The App Attack!

Many marketers have an “if you build it, they will come” philosophy about apps. Brands with a loyal user base in a different channel make the assumption that the same group will flock to their app. Retailers also somehow believe that relentless promotion of their app is worth prime real estate on the mobile homepage. If you build it and it’s actually useful by offering some sort of reward in exchange for the additional (downloading) effort on the part of the consumer, then yes, an app might be worth everyone’s while. But a cardinal sin in retail is using your app as a poor substitute for an optimized mobile site.

In theory, users do engage across different touchpoints, but in reality apps just might be the exception to the rule. People do use apps, filling their mobile devices with email, social media, video, news, fantasy football, banking, chat, and more. But a recent Nielsen study shows that in Q4 2014 the average smartphone user engaged with 26 apps per month for a combined total of ~37.5 hours1. And that time was largely dominated by social sites, video and email, with less than 5% (~ 1 hour and 12 minutes) spent in shopping apps2.

Unless if your retail app is going to realistically be used on a regular basis (like the Starbucks app is for people every day on their way to work), or actually provides a huge value add that truly can’t be offered in a browser (like the Nordstrom Personal Shopper or Net-a-Porter’s magazine), do some serious thinking before directing resources towards an app rather than an improved mobile site.

So before pursuing a retail app or shooting yourself in the foot by using your most valuable screen space for giant messages saying “Download our App!”, let’s review the opportunity costs for your shopper and your brand:

The Shopper’s Time
When a shopper visits your site from mobile, it’s a common experience to be intercepted or redirected to a landing page asking if you’d like to download the brand’s app. While it seems considerate, because as a marketer, you’ve spent time developing a native app to improve the experience for their device, these pop-ups just waste the shoppers time. You’ve redirected their brand engagement away from shopping, and into the process of downloading, installing, and registering before they can begin to complete their original task – browsing or buying something from you.

Valuable Screen Real Estate
If you don’t go the popup or redirect route to promote your app, the next standard approach is to have an iTunes or GooglePlay icon clearly displayed on your homepage. But when shoppers are on a mobile device, every pixel is valuable — screen real estate should be optimized, eliminating erroneous elements to quickly and easily direct the shopper to merchandise of interest. By dedicating space to the app, you not only push the engaging content further down the page, but also run the risk of diverting the shopper’s attention away from a transaction and down the long and winding path to an app download.

Your Brand Resources
Many brands create an app simply to check the box, and while it lives in iTunes, the functionality is no different from a mobile site. In replicating your site as an app, not only has your team spent a significant amount of time on development, they will continue to invest time for maintenance as operating systems update and new devices are released to the market. So instead of relying on your app as the main solution to your mobile visitors, and sinking marketing efforts into encouraging downloads, why not redistribute those funds (and development resources) to something that truly impacts the shopper’s mobile experience – personalization.

The goals of a mobile app are straightforward, streamlining navigation, optimizing product displays, accessible filtering and improving the user experience with expedited payment options, while eliminating pages or elements that get in the way of browsing on a small screen. The goals for your mobile site are exactly the same. But unlike an app, shoppers aren’t burdened with downloading, installing and registering before interacting with your products or content. The data benefits are also similar.

Solutions that employ personalization in the browser also have the ability to identify the shopper, their preferences, behavior, location, device and more. This flexibility has countless benefits including the ability to allow shoppers to pass freely between an email opened on a smartphone and a completely personalized mobile site experience.

Conclusion
The apps marketplace is beyond crowded; and unless you’re a retail giant like Amazon, which is the starting point for 44% of all consumer searches3 (can your brand claim that? Can Google even claim that?), an app has the potential to become a graveyard for your marketing dollars. In a sea of millions of apps across vastly different subject areas competing for users, the majority will struggle to be found, downloaded, and opened more than once before being deleted. Successful retail apps define a niche within their business, like Amazon and their Prime Members, or customers who regularly refill their prescriptions at Walgreens. Each of these give an added benefit to their shoppers — that isn’t simply a mobile version of their site encapsulated in an app.

These success stories are why retailers continue to dredge this channel, but it is by no means a necessary next step to promote a digital business. The onsite experience has a lot of power, and adapting for mobile is incredibly valuable with direct impact on the shopper and their relationship with your brand (without wasting their time or your resources to convince them to download your app).

Photo: Flickr / Blake Patterson

Hillary Wilmoth
Hillary Wilmoth

Hillary Wilmoth is the senior product marketing manager at Reflektion. Having worked in merchandising, consumer products, publishing, analytics and technology over the past 9 years, you might think she has ADD; but each marketing role was shopper-focused and research-driven. Hillary is a native of Baltimore, and, no, it’s not exactly like The Wire.