Social media apps are a new opportunity to provide additional functionality and link your brand to other networks. Deciding on whether social media apps are worth investment and how, exactly, they’ll benefit your brand is an increasingly important question for social media and marketing practitioners.
A few years ago if your business had a Twitter stream you might have been seen as forward thinking; a Facebook account might make you edgy and subversive and a MySpace account was comparatively up to date. Stuff changes very quickly and to really engage with a lot of customer and internal groups it can be essential to do something with apps. The problem with these is that they can be costly and you can’t be sure they’ll produce anything worthwhile in terms of engagement.
One business that has thrown itself into the app field with some enthusiasm is Norwich-based wine club, Naked Wines. Co-founder Francesca Underhill explains the objective was to make the content more engaging than a simple mobile version of the site. “Unlike any other wine app we’ve come across, customers can chat to the winemakers directly, see exactly where their wines have been made, and buddy up with friends and share deals and recommendations,” she says.
Crucially the app is an extension of what was already effectively a mini-social network. This meant the requirement was easy to nail down, which is part of the reason the company developed it in-house rather than talking to an agency. “We’ve worked with agencies in the past on ad-hoc projects, but we found the cost and time far outweighed the return – and we’re probably not the easiest bunch of people to work with as we like to do things our own way,” says Underhill. “We also invited a panel of customers to beta-test the app before we submitted it to Apple – which was an invaluable part of the process for us.” It took two developers two months to come up with the finished product.
Apps can of course mean going beyond the mobile space. Naked Wines has also worked on a Facebook app, which is more basic; it uses Facebook’s own Open Graph technology so that people can rate wines and find friends who are also customers and taking part.
Not every business comes with its own social network already developed. The Cornish Mining World Heritage Site (CMWHS) is a tourist area in – no prizes for guessing – Cornwall, UK, and is eager to establish itself as part of the overall Cornish tourist experience. It has engaged on Twitter and Facebook, certainly, but found that this approach was flawed. David Rutherford, Principal Officer, Discover the Extraordinary project (which covers the mining scheme), explains: “Increasingly consumers are accessing the internet by mobile technology; when they do, much of the functionality we can provide computer users is lost when using native mobile Twitter and Facebook apps as they do not see any of our bespoke tabs and are left only seeing our wall, info and photos.”
The idea of an app added the possibility of using phones with geo-location functions, which is of course a natural fit for the tourist market. “This means we can help guide people around the site and or signpost them to the nearest CMWHS attraction via Google Maps because the phone recognises where they are,” explains Rutherford. “Also having a bespoke app means we can provide users with our audio trails to enhance their experience and understanding of the site and because of geo-location technology, users can be alerted when they are in an area with an audio trail.”
Unlike Naked Wines, this project went to tender for external development. “In the end it came down to the developer’s ability to create both an Android and iTunes version for the money,” he explains. “We spoke to many excellent agencies who said it’s much better to build for each platform separately but of course that ups the cost.”
A good brief, believes Rutherford, has to have four main elements: background information on the client including aims, aspirations and the project’s remit, second what the app specifically needs to achieve, third technical spec to include platform, updating requirement, navigation, access and content and of course a good project spec including budgets.
Agencies have a larger role in the apps market than in many other areas of social media and understandably many have strong feelings about what’s going to work and where. Dave Swartz, co-founder of Medl Mobile in the US, stresses the importance of not seeing an app in isolation. “Clearly, Facebook and Twitter own the social behaviour space,” he says. “Apps, when done right, are providing another level of functionality or service. We integrate Facebook and Twitter very heavily into almost everything we build so that people can continue to use the social experience they trust on top of the new tool, service, feature or game that we are creating.”
If he had one piece of advice for enterprises wanting to out source apps then it would be to check any agency can deliver what it says. Medl has 30 engineers working at any time, has built over 150 apps and still finds new stuff every week. “Also make sure their dev staff is on site,” he adds. “Many companies act as a front for overseas development shops. And while overseas dev can be great in certain circumstances, it’s very hard on the client when there’s a middleman involved. You give them feedback. They give the feedback to a team that doesn’t always speak your language. And weeks are lost making changes that an in-house team could handle in a few hours.”
Measuring success will depend on the objective and how it stacks up against deliverables. “We have clients who have completely streamlined and improved their sales process with a mobile application for the sales team,” says Swartz. “We have one client that has a total of nine users on their app. But each time they use it they are selling a piece of medical equipment for tens of thousands of dollars.
“We have another client who turned their popular TV commercial into a mobile app. Now when viewers watch the spot, they can download a mobile app and play with the idea themselves. And the app was built with in-app purchasing and a push messaging system for communicating directly with the users.”
The scope is huge, and the question “should we develop an app” rapidly turns into a whole raft of sub-questions. But if a business has a defined objective and a clearly understood group of clients who will engage through an app, it’s something worth getting right – the results should be very positive and easily measurable.