Exactly how much time mobile users spend within their apps or on the mobile Web has become a bone of contention of late. The IAB is contesting the conventional wisdom that 80% or more of mobile time is spent in-app. OK, maybe. One thing is sure about the time we all do spend with apps: We're probably not inside the branded apps where many marketers want us to be.
The competition in app stores is bad enough. But branded apps are fighting against a mindshare that is going overwhelmingly toward having only a few apps on everyone’s deck. For every Starbucks or Nike+ app, which weave their utility into people’s everyday behaviors, there are thousands of branded apps that get ignored even if they have occasional utility.
Forrester maintains an App Engagement Index that tracks in-app usage across 100 major apps. In a new report, the consultancy found only nine of the 100 were genuinely “addictive” and another 10 were deemed “engaging.”
But the most engaging apps include Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, Twitter and WhatsApp -- not the branded apps marketers often spend so dearly on. In the U.S. and U.K., most people use only 24 apps every month, with five occupying 38% of their time. “Time spent on mobile apps is concentrated among just a few apps, skewing massively toward messaging and social apps – not gaming, as is commonly assumed,” writes Forrester analyst Thomas Husson.
The Forrester finding underscore an important point overlooked by top-line metrics. As some firms argue that we now spend more time with apps than with TV, that metric ignores a fundamental difference between the two media. Unlike TV, mobile remains a medium about person-to-person communication. The essence of the phone is still at the heart of the personal device even as it connects to the Internet. It is not about connecting to media and your brands; it is about connecting with one another.
While in the U.S. YouTube does nab 7% of all mobile app time (and it is nominally social), Facebook, Gmail, Instagram, Google Hangouts, Yahoo Mail, Pinterest, WhatsApp, Skype and Twitter cumulatively comprise 24% of all in-app time. An important exception comes on tablets, where Kindle, Netflix and YouTube dominate.
For marketers looking to succeed in the app ecosystem, this means that they need to think outside their own apps. As Husson argues here, and another Forrester analyst, Julie Ask, argued at our last Mobile Insider Summit, brands need to borrow mobile attention from the apps that are getting it already. In other words, marketers on mobile need to target partners first in order to target their users second.
Forrester recommends understanding what other apps get used most by your most likely prospects, then consider new business models for getting presence there. Messaging apps are already trying to cultivate this prospect. Kik, Tango and most recently Snapchat have created easy ways for brands to have a presence on their platforms. The messaging apps are going further and essentially creating platforms where brands can embed app-like functionality within the messaging app. What we see evolving here is a kind of micro-site model moving to mobile, where leading media, social and messaging brands can host a branded app-within-an-app.
At the same time, marketers need to stop fetishizing apps. As the IAB recently pointed out, many apps are really linking people into the mobile Web, and many users are starting their quests with mobile search. Husson argues that marketers need to differentiate and connect their app and mobile Web strategy. The mobile Web is a better user acquisition tool than apps, even though apps can be the best engagement tool. One of the tools I see emerging as increasingly critical will be deep linking, which lets an ad or link in an app or on the mobile Web launch a specific page within an app that is already installed on a phone.
In the end, the app ecosystem itself will need to evolve technically in order to make it easier for people to flow across app and mobile Web experiences. It's still too hard to find your target on mobile and to have the tools to move them to the most advantageous place. But as we see mobile behaviors coalesce around a core set of activities and platforms, both marketers and media need to think harder about how to target these users where and when they are most in need of a marketer’s message.