It’s 2011, picture the scene; Adele’s ‘Rolling in the deep’ is top of the charts, #planking is still a thing, Prince William and Kate Middleton have exchanged their vows, and smartphone sales are at an all time high reaching 31% of global mobile device sales, up 58% from the previous year (Gartner: 2012).
The rising popularity of smart mobile devices gave brands and consumers alike a whole new playground to explore, and it didn’t take much to impress. Just take a look at Time magazine’s affectionate description of Instagram from 2011: “Some apps apply a vintage filter on your snapshots, and others let you share your snapshots with friends. Instagram does both.” In the same article, Time also mentions that their only gripe with the Netflix app is that you are unable to update your DVD-by-mail queue within the app, they deemed it “a surprising omission. Let’s hope that feature is part of the next update.”
It was a simpler time. All brands had to do to be part of the action was to launch an app-based version of their website, usually with reduced functionality and somewhat clunky navigation. However, expectations have changed drastically over the past seven years. As the smartphone market has continued to grow, the demand for seamless mobile-first experiences has grown too. In 2011, mobile was a place for browsing and experimentation. Now, mobile is the dominant platform for many consumers and home to purchasing decisions both large and small.
What’s more, the app market has become immensely overpopulated. Consumers are frequently overwhelmed by a barrage of low-quality apps, making it difficult to find those that will be genuinely useful to them. It seems that any app which gains popularity will spawn a series of clones within a matter of months, not serving any unique consumer need but clogging up popular searches and giving rise to some unusual trends. Is anyone else baffled by the number of dragon breeding games available for download?
As a result of this overloaded market, Apple have placed more effort on removing apps from the store, specifically those which aren’t compatible with newer iPhone models and clones of other apps. This, combined with a reduced number of apps submitted to the app store by developers, resulted in 2017 being the first time ever that the number of apps available for download actually decreased.
According to data from AppAnnie, the average smartphone user has as many as 80 apps downloaded to their device. If this surprised you as much as it did me, it might be because we use just 10 of these apps each day on average. What’s not surprising, however, is that those 10 apps that we use on a daily basis are unlikely to be made up of dedicated brand apps, instead the most popular app types used are (in order): social networks, chat/messaging apps, maps, music and games (GlobalWebIndex: 2017 and 2018).
This leaves brands with something of a dilemma. Clearly, developing new apps for an exceedingly crowded market (where the demand for branded apps is already low) is not the answer. I won’t go as far as to say that the ‘app boom’ is over. After all, there is still a place for creative brand experiences within apps and, dependent on the product or service you’re offering, apps are still essential for some. I can’t imagine Amazon abandoning their app strategy any time soon, for example. Nonetheless, the majority of brands are looking to alternative methods to help them break into mobile consumer experiences without investing in dedicated apps.
So what is the solution?
If the most popular apps used by modern consumers are social networks and chat/messaging apps, then it seems only natural that the best way to approach this challenge is to create exciting consumer experiences within these existing services and platforms. The creators of these apps seem to agree; as social networks continue to expand their functionality they’re giving brands, influencers and advertisers new ways to access their audiences.
Alternatively, brands can also develop consumer experiences designed specifically for web browsers rather than asking their audience to download a specific app (which may create a barrier to engagement with a brand or campaign). This could take the form of the main brand website, transforming the digital identity of a particular brand, or it could take the form of a microsite built for a specific campaign or activation over a limited period of time.
New platforms and technologies are being developed all the time. Here are a few recent examples to consider experimenting with:
- Chatbots – Messaging apps like Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp are incredibly popular but have only recently begun introducing integrations open to brand engagement. The most significant of these are chatbots which utilise AI technology to power personalised brand experiences the consumer can navigate in their own time. This is a win for both parties, allowing the consumer freedom to engage with the brand whenever and however they want, whilst requiring no additional effort or resource time from the brand following the setup of the bot.
- Instagram TV – Instagram have recently introduced a new element to their platform and an accompanying app which is designed to host long form vertical video content. Instagram is where users go to find content about the things they love, focused on their hobbies and passions. If there is a strong community of fans built around your industry, this could be an ideal home for your brand to create fun and useful content for your audience. As this is such a new platform, it is yet to be seen how it will be used by brands and influencers. This could be an opportunity for your brand to become a standout IGTV content creator.
- Shoppable content – Social networks like Instagram and Pinterest are built for brand and product discovery. Integrations are now being introduced that allow you to create shoppable content, tagging products with prices and allowing users to click through to view the relevant product pages on-site. Rather than relying on users downloading an app to browse the latest product range, introduce them to new products and services through social and then give them the freedom to engage further.
- Voice applications – Whilst dedicated mobile apps may be in decline, now is the time for your brand to get ahead of the curve and start designing voice-based consumer experiences for devices such as Alexa and Google Home. Just as there was a surge of brand apps with the rise in popularity of smartphones, we are likely to see a similar trend occur with voice applications on these new smart home devices. Consider how your brand could develop a useful voice application for your customers and infiltrate this market before it becomes overpopulated like the Apple App and Google Play stores.
The lesson to take away here is that no matter how stable things seem, over time they are still bound to change in alignment with shifting consumer needs and expectations. Our work is never done, all we can do is keep our ears to the ground and follow the consumer to whichever platform or device is most convenient for them, rather than expecting them to come to us. This doesn’t mean jumping ship every time a new social network appears, but remaining aware and listening to your audience in order to better understand how you can serve them best.