As we move into the last quarter of 2015, just about every consumer company is starting to think about how they will approach their digital product strategy in 2016. Will 2016 be the year of a website redesign? Replatforming an antiquated backend? Iterating on the omnichannel experience? Finally committing to a kick-ass mobile product? Tackling an outdated loyalty experience? Exploring wearables or TV? The list goes on. There always seems to be endless opportunities for improvement, but never enough time to get a leg up on the competition. How does one prioritize these days when the industry is changing at the speed of light?
At Prolific, we are fortunate to work with over a dozen forward-thinking brands at any given time, and they all have one thing in common: they have made the conscious decision to take mobile very seriously. While we may be just a tad biased, we feel this is a strong approach and it is not too late to join the party (yet!). Let the data talk; any behavioral study about the internet (most likely including your analytics) published in the last few years will say two things:
It is near impossible to ignore the opportunity that a sound mobile approach can provide for a consumer brand these days, but true success requires the stellar execution of a comprehensive mobile strategy that brings your brand into the present day and establishes a foundation for what the future of the “mobile” industry is quickly becoming. This post speaks to a variety of considerations pertaining to the modern digital space, and explains the benefits of a mobile-focused approach as the cornerstone of a consumer brand’s long-term strategy.
A Strong Digital Foundation is a Prerequisite to Mobile Apps*
Before a brand is ready to satiate its mobile ‘app’-itite (a… thank you.), there are a few digital prerequisites that help to already have in place: a modern website that makes it easy to browse and purchase across all devices, a strong user acquisition program to maintain user volume, and a CRM-driven marketing program to maximize the value of existing users. Bonus points are awarded for relevant and compelling content. Finally, everything needs to be running on modern APIs – do not discount your backend!
As bullish as we are on mobile, the reason we recommend starting with the web is because it accomplishes different goals than an app. We will get more into this later, but essentially a website has more top-funnel goals (discovery, education), while an app tends to be more focused on maturing an existing user base (loyalty, retention). We want to be careful not to put the cart before the horse here.
Once a strong web-based product and marketing growth engine is in place, it is time to turn your attention to the native mobile world.
*The exception being newer companies that are centered around the app experience. Uber, Instagram, and Tinder come to mind.
A Website and App Complement Each Other
At least once a week, we at Prolific hear the question, “Why do we need a mobile app if we have a perfectly good mobile website?” A fair question when you look at the relative performance over time of any popular brand’s mobile website, growing consistently due to the rise in mobile ubiquity. However, it is important to note there is incremental opportunity in a mobile app, opportunity that is hard to see beforehand but so clear once the app is in place. This is not a “site or app” conversation, but rather a “site and app” conversation. When this philosophy is executed correctly, a mobile website and a mobile app will complement each other and create net incremental value.
A website’s biggest advantage lies in its inherent discoverability. It is designed to be accessible from any device, linked to from anywhere, and constantly crawled by major search engines. It is your virtual storefront right on Main Street. Some people will show up and know exactly where to go and what to buy, but the vast majority stumble in from a search engine or link from another site and wander around a bit. You do not even know what page they might land on! As such, it is the responsibility of the website to accommodate each type of user, from the loyal brand evangelist to the gifting grandmother, and every customer in between.
Your app, on the other hand, is for a very specific subset of your customer base. It should be specifically designed for your most loyal users, those that are so infatuated with your brand that they find value in having a piece of the brand in their pocket at all times. In this case, it is the responsibility of the brand to satiate this desire. In addition to the app being the absolute fastest place to make a purchase, think about the app as a loyalty program in itself, a VIP experience that rewards users with information, access, content, and deals that are not available anywhere else. Make the holistic experience one that encourages repeat brand engagement over time and you will see incredible results.
When this formula is executed, we see incremental value from both the loyal users transitioning to a stickier platform, as well as a new audience that is finding the brand for the first time via discoverability in the app store (check out app store optimization tips for iOS and Android which fuel organic app discovery).
In-App Content Exposure Is On The Rise
The next question we often hear is, “Okay, so I can understand that my top customers will love the app and use it all the time, but will people really open themselves up to our brand just because they see the app in the App Store?” Another valid question, and one that can be harder to measure quantitatively. Nevertheless, we have seen that when we release a new app, people are creating accounts for the brand on the app. Maybe they were already familiar, maybe not, but regardless they are only now showing their commitment to the brand by creating an account via the mobile app. In the eyes of the user, the quality of your app is a direct reflection of the quality of your brand. Apps with a great experience tend to surface to the top of the app store and attract new, qualified customers.
While this trend of app store discoverability is encouraging, the best argument for brand discovery via native mobile apps lies in the subtle future plans of the almighty: Apple and Google. Every day the minds at these two giants are tinkering with ways to make apps, and the content within, more accessible. Best practices for app install interstitial techniques are being created to transition users from a website to an app without ruining the UX of the website itself. Adjustments to the app/play store experience are being made to expose the average user to more apps. But perhaps most importantly, and subtly, is the rise of deep linking.
Deep linking is the not-so-radical idea that you can link to content within an app, as opposed to linking solely to an app itself. This is the fundamental way that the web works, but until recently the app space has lacked this luxury. Android has been tinkering with deep links for a few years now, and with the release of iOS 9 the technology is finally part of the Apple ecosystem as well.
We are just starting to see the fruits of this radical achievement in mobile app UX. Allow me to demonstrate with an anecdote:
A sneaker enthusiast, let’s call him Paul, had installed the Zappos app and uses it from time to time when he needs a new pair of kicks. He typically discovers new sneakers on blogs and email subscriptions, but prefers to buy on the Zappos app because of its great return policy and free overnight shipping benefits for mobile app users. One day, Paul sees someone walking down the sidewalk with a particularly rad set of kicks and asks what they are. “These are my new PF Flyers!” The man exuberates. Paul quickly pulls out his phone and does a Google search for “PF Flyers” and taps on the first link, which happens to be for Zappos.com. Instead of going to the mobile site, however, something unexpected happens: he is taken directly to the app’s sneakers category page with a filter for “PF Flyers”.
That is deep linking at work! This technology further blurs the line between the web and native experience, opting for the latter, and ideally superior, option whenever possible.
We predict that deep-linking will go from being an obscure behind-the-scenes innovation to a glorious mainstream expectation rather quickly, and the improved flow will exaggerate the competitive advantage that a strong mobile UX can bring to a consumer brand. More customers will begin to use the app more regularly, which will lead to more positive brand interactions and increased ROI.
A Foundation for the Future of Digital
All signs indicate that traditional website usage as we know it will continue to diminish, but the opportunity in mobile is just starting to heat up. The term ‘mobile’ today is hardly limited to websites and apps. It is starting to encompass wristwatches, televisions, homes, virtual reality, and even cars. The concept of the ‘connected self’ is happening right before our eyes but it is evolving from an unexpected place. Things like the smart fridge or smart coffee maker, which garnered so much buzz a few years back, are now just endpoints of much more powerful, centralized, mobile hubs which are still being pioneered primarily by Apple and Google.
It is essential that brands today are focused on establishing their own unique mobile-centric hub from which it can continue to evolve digitally over the next decade and beyond. The more your brand is mobile today, the easier it will be to stay mobile in the future. The easier your brand can stay mobile in the future, the stronger your brand’s relationship will be with the user. The stronger your brand’s relationship relationship is with the user, the more valuable the user will become for the company – and vice versa.