To App Or Not To App

I have no idea whether the March release of the "Watchmen" film will live up to its considerable build-up, but this is one of those rare times when I find myself rooting for the hype. If the final product reflects the polish and drama promised in the marketing, I have already warned my daughter I will be dragging her to see this one a few times.

"I don't like superheroes," she complains. "You know that!"

"These are different," I insist. I have been trying to push the graphic novel at her and even the "motion comics" version Warner Bros. has been issuing a chapter at a time for podcasts and mobile. When the original story by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons arrived two decades ago, it was one of those rare moments in American culture when you saw the needle move forward for popular art. And here is her otherwise boring Dad pushing a comic book at the kid as a classic.

Yet she won't bite, no matter how I spin it in her direction. "These superheroes are depressives and malcontents, alienated and beaten. They are right up your alley. Think of them as Goth meets Aquaman."

"Aquaman? There is an Aquaman? And you know this stuff? What kind of father are you? Just try normal for once, will you?"

One of the things that I like about the promotion for "Watchmen" is the full court mobile press. As I mentioned, there is the series of "motion comics," which animate the actual frames from the comic. There is also a strong WAP site at m.watchmenmovie.com. Best of all, there is one of the better branded apps I have seen in the Apple App Store. Unlike other apps that try to be fanciful or "useful," the "Watchmen" app knows where its strength lies: content... tons of content. The app presents a large bank of TV screens that over the last few months have been filling up with new material. As the user interacts with one screen, more is made available. The content ranges from profiles of the film characters to behind-the-scenes footage, clips from the motion comics series, and trailers, of course.

The "Watchmen" app is not a clever Zippo lighter or a gift-finder. It has none of the interactivity of "Carrie's Closet," the "Sex and the City" app that let you build your own virtual closet. What it does have is consistency and follow-through. It is a persistently building promotion that Warner Bros. clearly is throwing resources behind. It reminds me of a conversation I had recently with AppSavvy President Michael Burke about what makes a good branded applications both on mobile and online. His company brokers relationships between social media applications and brands, and he wisely says "The iPhone today is like Facebook eight months ago. There are a lot of good and bad [apps], once the brands said 'build one quickly and let's see.'"

A lot of brands come to Burke instinctively thinking their brand deserves its own app without any sense that they are planting their applications in a broad marketplace of competitors who are probably doing the job better. Take for instance Kraft's very good recipe application, which is admirably dense with content. Burke asks, "Will Kraft support it for two years or will a business focused on providing recipes build one that is better, with updates? Will that one last longer? That is what happened in Facebook apps. There were decent ones, but no branded hits."

By the way, Michael Burke will be moderating a panel at OMMA Hollywood on March 23 at 4:45 we have titled, not coincidentally, "To App or Not to App: Can the iPhone Dial R-O-I?" He will be grilling both marketers and developers who are active in the mobile app space to see if the buzz surrounding the mode is coming to anything real for marketers yet.

The more open marketplaces emerging on mobile, both in applications and in the mobile Web, give brands a great new opportunity to create direct relationships with consumers on the phones. My misguided daughter may eschew superheroes -- but woe be the mobile marketer who neglects the lessons of "Spider-Man": with great power comes great responsibility.

Brands that want to be on the phone are taking on the role of publisher and developer. Are they ready for it? Most of the developers Burke works with have up to 10 employees whose only job is to support the app. Can a brand match that? "The biggest challenges are decision and execution," Burke says. In an agency, typically one person raises his hand and says he will do the work. "But who is going to build it -- the agency? The creative agency? With what budget?" he asks. And who sticks with it?

I am not sure I entirely agree that a branded app needs to compete successfully with a full competitive set to succeed. Well-timed one-offs might still be able to accomplish a short-term marketing goal of engagement and awareness. For all we know, the more ambitious of "Watchmen" mobile promotions may last only until the film premieres, but that too would be fine.

Media properties have the obvious advantage of ready-made content. They can become temporary publishers and keep an ongoing marketing program seem fresh and well-supported, even if only for a short while. For a packaged goods brands, that kind of ongoing support of consumer-directed content is not a core strength and probably does require better integration with publishers who already have that wherewithal.

Still, the various "Watchmen" apps do demonstrate the value of persistent support of a mobile endeavor. It is not just that a brand is delivering a message. In mobile, where the personal and conversational are so important, it is also critical for the consumer to feel that there is a dynamic messenger, too, who holds up their end of the conversation.

And, of course, you need an audience that is receptive to the message in some way. The lushness and range of assets in the "Watchmen" marketing portfolio have no effect on my jaded teen girl, for instance. I guess I will be seeing that movie alone. She refuses to suspend disbelief to engage the superhero mythos on any level. "They wear capes and costumes, Dad. C'mon. You're 50. This is just silly."

Just for the record, she is standing before me saying all of this wearing black nail polish, thick eyeliner, jet-black torn jeans and a Megadeth T-shirt plus some braided bracelet that for all I know signifies a pact with Satan. The Satan thing doesn't bother me so much, because there is always the outside chance His Evil Holiness will kick in for college. But I have to point out the mild hypocrisy: "They wear costumes, which makes them look silly..."

"Oh, right, and exactly how many dozen light-blue Lands' End polo shirts do you own?" she shoots back. "What superhero are you? Sears Man?"

Tags: mobile
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1 comment about "To App Or Not To App".
  1. Noreen Sullivan from Occo , February 17, 2009 at 1:54 p.m.

    I disagree that the brand has to take on the role of publisher or company. There are several social roles of applications in the ecosystem of facebook or the internet in general. It is a mistake to think that the good ap lasts forever and that an ap is a business. There are many aps like Twitter that have no business model at all. It is also a mistake that all aps are for function and that they do not have a life span. Many many aps are about an instant interaction. Some like Slideshow fill a need, people had tons of facebook pics and needed a way to organize them. This may or may not be a business. Some are about a moment and go away. The Easter Egg hunt on facebook which had millions of participants and a defined timeline was not a business just an event. Because applications can be good for immediate interaction, useful interaction and sustained interaction it is important for a brand to define what they are doing and why. A better one will come, interest will be diverted, the lifecycle of most of these is very short. The brand needs to know who they are talking to and the relationship to the technology. Great topic for discussion.