For marketers, the mobile app is becoming what the website was 10 years ago. According to the 2013 BrandZ Top 100 Most Valuable Global Brands, 89 of them have designed and launched an app, some of whom have more than one app.
However, when it comes to apps from Indian brands, only a handful have worked. Some of them are Meru (4.2 ratings), Flipkart (4.3 ratings), SnapDeal (4.2 ratings) and Zomato (4.3 ratings). Besides, there are several well-designed popular apps like Cleartrip (4.2 ratings), Paytm (4.3 ratings) and NDTV (4.1 ratings). When an app crosses the 4-point rating on an app store, it is considered to be a success.
Ratings are given by users who have downloaded and used the app. All the really successful apps have high user review scores or ratings. The converse is not true - not all highly rated apps are successful.
Apollo Hospital's 24x7 Emergency App (4.2 ratings) is a small success - 10,000-50,000 people have downloaded it. Similarly, PVR Cinemas (4.1 ratings) has done a good job in movie ticketing. All these are utility apps and they solve a specific pain point of the consumer. There are hardly any successful, non-utility consumer brand names that one can reel off.
The numbers referred to in this story are from Google Play Store because 90 per cent of smartphones used in India run on Android.
Considering the dismal performance of brand apps (see table for a random sample of downloaded brand apps vis a vis utility apps), some apps beg the question: why are they there in the first place? Take the Vivanta app from the Taj Group of Hotels, which offers information about its range of hotels - 500-1,000 people (Google Play does not give exact download figures) have downloaded it. Even the Unilever Careers app that provides graduate students and job seekers with the necessary info that they will need, to start their career has seen only 1,000-5,000 downloads so far.
Colgate Oral Care Center, an app platform where one can locate the nearest dentist received 100-500 downloads. The Calcutta University app saw 100-500 downloads. Considering the cost of developing apps, these experiments are wasteful expenditure. An app sets the client back by Rs. 1-10 lakh depending on the complexities involved.
It is not just the low downloads that brands need to worry about. They often face flak by way of reviews. Domino's Pizza India's app for mobile orders, for instance, has seen 500,000-1,000,000 downloads but it also has a deluge of negative comments on it.
App to the mark?
Relevance, and an awesome user experience, is what many experts term as the key to success of a mobile app. "Brands should create an app considering how their customers are likely to interact with them on mobile, rather than just replicating their web presence," advises Alok Jain, chief marketing officer, Zomato, whose app has been downloaded between one and five million times.
"Brands must ask what role the app can play in the overall strategy - create leads, sell or build engagement with the brand proposition. It pays to have a mobile app aligned to the overall brand strategy than one created for a tactical campaign," opines Lakshmipathy Bhat, director, CodeConclave, a mobile marketer.
For Bhat, the three big 'moments' where consumers interact with cellphones are: 'bored now', 'urgent now' and 'repetitive now'. The 'bored now' moment could be a situation where she needs to 'time-pass' or wait for some other event (waiting at a doctor's clinic, for instance.)
'Urgent now' is when the consumer needs critical information right away. Typically, this is time-critical information like map results, addresses, product prices and reviews, news alerts and so on. 'Repetitive now' is a category where byte-sized information is accessed repeatedly - sports scores, stock market alerts, news apps and such.
What it takes
In this day of multiple digital platforms, brands need to be clear about what their mobile app will do that cannot be done through any of their other digital properties. Basically, it has to answer three questions. "Is it a natural fit with the normal mobile usage of the consumer? Does it solve a specific need, offering a clear benefit? Does it give a reason to not just download but to use it again and again?" emphasises Bhat by way of explanation.
So, how does a brand know what app would work the best and how to get that made? In India, the emphasis is still on the coding part and a premium is yet to be placed on user interface and the overall 'design' of the app. What should matter to a brand is the effectiveness of the app. "A confectionery brand can think of a game which is linked to the brand's core proposition; a consumer brand based on a health platform can provide apps which have a clear health utility," says Bhat.
For Zomato's Jain it's a long-term investment. "Investing in the right kind of features and functionality on your apps will help brands evolve and grow." But in order to keep the app alive and push relevant content through updates, brands need to have a content team in place.
According to Nitesh Kripalani, executive vice-president, new media, business development and digital/syndication, Sony Entertainment Network, content is a loosely-used term - it can be a piece of infographic, an added image or a new video. Sony operates its video-on-demand channel, SonyLIV.com, and also owns the SonyLIV application, which offers videos from its Network channels on mobile. "Brands should invest more in discovering what kind of content the consumer is expecting from them," says Kripalani.
The popularity stakes
App downloads in India are estimated to account for less than 5 per cent of global downloads despite India being the world's second-largest mobile user market after China. Besides, the top 10-15 apps downloaded in India are similar to the top 15 downloaded globally.
Aakrit Vaish, founder, Haptik (an app that enables users and brand representatives to have conversations with each other over mobile messaging), feels that the main purpose of an app should not be to promote the brand, but to give a utility which makes the user download and use it. The brand should silently promote itself. "You could do the same through a mobile website or a well-designed mobile social profile," points out Vaish.
The Zomato app was conceptualised to provide information on restaurants to users even when they didn't have access to laptops and desktops. Whether an app is downloaded or not also has a lot to do with the technological specifications of the phone. Plus, there is the fact that a heavy app becomes very expensive to download if there is no wi-fi.
That is probably why many online brands develop HTML5 sites, which provide users with an online experience that is similar to that afforded by an app. This is where related aspects such as 'responsive design' come into play. Some sites are built to 'respond to' the size of the mobile screen and 'adjust themselves' accordingly. This is a better option because no downloading is involved.
Probably the only brands that find it easier to promote their apps are the media and content companies (TV channels and publications) since they can promote their apps in their own properties. A big part of SonyLIV's success came about because of the extensive marketing push done across TV channels and other media. The objective of SonyLIV's marketing, states Kripalani, has always been to track where the user is and be there.
On an average, the cost per acquisition (amount paid to acquire one user) per app is Rs. 100-120 for iOS apps and Rs. 30-50 for Android. Now, after having spent a few lakh on launching an app, marketers are apt to discover that nobody is downloading it. To get just 10,000 people to download, an app would cost Rs. 5-10 lakh depending on the platform. That's not all. There is enough research to show that one in five of downloaded apps are used just once.
The best way is if the app goes viral. Evernote, a hugely popular app, that is a reminder service and 'acts an external brain to its users', says that the biggest promoters for them have been the loyal users who have spread their message far and wide by just word of mouth. "Trust me, that's the best form of PR you can have for your product," says Troy Malone, general manager, Asia-Pacific, Evernote. Few brands are that lucky.
Nothing beats a great app design, feels Bhat. "Howard Gossage (the advertising pioneer) said in the '50s: 'People don't read ads. People read what interests them. Sometimes, it is an ad'. Marketers need to extrapolate that in the context of apps," he adds. Building a product that addresses a problem wins half the battle. When people check out your product and see value in it, they share it in their social circles. If an app can get to that level of quality and experience, the marketing takes care of itself.
How does one measure success? The key indicators are downloads, revenue, ranks and reviews. Tools like Google Mobile App Analytics can be used to measure and optimise user acquisition and engagement. Besides, there are players like App Annie, AppFigures and Mopapp which are also useful in tracking downloads and revenues.
The usage of apps in India has surged in tier II and III cities as well. But it is still early days and there's much to be achieved on the problem-solving front. "I think everyone will want to have their own app, but that doesn't mean it is the right thing to do. What it does mean is increased investment in app development, which means more jobs, and overall a boost to the app-developer economy," states Vaish.
In a winner-takes-all market, big brands might push on and attain some success in terms of downloads, but for small enterprises, an app which is hardly downloaded, doesn't make sense. So, before a brand develops an app, it has to find out if the customer needs it. If the customer doesn't need it, the brand doesn't either.
A Note From the Editor
Every now and then technology creates the promise of magic and marketers fall for it. Mobile apps are the latest in that line. Brand custodians think that they are not 'with it' unless they have an app out there - but to what purpose?
If a large brand puts out a mobile app as a matter of hygiene, that is fine. The thing is, managers have high expectations of innumerable downloads. Believe me, that's not going to happen.
Downloads in the lakhs or millions that marketers dream of are saved for only three kinds of apps: games, utilities (including some service brands such as ecommerce or food retail) and news or information apps. Unless a brand can create some form of credible entertainment, the app has little hope. A consumer has so many other interesting options.
Marketers do both - underestimate the cost of creating an app and overestimate the benefit to be derived. The brand team looks at the cost of creating an app and assumes that that is where the spending will end. Not true. Within weeks of launch there is the shocking realisation that with millions of apps already available, nobody is keen on this latest addition.
To justify the expense of creating the app, advertising becomes necessary: it would typically cost Rs 50-100 to get one download. That's not cheap: getting just 50,000 people to download the app would cost Rs 25-50 lakh.
It still doesn't mean that the battle for consumer interest is over. There is enough evidence to show that while smartphone users download many apps, they use only a handful. The rest lie unused only to be deleted at some point. That is the most likely future of the brand app that has been created with such hope.
The issue really is the marketer's exaggerated sense of the brand's importance in a consumer's life. A senior digital agency executive says that it is difficult to talk marketers out of launching a mobile app once they set their mind on it.
A far less expensive is option is to use a combination of social media together with a clean website with a responsive design that is easy to access on a smartphone. Admittedly, though, that is less glamorous than launching a mobile app.