What happens when smartphone users completely bypass the app world?
Written by RJ Bardsley, EVP & Technology Practice Lead, Racepoint Global
This post was featured in The Holmes Report.
Fifteen years ago, at the close of what many consider the first generation of the Web, a few souls were looking beyond the PC to what the handheld world might entail. But those were the days of Motorola Flip Phones and the Nokia Candybars. You could access a very nascent mobile web experience on them, but those early phones weren’t exactly brimming with rich content, engaging environments, virtual reality applications or dynamic messaging platforms. In fact, as a marketer you might be forgiven for thinking about cell phones as not much of a marketing platform at all.
But all that began to change very quickly. While many credit the 2008 iPhone as the dawn of truly engaging mobile experience, I would argue that phones on the Palm, Symbian, BlackBerry and PocketPC operating systems brought significant advances to the party before 2008 – adding email, color web browsing, music players, cameras, video and gaming to the handset, albeit in very rudimentary forms compared to today’s devices.
Fast forward a decade and a half and we’re on the precipice of another major shift in mobility. The mobile consumer is walling off his own world in a variety of ways. The mobile app – the primary engagement construct for the mobile universe is in rapid decline. While apps now take up more than half of the time we spend on mobile devices – 52 percent, according to comScore – the app landscape is changing dramatically. Again, according to comScore, most people don’t download new apps – at all. Roughly 65 percent of US smartphone users download zero mobile apps on a monthly basis.
Brands love apps – apps enable marketers to create an immersive experience on the phone that puts the consumer-brand relationship at the center of the smartphone. But what happens when smartphone users completely bypass the app world?
Seeing in the Dark
One category of apps continues to skyrocket –messaging. In fact, according to a recent MarketProfs post, “at least half of the top 10 most downloaded apps within any given month are messaging apps.” (http://www.marketingprofs.com/opinions/2016/30511/shedding-light-on-the-age-of-dark-messaging-apps). The problem is that these messaging apps are usually platforms for one-to-one conversations. Sure, there is a lot of sharing going on – photos, links and videos – at the very least. But, these are exchanges between individuals and brands are usually left out. These apps are often referred to as “Dark Apps” and that same MarketingProfs post speculates that 91 percent of Americans are communicating via Dark Apps.
But before you throw in the towel and refocus your marketing resources on television advertising and direct mail pieces, consider the evolution of “messaging” itself. Messaging now includes some pretty rich content – emojis, GIFs, directions, geotags, coupons, videos, music sharing, document sharing, payments, and rating and recommendation systems. Some of these elements already reside within messaging apps, others will undoubtedly debut within the next year. These added dynamics offer brands the opportunity to enrich the messaging experience on dark apps without interfering with the primary purpose of them – conversation.
The catch? Where brands once approached mobile marketing with a focus on building their own apps, participating in Dark Apps will be a little trickier. It is probably wisest to tap into an existing audience rather than trying to build momentum for a new one. Facebook, WeChat, SnapChat and Weibo are some of the most prolific of the “Dark Apps” on the market today. Building on top of those existing platforms is probably better – when it’s possible – than starting from scratch.
Another emerging mobile marketing platform is the Chatbot, or bot for short. Bots are virtual robots that can autonomously chat on a variety of messaging platforms. Bots offer an easy way to do a lot of things – simply send a message to a bot and you can do anything from order flowers to reach customer service for your CRM tool. This spring, Facebook opened its Messenger platform to bot developers and brands like Zendesk and Salesforce are looking to link bot functionality to their existing backend marketing infrastructure.
From my perspective, bots are an interesting and sort of unexpected expression of the melding of mobile and cloud technologies. While we’re used to thinking about mobility and the cloud coming together in apps like Dropbox or Spotify, this inserts Cloud Intelligence into the equation and gives us something that almost has a personality. Christina Warren explains this well in her recent post on Mashable, “like an app, a bot has backend services that call certain functions and can lead to other calls….the logic is running remotely on the cloud and not locally on a phone.” (http://mashable.com/2016/04/12/facebook-bots-analysis/#ylkueUtxbEq5 ).
The bot approach works well for an asynchronous generation of millennials who prefer to chat rather than talk on phones or visit brick and mortar locations in person. It lowers the barrier to entry and eliminates the process of discovery and downloading. Indeed, it offers brands a great way to engage with customers and prospects on their own turf. But, bots have a long way to go before they’re mature. For one thing, bots rely on the consumer as a catalyst – you need someone to order flowers before 1800Flowers can reach out to that individual. This makes it a little harder for brands to be proactive. But, that will likely evolve as the technology improves on different messaging platforms. The real risk is in ensuring bots don’t become overly ambitious and go off the rails. A great example of bots-gone-bad is Microsoft’s Tay – the bot that went from the voice of a teenager to spouting off KKK rhetoric over the weekend.
And these auto respondents don’t really change the app-level requirements from the brand’s perspective – you still have to develop the back end of a bot the same way you would have to develop an app. So, if you aren’t creating an engaging, proactive and reliable marketing platform, you really have to ask yourself if it is right for your brand. I am willing to bet that bots will become an increasingly important part of customer service, transactional exchanges and concierge-like tasks. But as a flagship for your mobile marketing strategy, they might not be the right fit.
Get ready for the App-On-Demand Economy?
The real challenge with apps today isn’t that people don’t want the functionality or experience of an app – it’s that they don’t want the process involved of getting to that app. A recent post in The Verge said it perfectly “The Play and App Store are the last remaining blockades on the road to building successful, mobile-only businesses.” (http://venturebeat.com/2016/06/05/the-world-isnt-ready-for-googles-instant-apps/)
In a major push to bring down those barriers both Android and Apple are introducing their own versions of on-demand mobile apps. Android is calling them Instant Apps and Apple has hinted at something called “app thinning” in iOS 9. In both cases, users will be able to just click on a link to experience a rich app environment without actually downloading the app. This works by making only fractions of the native app available to the user based on how they’re engaging.
For brands, this offers a win-win situation. It removes the mundane and time-consuming drudgery of the app store while maintaining the integrity and dynamic experience of a full on app. What remains to be seen is how well this works for the numbers guys in the marketing department. If this easy mobile participation ramps up and takes away traditional web eyeballs, cookies disappear and marketers could potentially stand to lose a lot of data. Depending on how savvy and confident your marketing team is, Instant Apps may offer you the best platform for expanding your mobile marketing strategy.
The Post-App World is Still a Ways Off
At the end of the day, are we going to see Apple and Android fold their app stores any time soon? My bet is no way. Recode’s Jan Dawson recently wrote that he suspects “we are entering a period of maturity for app stores, in which the vast majority of users have downloaded the most popular apps already and, as growth slows, there will a shift to the long tail of apps among existing users, while a smaller number of new users download the Top 100.”
What this means for marketers is that you will likely always have some sort of presence in the app stores. But you will need to think outside the app for ways to attract and engage consumers. Bots, Instant Apps and Messenger Add Ons offer a couple of solutions. But, I’m sure there are many more out there.