Treating Apps Like Ads

Our friend Ben Kunz makes some pretty astute observations over on his blog, Thought Gadgets, today. The subject is the ubiquitous app craze that has driven the number of applications in the iTunes store to over 85,000 choices.

Naturally every marketer wants a piece of this action. It's an obvious play. Whether it's a sponsorship deal or a functional brand interaction, if users want apps we want to give them apps. But all this hype comes with a price.

Disposable Development

The trouble is app overload. Even if you just want to get noticed in the iTunes store, you're competing against 85,000 other relevant (and often irrelevant) selections. Even breaking it down by categories leaves you with a staggering number of choices. And then even if your app is chosen for download, the actual use of the app might last five minutes. Extended engagement with the customer is near impossible.

But Ben makes a few great points about this. You should read his entire post, but here's his thinking in a nutshell:

"It doesn't matter if usage falls off from your mobile app because -- just as you refresh ad creative -- you can launch a series of new apps for pennies next month as well. If apps are almost free, and have a short life, then instead of viewing them as one-off software utilities, consider them as sequenced media placement."

Even if a person downloads the Target app and plays with it for ten minutes one time, they've probably interacted with that ad vehicle longer than any single ad placed in a magazine for the brand. And the interaction cost next to nothing to produce and distribute. Brilliant!

Aiming For More

At first I was gung ho and, "Go Ben!" over this analysis. This is a pure genius way of looking at mobile applications, breathes new life into the medium and helps us position why we need to be in the space. But I had to wonder after a moment whether this also highlights an endemic problem with advertising by the numbers.

Don't get me wrong, I still think Ben is right. But shouldn't we always be striving for something better? Can't an app be something more? Here's how I put it in my comments on his blog:

"...apps are no different than any advertisement. 99.9% are effective for a split second of interaction and then disappear from the conscious mind to fester in the soup of subliminal brand image mucky-muck going on behind your eye-balls.

But every once in a while, if your ad is just good enough or funny enough or true enough or what-have-you-enough, it will spark conversation and go viral. People will talk about it. And just like gerbils shot out of a cannon (RIP, Cliff Freeman + Partners) it will be talked about for years to come.

Your points are valid, but they also highlight the dilemma of all advertising. "Launching a series of new apps for pennies" meets the standard "good enough" operating procedure of most advertising. But we should always be striving for better. The economics are right for shovelware, but that doesn't make it good for the brand."

I still think we need to have Ben's realistic approach to what an app is achieving. It's a branding vehicle that stimulates legitimate user interactions, it exceeds other ad vehicles in terms of engagement and we get it all for a fraction of the cost. But it's also a forum where a creative idea can shine. And to date, the ad industry has largely missed it's opportunity to show its worth in the space.

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