Apps trump content in battle for digital engagement
The digital consumer's battle lines have been redrawn completely over the past few years and the old internet adage 'content is king' is not so relevant to marketers today, according to Michael Colombo of B2B marketing agency Maark, who suggests that instead the internet age as we know it may be giving way to 'The Age of The App'.
Today, Colombo asserts, content is only one element in a wider user experience, even though it typically extends far beyond the printed page, the television screen, and even the web browser.
The idea that content is king holds true in that there are a limited number of content distribution channels, so its usage is directly related to the value of the content being distributed. While Web 2.0 delivered an excess of new tools and resources for creating and distributing content online, there was really only one new distribution channel that needed to be considered: the web browser.
As the gateway to the so-called "connected experience", web browsers became the battlefields for companies trying to influence consumers' online content consumption. First came a skirmish between Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE) and Netscape (which eventually gave way to the likes of Firefox). After so many years of copying each others' features and benefits, the web browser eventually became just another application rather than the focus of consumers' attention.
For companies such as Microsoft, Apple, and Google to bet their farms on the web browser would be ridiculous. Imagine Steve Jobs standing before his board describing the Safari browser as the keystone of the company's future. It's unthinkable because the context of the connected experience is far broader than it was five years ago.
In the short term, the changes impacting how people interact with digital content will undoubtedly come in the forms of ubiquitous broadband connectivity, inspiring new devices, and the addicting applications and services that are being used on them. Of those three, Colombo believes it will be the applications that will be at the core of the modern connected experience. The best devices will be the ones that provide a great platform for applications and then get out of the way. Look at Apple's i-devices for example: Apple's success with i-devices is in many ways about how transparent the hardware is - the iPhone has only three buttons and the rest are apps.
In fact, those i-devices have already driven more than 10 billion mobile app downloads, and that's just the birth of the movement. The number of mobile applications downloaded globally across devices is expected to rise to some 60 billion by 2013, according to several market forecasts. In emerging markets such as Russia, revenue from mobile apps has already outgrown handset revenue.
Although apps are the context for digital content, an application's success has as much to do with the experience that it delivers content in a fun or functional way that appeals to the user. For example, voted 2010's iPad 'App of the Year', Flipboard defined the digital magazine category for tablet computers by aggregating content from around the web and compiling it into a compelling magazine-style interface. Up until its most recent release, however, the content it delivered was limited. Yet, because the experience was so powerful - and the app so popular - publishers started rushing to be featured within that app. It was the experience that drew the users, and the content followed.
Netflix is another such example. To be successful, a service like Netflix needs to be available on anything that has a screen. If Netflix isn't available on your TV, laptop, tablet, and car entertainment system, what good is the content? If Netflix can't follow users throughout their connected experience, they will find and ultimately settle for a competitor that can. Again, the experience is key; the vast inventory of content is not enough on its own to stop the customer from defecting.
And then there is Twitter, which is also making headlines with its own app story. As one of the most popular social media platforms in the world (boasting more than 100 million users), the company provides a free-to-use website where users can send 140-character status updates to their 'followers'. However, along with the website, Twitter also has traditionally provided application programme interface (API) access to its content, which offers software developers a set of protocols and tools for building Twitter-related applications. This has allowed developers to add whatever value they want to the Twitter experience. In fact, there are already more than 100,000 such applications in existence, and more than 75% of all Twitter usage currently happens via those applications (as opposed to usage via Twitter's own web site). Twitter's success therefore seems to depend not so much on the content as the application ecosystem that has been built around it.
But the battle for the digital consumer's attention is not just about traditional or social media. The kingdom of content is vast and, while it certainly includes consumer content such as music, movies, news, reviews and social chatter, it also includes business content. Some of this content, such as market research, market forecasts, and financial data may be a product of the business providing it. Other content such as product information, sales performance, order fulfilment, video demonstrations, and ROI analysis may simply be distributed internally to empower sales. Therefore, as more and more sales reps are equipped with smartphones and tablet computers, B2B app stores are expected to become filled with sales enablement and CRM applications that will help redefine the customer conversation. And so even the business world will begin to rely on mobile apps for its back-end functionality and distribution of data.
So, while it would be unthinkable for Microsoft or Google to focus their strategy on the web browser, it has now become equally ill-advised for B2C and B2B companies with content that they want to distribute - whether internally or externally - to base their digital marketing, content distribution, or sales enablement strategies on a browser-based experience.
So what is involved in developing a commercial app strategy? The journey is best started by visiting an app store (either on the web, or through the App Store app on your smartphone), and see what others have already done. The 'recommended' apps are the most popular downloads, so they also provide a good idea of what consumers want out of the apps they choose to use. Apps have two aspects: the user experience (how it works and how it is presented), and the content (the information it provides). While the content is a critical component of the overall experience, the real emphasis needs to be placed on both designing and engineering useful, memorable, and seamless branded user experiences. In the Age of the App, the design and definition of an app's requirements, user experience, and even software development skills are things that most marketers will need to become more familiar with, along with application-based marketing.
But there's a strange twist to the content story. On the web, protecting your web site's unique content is essential because search engines tend to give priority to those who don't simply repeat what everyone else is saying. But in the world of apps - for example, think about Flipboard and Twitter - it is vital that your content is easily accessible to others. If third parties can easily access your content, your content becomes more valuable to them and it will be seen by a much wider audience. The reason for this difference is that app usage is not driven by search engines, but by consumers with a specific need.
Mobile apps are already threatening consumer-oriented markets such as record and bookstores, and even local libraries. But they are also likely to replace many of the back-end business spreadsheets, order forms, and data sheets that companies use in their day-to-day operations. Both the rise in wireless connectivity and the enormous array of new connected devices is sure to put apps at the heart of the user experience, whether those users happen to be consumers or businesses.