To App Or Not To App

Photo by flickr user AxsDeny.
This is the question Fast Company and many others are posing more generally, but of course the question applies to nonprofits as well. Social Fish lays out a thoughtful argument against associations creating mobile apps (which I think might agree reasonably extend to other nonprofits as well): too many barriers to the app being used, popular app types don’t track to what associations can offer, and not enough members use apps at all.

Sensible arguments all the way around. SocialFish is joined by Holly Ross on the Frogloop blog and others in making the case that organizations should focus on developing mobile-friendly versions of their sites before thinking about apps. This, too, seems like sensible advice given growth in the PDA market. Although market penetration by smartphones is still small, it is growing quickly. (SocialFish also argues for focusing on social network optimization before building apps, as well.)

Mobile-friendly probably should be a priority over apps, and I think SocialFish’s take is sensible enough, but I also think that mobile apps offer sustained engagement opportunities that might just be worth the investment. For one thing, as Wired Magazine argued in their provocatively-titled headliner last year (“The Web is Dead. Long Live the Internet!”): we are witnessing a real shift in how people access the web, away from conventional web browsers and toward mobile devices. An increasing proportion of mobile web-based activity simply bypasses the browser altogether. While making your site mobile-friendly (if not mobile-optimized) is almost certainly worthwhile, it only captures those people who are using mobile browsers in the first place. Companies like Urban Airship are doing really well (check out this Robert Scoble interview with their CEO, Scott Kveton) precisely because of this shift in how people interact with the Web. This argument is bolstered partly by the data on app-based financial transactions. As Kveton argues, the vast majority of mobile app-generated revenue results from ongoing transactions between a mobile phone customer and a specific app . . . users of that app continue to spend money on the app in order to access new value.

Well-designed apps also can offer high-value interactions that mobile phone users actually want. Obviously geolocation tools and gamification design elements are two (sometimes combined) approaches, but mobile apps can offer very engaging experiences and value that users don’t typically find through browsers. If you can build a really compelling app, maybe you should. Finally, apps also have a built-in mechanism for repeated interactions. Every time you publish an update or some other sort of push notification for your app, like Urban Airship does, everyone who’s got the app installed gets a fresh reminder about having it, and it gives you a chance to get them excited again about whatever value your app offers.

What you get with an app, as Fast Company suggests, is a self-contained experience, but it’s clear that without a real self-contained experience value proposition for potential users a mobile app strategy isn’t likely to do much for your organization. If you can offer high-value information, relevant deals, or a genuinely engaging experience through an app, on the other hand, it may be worth the effort. If you see mobile apps as an opportunity to deepen engagement, not just as a donation-making channel, I think they offer a lot of potential.

But all that said, most of this conversation about whether to app or not skips what I think is the more fundamental question: who is your audience, and how and why exactly do you want their engagement? MobileActive does a nice job of laying out some of the right questions to ask, but they all boil down to the same questions you should ask about any potential strategy: 1) who is your audience; 2) can you build an app in which they find value and through which can increase engagement; and 3) what are the costs of building and deploying an app compared to the benefits?