Ever since companies started buying computers, programmers have been tasked with automating familiar business processes, and applications have been programs that do familiar paper-based things, merely using a computer to do them more quickly. Accounting, engineering calculations, looking up information in archives: That's been what computers were made to do. But today, apps are the new front door of the business, and that means application development is both a more strategic activity and a more creative endeavor.
Businesses can no longer rely on corporate websites to be their primary means of engagement. Statistics show that traffic to company websites is declining already, not just as a share of customer interactions—but in absolute number of visits.
When people want to discover and interact with a brand, they download an app. No amount of search engine optimization will offset the new customer behavior of searching an app store, rather than searching the Web.
If you don’t have an app, you risk being effectively invisible to the fastest-growing audience of customers: More than a billion app users already exist, and that market is growing at nearly 30% every year. If your app merely assists your current customers but does nothing to attract and engage new ones, you risk having a customer base that shrinks whenever a current customer dies—neglecting a crucial source of new ones. That’s an undated suicide note; you’re on your way out of business and only the speed of your extinction is to be determined.
How can you tell if you’re writing and offering apps, and not merely putting applications into a handheld form factor and distributing them through an app store? A few characteristics separate the old guard from the new guard of apps:
- Have data captured as a by-product of business activity.
- Are a function driven by familiar business tasks; are automated but otherwise not innovative.
- Hold user experience as an afterthought, since applications are used by a captive audience.
- Are built by programmers and operated by an IT staff; judged on metrics of cost and efficiency.
- Have data captured through algorithms of discovery from activities of customers and the Internet of Things.
- Are a function driven by observing and imagining opportunities for value-adding services and customer delight.
- Hold user experience as a top priority for ease of discovery, ease of use, and suitability to big- and small-screen devices.
- Are built by designers, marketers, and front-line business units, supported by IT teams—but judged on metrics of ROI.
In this world of apps, your app is your brand. Your app is the tool that fights off commoditization. Consider the unavoidable elements of your business that make it identical to any other in the same general domain; consider the ways that an app can elevate your company above the pack.
- Every financial services company buys and sells the same stocks, in the same markets. An app can make a customer more confident in trading and in planning for life events.
- Every airline flies the same kinds of airplanes through the same weather and between the same airports. An app can make the travel experience more convenient and assuring.
- Every news outlet struggles to add value in a world where a public tweet may often break a global story. An app can provide a superior reading experience and a distinctive forum for discussion and clarification.
Modern apps don’t win by programmers’ traditional figures of merit; it’s not mainly about being faster or more efficient in the use of computer hardware. Apps today win by being more intuitive, engaging, and thoughtful of what the user is most likely to want next.
Already in progress is the next stage, where apps become the fabric of ecosystems. Not only can your app engage the customer with your brand, it can also make you the partner of choice for sellers of related products and services.
For example, a website that sells concert tickets (a rather Web 1.0 sort of idea) becomes, in the new world of apps, a potential gateway to dining and transportation options for the rest of an evening out. Your customer sees the increased convenience, and you monetize the resulting network of referral agreements, and enjoy source-of-first-resort advantage in pricing your own offerings.
What you think you make or do is irrelevant. Your customers’ spending determines what your product truly is. Today, the company with no app is merely a supply-chain partner to the company whose app engages the customer. Every company needs to become an app company.
[Image: Flickr user Joseph Morris]