, Gartner, estimates 17.7 billion apps were downloaded in 2011 and that's conservative compared to mobile analytics firm, Flurry, who have it at 25 billion and are projecting 50 billion in 2012.

Of the 6 billion mobile subscriptions (87% of the global population) only 500 million are smartphones, projected to grow to a modest 631 million (Gartner again) during 2012.

17,700,000,000 / 500,000,000 = 35.4 apps per handset.
50,000,000,000 / 613,000,000 = 81.6 apps per handset.

Being a bit geeky, I have around 150 apps on my phone but I regularly use about 10 of them, split almost equally across folders entitled Travel, News, Entertainment, Social and Games. That's the app bubble for you. There's a cacophony of choice but very few apps that will ever be any more than one hit wonders, if indeed they make the 'mobile charts' at all.

In 2013 more than 50% of Internet traffic is predicted to be generated from mobile devices. For the most-part that usage calculation, courtesy of Google, excludes time spent in apps, when users are disconnected form the Internet. Nonetheless they will evidently attempting to configure the multitude of newfangled widgets and gizmo's available to them, in an way that might leave them more productive, or better entertained, whilst on the move. Consumers have unquestionably gone mobile. Whether we are browsing, chatting, shopping, sharing pics or doing business, more often then not we're doing it via an handful of apps, or, the 'mobile Internet' - but these two quite different environments. Unsurprisingly then, there is much debate amongst marketeers as to which is the more engaging of these two nomadic cousins. Mobile apps or mobile websites?

It is acknowledged that mobile apps and mobile websites (or the mobile Internet as it's becoming known) offer contrasting user experiences. As brand, should one strive to make a dent in the already saturated app-mosphere, or simply optimise ones offerings for the mobile Internet? Whilst there may well be gold in them there native operating systems, and you should almost certainly optimise your online presence for mobile, do either without properly addressing your mobile channel strategy and you are likely to loose your customer base quicker than you can say 'integrated though-the-line multi-platform strategy'.

The fundamental differences between the two technologies are key:

Mobile Apps

Apps of course require the user to download the application to their device, a quite deliberate action that requires the user, sorry, customer, to have identified a need for the specific functionality on offer, 'application' being the operative word here. Whether entertaining toddlers with a pre-school game, accessing a preferred news provider or music service, or managing their finances, customers already have to be bought into the need, to want to bother downloading and installing an app. Thus, the most popular and successful apps tend to do one thing really well, offering a straight forward answer to a single problem, rather then trying to communicate a multi-faceted product or service; Dropbox helps you access files remotely, Poynt directs you to the nearest dry cleaners (or what ever it is you're looking for), TVGuide tells you what's on TV... You get the picture.

There is a place for more sophisticated apps with more functionality, though the better ones invariably focus on a single need. The Condé Nast Traveller city guide series provides augmented reality views of your chosen city-break destination, super imposing landmarks over your smartphones camera view, handy when relaxing on the Champs-Élysées considering your next move. They also include audio walks and a basic to-do-list-come-diary, alongside comprehensive listings and mapping. Another good example is Liverpool Football Club's LFC Connect, cleverly combining fan generated social chatter with that of selected pundits, official news, video and live match updates to create a compelling (at least for Liverpool fans) oracle of all things LFC.

Mobile Websites

By contrast 'mobile websites' are, well, websites on your mobile device, but if rendered with due care and attention, perhaps not as you know them.

Few would argue with the fact that traditional websites look terrible on smartphones. Cluttered, virtually illegible home pages require mobile micro-surgery in order to zoom in on the particular link or function you are looking for, usually resulting in you hitting the wrong button anyway at the slightest nudge or wobble. Enter 'mobile optimisation', valiantly championed by the omnipresent search God, Google, through its campaign. In-short, mobile optimisation, in it's most basic form, means re-configuring your 'static' website in order to make it work on a mobile device. It means stripping out that stunning creative that was the cause of so much corporate discombobulation, leaving behind a somewhat bland though legible skeleton of your website, typically, in the form of columns of easily selected links. Mobile optimisation of your main website may indeed tick the 'go mobile' box, assuming of course that the user journey of the website was as carefully crafted as the creative, and that the experience you wish to deliver to the mobile browser is the same as that that you wish to deliver to the traditional static-web browsing consumer, and why wouldn't it be? After all it's still a website right, that should serve the same results regardless of how it is accessed? Wrong. Context changes everything...

In many cases the majority of a brands web based traffic comes from search results, from the scientific marriage of consumer uncertainty with optimised search marketing dollars. When folks are on the move however, they are less likely to be researching, more likely to know exactly what it is they are looking for and want a direct path to a quick result. If indeed your company website is stumbled upon via a mobile search (as it probably is approaching 50% of the time, check your analytics report), your brand should of course be dressed for the occasion, suitably tailored to the mobile browser as opposed to presenting a confounding navigational conundrum. Moreover, if the user journey has been thought through you ought to be poised to take the consumer from call to action to conversion in a couple of seducing clicks, coolly awarding them the coveted status of brand ambassador as they casually share their 'look at me aren't I clever' discovery with their 250 Facebook friends…

That not quite in place? What you really need then, is a website designed for specifically for mobile, as opposed to a mobile optimised website!

So When Do You Need An App?

The basic conceptual difference between a mobile version of your brands main website and an app, is that an app should be a product or service that is typically used in isolation to the product discovery process, whereas, the mobile website is typically a pure marketing tool - an interactive advert that should be geared toward customer acquisition. "Hi, why not download our app?", or "BUY NOW", via our mobile optimised commerce page, are both options you can offer via a mobile website.

That said, you can of course you can turn advertising campaigns into products or services, or indeed release apps as acquisition tools. Stella Artios' Le Bar Guide iPhone app is an example of a campaign turned product; a simple guide that reveals the nearest suitably stocked bar or restaurant in an attempt direct i-savvy larger lovers to their beloved beer. Perhaps the venue guide could be more informative than just name, address and map but this example leads us to another app-defining factor. Le Bar Guide uses augmented reality (AR). Augmented Reality is a technology that exploits the native functionality of the device, in this case the iPhone. Something that you can't easily do the with a ubiquitious device agnostic mobile website. Other mobile-web/Internet no-go's include:

Offline Functionality - useful when you can't get a WiFi signal
Voice Recognition - e.g. Apple's SIRI, "call home" etc. voice control
In-app Purchases - painless to the iPhone toting consumer - just enter your password and access the product though costly to process (30% to Apple)
Motion Sensing - Phone used to steer a car (so far just in games), sense number of press ups, measure heart rate etc.
Image Recognition - Phone camera recognises images and triggers web link or purchase
Augmented Reality - graphic representation of places or objects overlaid on phones 'real-world' camera view
Accessing Device Content - apps can easily read and utilise the media stored on your device
Elegance of User Interface - device operating systems offer far greater capacity for delivery of a responsive UI

All of the above functions use the native capabilities of specific operating systems and devices. If you think any of them might provide a compelling user experience around your core product or service, and your mobile audit shows that smartphone penetration is high amongst your customers, then, you should consider the return that an tailored mobile 'application' could deliver.

Bursting The Bubble

Do 'go mobile'. Optimise your website for mobile discovery but think about the user experience. Rather than replicate the main site, strip it back and make sure the call to action is compelling, perhaps more compelling than a list of links, and that and the path to conversion is clear and painless.

And do release apps but make sure they provide a service. If not monetised directly by charging for the app up font or driving in-app purchases, consider a marketing-led servcie that leads to a core product, as in the Stella example.

Above all, before embarking on either path, reconsider your demographic targets and give them a persona. Work through your customers day, how they discovered and interact with your brand. Whilst discovery, in the digital sense, continues to be dominated by Google (and to an increasing degree Facebook), Apple's app store and the Android marketplace have become key marketing components in terms of their potential for gaining brand exposure. Be mindful that 'kids' these days don't Google, they search the app stores by category of interest. Beware though. Serve up an app that is unfocused or below par and you'll damage your credibility, perhaps beyond repair.

In concussion, the app bubble is bursting now, now that companies, instead of trying to keep up with the Joneses (or Jobses and Gateses), are getting back to thinking about how they can develop their core product or service to be better, more effective, more accessible and easier to use on a mobile device. Apps, like the Internet, are not a marketing fad, they are a disruptive technology with the potential to change the game.

POP! Urr, what's that GUI stuff?

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