A number of themes and issues from the event will reverberate in these columns over the next few weeks, I am sure. But for now one keeps rattling around my head: the marketing effectiveness and purpose of the branded app. The issue started with MTV Networks Executive Vice President Greg Clayman. In his keynote, Greg warned that application development was promising as a marketing tool but quite hard to do well.
As I think he rightly argued, why should someone install something like a branded pub finder on their phones -- when the map and search utilities already there do the same job (and much more) in a better way? Greg pointed to the Audi car game for the iPhone as a notable exception because it was indeed involving and provided real and unique entertainment value.
I think Greg is right in principle -- mobile apps are really not like calendars from your insurance company or bottle openers with Schlitz Beer embossed on the side. It is going to take some imagination and deeper development chops to map the right functionality with a brand here. A tip calculator from a credit card company? Well, okay, but it has to join the scores of others that are already pouring into the iPhone App Store -- and likely will too at Android's and BlackBerry's respective marketplaces.
The issue got some additional legs at OMMA Mobile when Hyperfactory CEO Derek Handley challenged Greg during a Q&A on the issue. Derek countered that the Audi game was poorly received in App Store user reviews, and in fact he had seen several other branded apps do well.
I think the underlying issue is worth debating: what is the worth and goal of a branded app? It seems to be a matter of faith that developers need to aim for real value and utility here. But at the same time I wonder if that is almost too high a bar.
I will need someone from the widget world to bring me up to speed on this one, but have any branded Web widgets achieved the utility and ubiquity of a branded bottle opener? The most common branded social media apps and widgets I have seen tend to come from the media companies with deep content and functionality already part of their DNA. TVGuide.com's Google Gadget has 330,000 users and NYTimes' top stories, 188,000. On the other hand, Bally's Total Fitness Calculator has 5,000. If there are some breakthrough branded widgets out there, let me know.
The goal of building deep, relevant functionality into a marketing app is noble, but I imagine it is going to be hard to pull off and even harder to get users to embrace as some kind of on-deck version of the classic branded bottle opener. It seems to me easier to develop apps with CRM goals for existing customers because you can leverage a loyalty they already have and target the functions more accurately.
Take the Obama mobile Web site and iPhone application as an example. With a constant flow of specific, filtered news, videos, events calendars and policy statements, it is extremely well-rounded and targeted at the Obama enthusiast. If BMW Mini made a similar app for me that aggregated Mini news and blog posts, I would snap it up. If my bank offered an application with financial and mortgage calculators, a tax calendar, etc., wrapped around my personal account information, I would likely use that application instead of a competing alternative from Bankrate or a competitor.
But in all of those examples, I am already a brand loyalist. Could the Mini brand make an app that acquires new customers with functionality that embodies the brand? Is there anything that another bank could offer in a branded app that would trump my existing bank? Maybe, but that king of app would require more development and upkeep than a marketer has to offer. Once you start getting into ambitious feature sets like trip advisors or gas station locators, financial news and stock trackers, you are competing with a lot of other multi-function maps, travel guides and media apps that address most of these needs in a much more robust way.
Almost every marketer who "can't wait to get into branded apps" echoes Greg's warning that the product has to be of use to the consumer. But how far down this road do brands want to go? Indispensible mobile tools or information applications take care and feeding, evolution, support, etc. to maintain relationships with users. How much do marketers want to become developers or media companies? What parameters are manageable for a brand in this space -- and yet produce applications that are still compelling, worthwhile and attractive? And as many branded widget developers have discovered already, distribution and consumer pick-up are very hard nuts to crack. There are a lot of unused and lonely widgets out there that could barely catch a sniffle, let alone a full-blown viral outbreak.
Maybe the answer is not depth and usefulness but cleverness and disposability. More on this next time when I wade into the shallow hot tub with Carrie Bradshaw and the girls of "Sex and the City." They are starting to convince me that wiseass superficiality is the way to go with branded mobile apps.