Commentary

Vanity Vs. Sanity: Putting Apps In Context

The app economy is booming to the tune of 7 billion downloads in 2009, according to Chetan Sharma Consulting -- and aiming for perhaps 50 billion by 2012.

But we also still need to put the app in context of the larger marketing and media distribution plan. A number of mobile agencies have been urging their clients this year to get their "dot-m" strategy in place. That is, make sure that your brand's dot-com redirects are in place and a decent mobile landing page is available when the more adventurous mobile users start plugging your brand name into the URL address bar of their mobile browsers or a search box. One agency executive distinguished between brands demanding their iPhone app and executing a sensible mobile Web presence. It is "vanity vs. sanity," he told me. Apps are often built to placate brand executives, but the mobile Web is where many of them will really get the most users.

Last week, app store GetJar announced that a Facebook mobile site shortcut (MSS) had been downloaded 50 million times from its service. GetJar is a mobile and Web-based app distributor that detects incoming handsets and can push the appropriate app to them for their phone, from Java feature phones to most varieties of smart phones. GetJar claims to be the second largest app store, behind Apple, with 800 million downloads so far.

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The mobile site shortcut is just that. Brands can upload to GetJar their mobile site URL and it appears in the catalog like any other dedicated downloadable app. "From a consumer perspective, when they see Yahoo or Facebook or MTV, they basically see what looks like a thumbnail image and a description of what the site does," says Patrick Mork, vice president of marketing. "They download the branded icon into their app folder and the next time they click on the icon it launches the browser."

Mork feels that most consumers don't necessarily differentiate between an app and a mobile site. The company also offers an "App Download Page," a hosted product page to which a mobile or Web site can link. The landing page detects the handset and serves customers the best version of the brand, whether it is a shortcut or a downloadable app for their respective phone. "Any mobile site can play the app game and have their sites listed as apps on GetJar," says Mork.

Whether brands are leveraging dedicated apps or just mobile Web sites, it seems to me that marketers have to find more effective ways around the fragmentation that persists across iPhone, Android, Blackberry, feature phones and the mobile Web. Steve Jobs took a swipe at Google at his recent iPhone OS 4.0 unveiling. He claimed no one used search on a mobile phone. Mork begs to differ. "We see a lot of search, including searches on the PC that then go to the phone. Over 50% of our traffic comes from search. There is a lot of search for free mobile games and apps."

Mork says that social media apps are extremely hot in their store. Facebook is not alone. Nimbuzz, a free calls and chat app, has gotten 30 million downloads (up to 400,000 a week) to Java, Symbian Android, Blackberry and iPhone platforms globally. And IM client eBuddy is more popular in Europe and has had 500,000 downloads, according to Mork.

Whether it is through GetJar or via a brand's own mobile site, ultimately, brand marketers need some strategy that gets beyond the app silos and lets mobile users get the best experience for their particular handset. When I do a mobile Google search on my DROID for Nimbuzz, I can find in their search result a direct link to a download page that gets their app onto my Android handset in a couple of clicks. In an ideal world, any brand's mobile Web site should be able to do this. It should give me a good mobile Web experience, and also know what phone I am using and which downloadable apps are available for me in a single click.

Of course in that same Google search I also got a sponsored link to a thing called DroidDoes.com, which appeared to be an app page developed by Verizon, Motorola and Google (or at least it had all of their respective logos on it). My guess is that Jobs is quite wrong about mobile search. It is going to become second nature to mobile users, and there will be competing app aggregators, brands and others vying for those top search slots. Longtime players like Handango and Handmark are still out there.

The next stage in a brand's mobile strategy should be achieving a seamlessness across apps, platforms, sites and searches. Maybe agencies and brands need to assign someone, some afternoon, just to try to find their brands via mobile -- and see what happens.       

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