3 Simple Questions Brands Should Ask Before Building a Mobile App

In our last post, we argued that in spite of all of the hype mobile apps have received over the last five years, they provide very little value to the vast majority of organizations who have built them. In fact, in most (~98%) organizations we have worked with, the removal of the mobile app would have either no impact or a positive impact to the core business. There is hope, however.

20 years ago after being told they needed a website, company after company raced online by replicating existing business strategies. The result? The next generation of the Yellow Pages: A hodgepodge of static sites with information, documentation, and contact information. Did people visit these sites? Yes. Did the sites provide value to visitors? Sometimes. Did they provide value to the businesses? Nope. Luckily, visionaries like Larry Page & Sergey Brin, Marc Benioff, Jeff Bezos, Evan Williams, and others helped us rethink what the web should be, how it would change our lives, and how it could become the cornerstone of internal and external business strategy. The rest is history.

Fast forward to today, and we are experiencing the exact same problem with mobile apps. Too many companies, convinced that they need an app because … well, you know … apps are the future, have simply replicated their existing web strategies using this new and exciting channel. Do people use these apps? Yes. Do they provide value to the users? Sometimes. Do they provide value to the businesses? Nope. Sound familiar? Mobile apps are not the web. Apps have limitations (screen size, barriers to adoption, multiple native platforms, etc.) and many advantages (portability, engagement, rapidly evolving hardware capabilities, etc.).

It is time for companies to rethink their goals, strategies, and ultimately the tools they are using to develop their mobile apps. In doing so, they can unlock a revolution that hasn’t been seen for over a decade.

The Three Legged Stool

“What would {mobile} interactions look like if the web and desktop had never existed?” — David Marcus, VP, Facebook

In a recent Wired article, Facebook’s David Marcus poses the question: “What would {mobile} interactions look like if the web and desktop had never existed?” David is specifically focused on capitalizing on the opportunity through a single app: Facebook Messenger. However, companies should approach their own mobile apps with the same mindset: What if all other technologies never existed? It is time to go back to the basics.

Leg #1 — Customer Value: Why should someone download and use your app in the first place?

Despite what you might think, mobile applications are not easy for users. Think about what we are asking them to do? Mobile apps require users to find the app, download it onto their phone, open it, possibly turn on services such as location tracking and notifications, keep it installed on their device, and update it as new versions come out. Imagine if every website required us to download a browser that ONLY worked with one site, allowed the builder to leverage our computer hardware and tap us on the shoulder whenever they wanted, and required constant software updates. Isn’t this the case with mobile apps?

In a phenomenal post in May of 2015, Benedict Evans challenged brands with the following question: “Do people want to put your icon on their home screen?” He argues that if the answer is no, then despite all the cool things you can do with an app, it is best to stick to the web. While his challenge is spot on, I would frame it a slightly different way.

Can you provide enough value to users that they will not only download your app, but keep it, use it, and update it? Do you see the difference? Do asks whether or not you provide that value today, presumably through your current channels. Can forces you to step back and rethink the possible. However, if you still cannot answer yes, YOU WILL NOT SUCCEED.

Leg #2 — Brand Alignment: Does your use case align with your brands purpose and mission?

This one might seem obvious, but I’m always surprised at how far brands will stray in the name of customer and business value.

Fictional Example: Parking is a huge problem. The average motorist spends 106 days of their lives looking for parking spots, which results in lost productivity, wasted fuel, and increased pollution. Walmart has one of the most talented technology teams in the retail space. Could Walmart create technology that would help fix this global problem? Of course they could. Would users benefit? Yes. Could Walmart find a way to profit off of it? Likely. Should they do it? No way. Why not? It does not align with Walmart’s core mission: “an unwavering commitment to saving people money.”

Any effort outside of your organizations core mission and focus will be a distraction and doomed to fail.

Leg #3: Business Value: How will your organization directly benefit?

Business value too often doesn’t get the attention it deserves. I get it. Nobody wants to be viewed as the greedy corporate scrooge strategizing on how to take more of people’s money and time. However, if your app cannot show near term, direct value to the organization, IT WILL FAIL! “If our customer likes it, she will like us, and she will not leave us” is not enough.

Mobile apps are expensive and hard. Good mobile developers are difficult to find and expensive to retain. App downloads can require substantial costly advertising and incentives. However, the real question is not whether or not you can get the upfront investment to build and launch an app. Successful mobile apps require ongoing commitment. The underlying hardware and software platforms these apps are built on are in constant flux and change. As a results mobile apps come with not only the baggage of maintenance, but the burden of ongoing investment and innovation. Without it, they will quickly become stale or even not work at all. The result: a black eye for the organization.

If your app cannot show enough value to warrant constant and increased investment, do not build one.

Mobile apps are not living up to the hype. However, this is not a result of unrealistic expectations. It is time for organizations to step back and rethink their strategies. As with any three legged stool, any leg is just as important as the other. Remove any one, and the stool cannot stand.

As we move forward, we plan to take a deeper look at each of the legs outlined above and how they pertain to various industries and verticals. We hope you come along for the ride.

Matt Compton is a former sales and product leader @ExactTarget and Salesforce and is currently the co-founder of Waysay, a company focused on helping brands create more personalized mobile apps. Follow Waysay and Matt on Twitter.

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