Many experts argue that marketers have too great a tendency to view standalone apps and 'adaptive' design as one-size-fits-all solutions to their digital problems.
Apple's advertising strapline, 'there's an app for that' could quite easily double as the slogan for the marketing industry's scatter-gun approach to apps to date.
Many an enthusiastic marketing director has jumped on the app bandwagon, wasting time and money, for the sake of creating something that ticks a box. The vast amount of gilded apps sitting unvisited on consumers' mobile phones underlines the point.
Some experts suspect that the same faddish approach is being taken to the latest buzz words: 'adaptive' or 'responsive' design (click here for 'jargon buster', below). Douglas McDonald, director of mobile and the connected consumer, at agency TMW, says: 'We all know of chief marketing officers who, in 2008 or 2009, demanded an iPhone app without having real concern for its place in a strategy or campaign.
'Now we have marketers who are saying "let's just make it adaptive". But one of the biggest fallacies of adaptive design is that it somehow magically makes content work on mobile. It doesn't. Adaptive design on its own does not a mobile or tablet site make.'
'Don't act on a whim'
McDonald urges marketers not to decide to 'be adaptive' on a whim. There are pros and cons attached to using a more cost-effective method which runs the same content across several screens instead of creating a native app, designed with a particular platform, such as the iPhone, in mind.
Jon Williams (right), chief digital officer at Grey EMEA, a division of the global marketing agency, argues that adaptive design is a step in the right direction. He says agencies 'need the cojones' to ask clients why they want to develop multiple native apps for various screens.
He adds: 'An app is a brilliant way of developing a relationship with your customers, if you can offer useful functionality or entertainment. If you can't, knocking out an ersatz version of a popular game, or some lame quiz, is no substitute. Similarly, brands should be wary of adaptive design as another trend. When it works, it's lovely. However, pushing the same content out over multiple devices utterly ignores the usage profile of those devices.'
If a consumer is accessing brand content via a mobile, then they are unlikely to want corporate spiel and are probably just looking for a phone number or address. However, if they are lounging on their sofa surfing the web on their iPad, they might be more receptive to a fuller site, with more information to explore.
Williams adds: 'If I'm just getting the same stuff beautifully resized for different screens, you might be annoying me, and you don't want to do that.'
Size isn't everything
Yet this is not a fault of marketing directors alone; many agencies have mis-sold apps to clients. So, who can clients trust when it comes to content agencies? Are bigger content agencies struggling to make the old print business model work? Does that mean that clients are better off using smaller agencies, on the basis that they are not weighed down by legacy models?
Not surprisingly, Seven's chief executive Sean King rejects such questions as nonsense. He contends that larger agencies such as his are at the forefront of creating integrated approaches toward content.
'Our size means we are able to invest significantly in talent and capability in content creation. We are growing a significant share in this market. Smaller agencies do not have the resources to do this and are therefore trailing behind,' he claims.
Nicola Murphy, managing director of River, which has 102 staff, rejects the suggestion that the multichannel business model is not working. She insists: 'Print is definitely profitable but our business is about compelling content. The medium is secondary. We do apps if appropriate, but we also do print. It depends what customer take-out the client wants.'
Toby Smeeton, chief executive of Sunday Publishing, a smaller agency in terms of staff numbers, is magnanimous on the issue. 'It's too easy to say that bigger agencies are struggling,' he says, adding that it's not about size, because 'good content agencies are not slavishly prescriptive to any particular model'. Smeeton argues that most agencies 'have been affected by the recession' and are 'focused on what solutions are best placed to get an audience engaging with their client's content'.
Look to the future
These discussions are secondary, however, to the main point: this an exciting time for mobile content marketing. Apps might have something of a bad name in marketing circles and 'adaptive' might be at risk of being dismissed as an over-used buzz word. However, Adam Graham, chief executive of the Omnicom agency Weapon7, warns brands not to 'throw the baby out with the bathwater'.
It is likely that the hype around the term 'adaptive' will soon settle. It will quickly be accepted as the norm that all content should run easily from platform to platform and adaptive design will be considered, by many, to be the best way of doing this.
However, this is not an 'either or' scenario and the rise of adaptive certainly does not necessarily mean the demise of the app.
'The most important thing is that your content is accessible and functional for all mobile devices,' argues Graham. 'You might well then have a valid reason for a (native) app. They can deliver on-going value for little cost. Branded apps have matured. We are in an era which demands that they work harder for our attention.
If marketers can crack a strong idea and slick execution, apps are more valuable than ever.'
A native app is developed for a specific platform or operating system, such as Google Android or Apple iOS.
- Adaptive design
This gives a site the capability to display well on a variety of devices, screen sizes and resolutions. This is often achieved through flexible layouts, images and CSS.
GUARDIAN AND BLACKBERRY...
create an app using Seven Publishing
The Guardian partnered BlackBerry in a sponsorship deal to create a free mini-guide for festival-goers at WOMAD, Camp Bestival and Bestival (right - click image to enlarge). The guide was an HTML 5- rendered web app, accessible from a range of mobile handsets and tablets.
According to Mia Barnes, group head, brand partnerships, Guardian News & Media, this strategy was chosen, rather than a native app, because it is more cost-efficient and quicker to build. The aim was to provide revellers with rich content, including reports from Guardian journalists, while also encouraging them to upload their own reviews and pictures.
The app, created by Seven Publishing, fitted the Guardian brand stance as a curator of 'citizen journalism', and benefited BlackBerry by putting it in touch with a key, tech-savvy audience. The Guardian erected tents at the festivals where people could write reviews and post them on an open thread on its site. The best were included in the mini-guide.
'Curation (of content) is incredibly valuable,' says Barnes. 'Tools such as Twitter are exciting, but there's always huge value for a brand like The Guardian to make sense of the noise, which the app did. We put BlackBerry at the heart of an open journalism experience, creating an app across all platforms that added value to the festival-going experience.'
puts native apps at the heart of a digital content strategy
With 11.5% of visits to Autotrader's site made via mobile, and with mobile searches for vehicles continuing to grow, digital content is at the heart of the car-seller's strategy.
The brand considered whether to create tailored apps or to make the content adaptive so it could run across all platforms.
Autotrader's consumer marketing director, Jonathan Williams, explains: 'There was pressure internally (not to create native apps). "Why reinvent the wheel?" said senior management. We nearly went down the adaptive path.
'But just because something works well on the web, doesn't mean it's going to work well on mobile. Apps aren't always the answer either; how many have you downloaded and never used again? Brands need to think about which route they take.
'For us, it was important to create the best possible experience. At the moment, apps offer an enhanced, more immersive experience where you can add in features that integrate with that platform, like a certain phone's camera.'
The argument that swung it for Autotrader was that people use platforms for various needs. 'Many brands just replicate the existing product and whack it on a mobile site. But that's dangerous. It fails to understand how people want to use your product,' he says.
The brand spent much time researching how people were using mobiles to access its site and found a vast number did so while 'on the forecourt' and in the process of looking at or buying a car.
The big question Williams gets asked is how the apps will make money. Most are free, but some functionality is paid for by consumers, such as the iPhone's 'vehicle check'.
This means it has to be a genuinely useful service, and it is: consumers about to purchase a car can check the vehicle's history and assess whether the seller is giving them legitimate data.
O2 JOINS FORCES WITH NIKE...
to launch Priority Sports app through RGA
This venture taps into the demand from the many consumers who use apps to help them get fit, and expands on the existing O2 'Priority moments' strategy.
The collaboration with Nike gives O2 kudos in the sporting arena and allows its customers access to Nike's sports network. It also provides opportunities for exclusive experiences with Nike athletes, discounts and limited-edition retail offers.
Mark Given, head of sponsorship at O2, explains that the tie-up came about because both brands use the agency RGA.
'RGA could see we wanted much greater sporting play and that Nike could work with a mobile operator to use more scale. Partnership marketing has been around for a while, but in tough times, marketers have to be more creative about developing content, rather than relying on traditional sponsorship. We were happy to (work) with Nike. We thought we could learn a lot, and we did. We learned about Nike's attention to detail, for instance, and we also found a huge amount of synergy between our brands.'
The proposition is simple, and all the better for it, claims Given.
His objective when it came to the technical approach was to make the customer journey as simple, enjoyable and seamless as possible, with a straightforward navigation system.
Given says: 'We were constantly asking "how much text can we take out?" and tried to make it highly visual. We also tried to join all the dots for the customer, so they didn't have to.'
Given's top tips to prevent 'app fatigue'
- Keep it simple.
- Don't leave the customer to 'join the dots'. Do it for them.
- Think of the app launch as a starting point and have a plan for how you will update it. We work to a twoor three-year plan. You are in the software business now, and technology moves all the time. You have to move with it and ensure people are re-using your app.
- Be clever in your use of prompts - such as texts or emails - to let consumers know that you have improved the app.
- Constantly ask: 'how can we upgrade the app?'
- Conduct user testing. It doesn't have to be fancy: just put the app in someone's hand and watch them. Observe how they play with it, and think about how you can make it simpler.
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