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January 12, 2010

Extending Brands in the Mobile Space: A Response to App-vertising

Posted in: Observations

Image: Flickr user TheGiantVermin

Are you designing a promotion experience or a product experience?

App-vertising is emerging as a means for brands to engage with consumers through downloadable mobile apps. Marketing and advertising professionals herald the growing app trend as a more sure entrance into the elusive mobile landscape. The fragmented mobile device and mobile OS landscape confined marketing to the lowest common denominators: which meant WAP sites and SMS campaigns.

That landscape has shifted significantly and is primed for brands to connect more deeply with consumers. Four key reasons the opportunity is real:

  1. Smart phones are capable of delivering rich applications (not just games and wallpapers);
  2. A critical mass of mainstream consumers now have smart devices in hand;
  3. Users have a voracious appetite for app downloads (and not just for iPhone, Android, Palm, Nokia all have app stores in play)
  4. Brands can stand alone in app stores and are no longer constrained by carrier’s walled gardens

Yet, slow down a little before throwing your budget at an iPhone app. I’d like to offer insights on the approach that will make the difference between mobile experiences that get adopted – and therefore extend brands – versus those that provide merely a flash in the pan.

Forget the marketing funnel
The fat end of the marketing funnel doesn’t readily apply because mobile applications are not primarily an awareness-building platform. It’s not about creating brand loyalty or buzz with clever, but short-lived experiences. There will be exceptions: but as a rule, the mobile app marketplace is not the place to deliver a viral mega hit, no matter how “viral” your creative is. The app marketplace requires a user to install something that they will later have to delete, so thinking of mobile the way you think of YouTube is a recipe for a quick delete. The awareness and the buzz will come later, after your users are enamored with how nicely you’ve thought about making their life better and they tell their friends.

When brand managers embrace the mobile lifestyle they will begin to understand that the mobile app opportunity is a product development or even a product extension opportunity. Yes, there will be (and are) branded apps that “go viral”, but not becuase they are funny or witty or clever. The sticky apps will have become part of a users regular, rhythm. My aim is to provide some guidance for teams to develop that mindset.

The mobile context amplifies permission marketing
If you’re tuned into the advertising and marketing zeitgeist you’re of course aware of the post-advertising and post-marketing backlash that marketing authorities like Seth Godin and Story Worldwide have built their reputation on. Their prevailing belief is that interruption-based advertising will struggle against brands that first get permission from their audience and are driven by friend recommendations from socially connected experiences.

People are bombarded with information and ideas and are constantly filtering for things they can safely ignore. Permission marketing says if a user invites you in, you have their trust and you know they’re listening. And you don’t betray that trust with loud messaging. Those principles are only amplified in mobile because mobile is the least passive of media. We’re talking about the most intimate of media: a device that is always on, and that is with users at all times. A device where they select what apps they download, sites they view and people they connect with. It’s arguably easier for users to ignore intrusions in mobile than any other medium.

Mobile is the perfect vehicle for brands that understand the post-advertising age because interruptive marketing backfires in mobile. Bluetooth advertising was hailed in 2006 as the hottest mobile marketing opportunity. It was supposed to kick-start mobile, location-based advertising. It was hot for advertisers, not consumers. Users quickly shunned bluespamming as a completely intrusive and unwelcomed breach. Users revolted against the theaters and other locations that were broadcasting bluetooth spam.

Mobile devices are the means through which users will interact with the world around them and brands that want access to that device must be invited. Sure, the downloads indicate users are willing, but how do brands acknowledge that trust and enhance that relationship without becoming a throwaway app or worse, breach the trust that got them invited.

The mobile app mindset
In the app space, think productivity and tools. You have a chance to make life easier for your user. The deeper opportunity is to rethink your brand’s promise and conceive services, tools, and maybe for the right categories, entertainment. Any experience must deliver on your brand’s promise or extend a brand’s story.

How to gauge your mobile app concept
_ Does the app give users a reason to regularly use it?
If not, then you’ll probably getter impact from a mobile web site. Ask yourself: Am I designing this so that someone will play with it once, in hopes that they’ll refer it to a friend? Question yourself if you’re designing a single-use experience.

_ Does the app help users simplify the things they do or provide the quick ability to do something they’re already doing in other ways?

_ Does the application enhance a real-world experience?
Does it enhanbce a social environment among friends, in a retail space, at a theme park?

_ Does the application tap into the phone’s built-in features?
The devices native features like a camera, GPS, compass, contacts and messaging let apps go beyond what a mobile web site can do.

_ Why would somebody prefer this app over a mobile web site?
Or even a desktop web site?

_ Will the app compete in a compelling way with what’s already out there?
Brands are giving away great utilities for free in exchange for deeper brand loyalty from users in their category. The team behind the successful examples of these apps show some restraint. They correctly resist the urge to monetize the app or even include heavy-handed “where to buy” messaging.

_ Are there paid apps out there that my brand can deliver for free?
There are lots of great apps for tracking a diet or exercise regime. A fitness clothing brand could readily create an exercise regime management app and extend their brand story with a tool rather than merely a store locator or an outfit configurator tool.

Long term impact for brands
Mobile applications will become a more dominant part of the ecosystem through which brands connect with users. We’ll see lots of experimentation and innovation coming from ad agencies but in the end, the experiences that users adopt will be those that make their life easier, or more fun, and enable them to make deeper connections to the real-world around them.


So, to be clear, I’m not focusing on banner or text ads served from within apps (so called in-app advertising). The numbers indicate mobile has better click-throughs than the web, but I’m happy to leave that discussion to someone else’s expertise. (You may be interested in my thoughts on mobile web versus mobile apps.)


Punchcut is a user interface design and development company specialized in improving users’ experiences with mobile device, desktop and television user interfaces. Punchcut provides strategy, design, and development services – from original user research and usability studies to the complete design and development of custom interfaces and applications. Punchcut’s clients span the consumer electronics industry including device manufacturers, technology providers, service providers and content brands. Punchcut partners with clients to create solutions that engage customers, streamline transactions, and enhance digital user experiences.

We’re not a mobile marketing agency in the traditional sense. (We don’t develop marketing campaigns or mobile banner ad buys.) We focus rather, on applying our understanding of the mobile lifestyle – the ways, the features and the modes through which users engage their world – to our clients’ product and application interfaces.

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