Sometimes there’s not an app for that

The fear of missing out

As a wise old advertising bird once said, there’s no bigger sucker than a gullible marketer convinced he’s missing out on a trend. Hence, perhaps, why around two years ago branded iPhone apps were rather à la mode in the marketing world.

Brands – and, let’s be honest, agencies – saw publishers create fantastically new/innovative/exciting apps and thought, “I want to be new/innovative/exciting. Let’s make something and bung it on the Appstore!”

Some of the apps were great; some were fine; some were downright awful. But that wasn’t the point. They tended to be created without much thought for how people would find them and what they’d do with them when they did.

Unsurprisingly, about 18 months later, a study from Deloitte showed that 80% of branded apps were downloaded less than 1,000 times.

Take that, return on investment.

Can I have an amazing iPad app please?

And so, with the collective amnesia for which our industry is so justly famous, we may well be doing it all over again with branded tablet apps – or lean back experiences, as this blog would call them.

I, for one, blame the publishers.

As brands become media owners – through websites, social presences, blogs like this and more – they need to produce a heck of a lot more content than they ever have before. Unsurprisingly, in order to produce this content, it seems natural for brands to want to become more like publishers. After all, who does better content than the experts themselves?

But it’s our contention that, with a few honourable exceptions, publishers have never been experts in content. They’ve been experts in the distribution of content.

And now that the distribution of content has ceased to be something that can be controlled, or even in many cases monetised, we don’t think that apeing traditional publishing techniques in a digital world will work for brands – whatever the platform.

“Can I have a great iPad app” is almost always the wrong question for a brand to ask – for three reasons.

It leads you to solve platform problems not brand problems. 

These days, content marketers spend too much time solving the problem of the platform (how do I make the most of all this exciting tablet functionality?) and not enough time solving the problem of the brand (how do I give my loyal customers something of value?).

People sweat over the value of a Facebook “like”, or a Twitter follower, without realising that the value of that interaction depends entirely on the quality of it and what it delivers for both individual and brand.

This misplaced focus is based on the idea that “we need to have this new platform because it’s the future”, not “we need to have this new platform because it will solve a marketing problem”. This is not good marketing in our view.

It leads you to design for content rather than designing for needs.

Great content solves a need that no one else can solve. The Economist has always known this – making its readers feel ahead of the game with the analysis it provides and the style with which it is written (“I don’t read The Economist” – Management Trainee, Aged 42).

We think that if you design for user needs, the right platform and content strategy will follow. It doesn’t work the other way around. That’s why we think solid user insight should be the starting point of all digital brand development, just as it would be with product development.  This requires a deep – and realistic – understanding of the real role your content does or could play in your audience’s lives.

Does your news make people feel informed in a unique way, or is it essentially just an entertaining way to pass the time? If it’s the former, a lean back tablet experience might be exactly right. If not, your competitive set may as well be Angry Birds, or, frankly, Starbucks.

Find the need, and the content will follow.

It creates a “build it and they will come” mentality.

One of the problems with the iPhone apps described earlier was that so much time, effort and budget were spent on creating fantastic apps that there was nothing left for decent distribution of them.

Publishers can rely on both an expectation of content excellence (amongst their core readers, at least) and established distribution channels to showcase their new toy. Brands can do neither.

The notion of ‘virality’ – that something great will reach mass simply by being great and therefore shared – is dead. Facebook gave it the kiss of death – particularly for brands – when it started charging brands to reach their already-established audiences. Trusting an app or piece of content will ‘go viral’ is the marketing equivalent of shutting your eyes and crossing your fingers. Never a good communications strategy.

To conclude

To succeed in a digital publishing world – lean back or otherwise – brands need to think twice about exporting publishing techniques into their toolkits. Instead, they should focus on applying some of the things that they have historically been great at to digital publishing: creative brand problem solving, incisive insight-gathering and smart media thinking.