When A Mobile App Is More Than An App

If your brand doesn't have a mobile app, you've at least considered it by now.

Of course, a branded app isn't for everyone. Generally most brands seem to understand that mobile apps must provide clear utility or entertainment value to the consumer. Some have actually achieved this in execution. However, few are truly transformative, more than a box checked off a list of digital tactics.

Make it Epic

Imagine an app seamlessly integrated into the product experience -- an app that requires executive level commitment, investment in operational infrastructure, training of staff, and complete integration in owned and paid marketing channels. Now imagine if this app transformed your product experience, without any friction or effort on the part of the consumer, creating a new experiential standard. Like most transformational technology, you can live without it until you try it. However, eventually the old experience fringes on not being acceptable anymore.



Vail Resorts rose to the challenge with a truly integrated app called Epic Mix, which I tried when I was snowboarding at Vail's Heavenly mountain in Lake Tahoe over the holidays. The app itself is somewhat of an experiential extension of an RFID system that tracks skiers and snowboarders as they navigate around any of the six mountains owned by Vail Resorts (technically it reads the RFID tag embedded in their lift passes). The best part of Epic Mix is that it is bigger than just a smartphone app; it works passively via the RFID tag. Once you’ve registered, the app itself will refresh with your current stats each time it is opened on your phone.

Make it Gamified

Epic Mix nails addictive game dynamics. I found myself opening the app on my iPhone throughout the day to check out my stats and the pins that I earned. I pushed myself to rack up over 22,000 vertical feet, and 8 pins on my first day with the app, eager to make my way to the leader board (for the record, I have a long way to go!)

Make it Social

While most ski resorts have photo pros out on the slopes offering prints or digital images for a significant fee (a large Vermont resort charges $50 for one digital image), Vail Resortstaps into theubiquity of photo sharing by arming its photo pros with RFID readers that automatically sync digital images, complete with the resort's logo in the bottom corner, with your Epic Mix account. With one click, select images can be shared on Facebook or Twitter. This was such a no-brainer smart move into the social graph. Who doesn't post vacation photos to Facebook?

Make it Useful

Don't forget the basics. The Epic Mix app provides all of the information a skier or snowboarder needs on-mountain: trail maps, open trails and lifts, snow conditions and weather. The utility value alone would have been worth downloading the app.

Promote it!

Vail Resorts should be commended for not giving in to the "if you build it they will come" mentality that plagues so many marketers today. The company made a significant financial and reputational investment in Epic Mix; promotion for Epic Mix cannot be avoided in all owned and paid media channels. Really, promotion for the app seemed to be everywhere. Social sharing from the app itself takes care of the earned media, to a degree.

Why We Don't See More of This

Aiming for a transformational commitment of any kind within an organization creates vulnerability. Individual vulnerability -- marketing leadership must stick their necks out to sell in large and potentially long-term investments in new channels, with no guarantees of the outcome. And brand vulnerability: What if you don't provide the right features or experiential value? What if nobody uses it? What if you have to pull the plug?

Not doing anything is the only guaranteed way not to fail; therefore inaction is the path of least resistance.

It’s also the only guaranteed way not to thrill your customers.

What Success Looks Like

As I sat in the Reno/Tahoe airport waiting for my return flight to New York, I observed several individuals and families with the Epic Mix app or website on their iPads and smartphones, flipping through photos and posting them to Facebook. As I think about my next snowboarding trip, I'm considering another Vail Resort. The new interactive experience is addictive and nothing else compares to it. Besides, I have a long way to go to get on the leader board!

Take the risk. Aim to thrill your customers.

Have any other transformational mobile app examples? Share them in the comments or hit me on Twitter @jasonheller.

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