No you don ‘t need an app for that, no matter what the boss thinks

Sebastian PedavoliThe marketing industry has become obsessed with apps, but Sebastian Pedavoli believes many companies are simply wasting their time.

Everyone wants an app, and I’ve made a few over the past couple of years, including for several global companies, but the question few people ask is why are we making one?

Three years after Apple first launched the App Store for iPhone in 2008, more than 200 million iPhone and iPad users had downloaded more than 15 billion apps. It’s no wonder that companies felt they had to be involved, clamouring to get in front of existing and future customers on the device sitting in their palm.

Today the number of App Store downloads has climbed to 77.5 billion, and the market is estimated to be worth more than $US77 billion by 2017. Yet the ecosystem has become over-crowded and slanted heavily toward the miniscule percentage of apps that make any money, or get any notice from users, versus the vast majority that are downloaded little, if at all.

Despite that, we still have conversations every month with companies that want to build an app, without articulating what they want to achieve and why it was important. I once had a prospective client (who shall remain nameless), who told me that they wanted an app “to let customers virtually pour out our product” through the app.

App StoreAs seasoned software developers, we are familiar with requests like these. They may as well tell us “we want an app for our business, but we don’t really know why”. Brands can build apps for many different reasons, ranging from technology requirements to a core part of their marketing strategy. While I won’t dispute that apps can be a great way to connect with a company’s customers, they shouldn’t be built just because there’s some extra money left in the marketing budget.

When an app is ill-conceived and ill-executed, it becomes not only a complete waste of time for everyone involved, but tarnishes the brand’s reputation and its connection with customers.

Of course, when things do go wrong, it’s always someone else’s fault. A senior McDonald’s marketing executive recently told a conference that the poor user experience of its customer ordering app was the fault of corporate IT.

In reality, a well-made and well-executed app is one that involves comprehensive and reciprocal feedback from both marketing and IT. While marketing of course needs to ensure that the brand’s messaging is on cue, IT needs to know that customers are accessing the right information securely, at the right time, and can integrate it seamlessly into other systems. Better communication and transparency could have meant McDonald’s built a better app that solved real problems for its consumers.

But most importantly, creating an app that solves an actual problem for your customers is vital. Brands need to truthfully ask themselves how many consumers actually want to pour virtual milk or soft drink on their iPhone? The answer wouldn’t be encouraging.

But those apps that consistently rate highly on the App Store — social networks, Uber, a real estate app — solve an existing problem for the consumer. It’s vital that you plan your app from problem to solution, with a clear return for your business. This might sound like a no brainer, but in my experience is a journey very few companies actually go through.

Building an app solely as a marketing tool will do little except relegate your brilliant idea to the trash heap. Most companies don’t really need an app — a website will do just fine — but your customers might. Understanding exactly why and getting that process right will make all the difference.

  • Sebastian Pedavoli is co-founder and creative director of Sydney-based software developer Proxima.

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