Bye Bye Bad Apps

Lots of brands have apps, and lots of consumers use them a time or two and then delete them. Here’s a look at the state of apps in loyalty and marketing, and how to improve it.

There are plenty of apps out there. But unless there’s a thoughtful and effective strategy behind them, they’re often met with a resounding shrug. Consumers frequently download mobile applications, give them a quick try, then abandon or delete them as soon as they find them lacking. This, of course, serves no one well: Both consumers and brands can be left wondering, “Why did I even bother?”

“Retailers are struggling to understand what an app does for them. It’s easy for them to make an app, but it’s harder to understand what the strategy is,” said Richard Feinberg, a professor of retail management at Purdue University and head of the Department of Consumer Science. “On the consumer end … most people don’t download apps; if they do, they don’t use them. Or they eliminate them quickly. They want to know what’s in it for them.”

That doesn’t mean apps are going away; it only means that figuring out how best to use them is a work in progress. Many brands, such as Starbucks and Sephora, have lots of users and praise for their apps; others, including some big-name brands, have not yet made the leap. A new research report by Massachusetts-based app-testing firm Applause found that 303 of the world’s top 500 retailers have an app.

In the two years since GameStop rolled out its app, more than 6.5 million people have downloaded it. This is despite the fact that the video game, consumer electronics and wireless services retailer – which has more than 7,000 retail stores in 14 countries – has taken a fairly low-key approach to promoting it, said Darin Smith, senior director of PowerUp Rewards, the GameStop loyalty program that has 34 million members in the U.S. and 46 million worldwide.

GameStop has taken an experimental approach to the app, testing and refining as it goes, examining issues including ease of accessibility, better use of consumer look-up features, and the connectivity between PowerUp information and purchasing details.

Continuing to refine an app strategy makes sense, considering most people are married to their phones. A recent study in Psychology Today found that the average person will notice a misplaced smartphone before noticing a misplaced wallet or even child. So, what can be done to amp up apps and make them a more effective tool in loyalty and marketing? Here are a few suggestions:

Keep it simple

Complications spell aggravation and disengagement. By year’s end, GameStop will roll out Simplified Access to remove clunkiness in the PowerUp activation process – first improving the process in-store, followed by in-app. In early 2017, the company will launch the ability for members to enroll in the app, which Smith said is consistently in the top five requested improvements.

Simplicity is always top of mind for Aspire Lifestyles, as well. The Singapore-based company provides integrated Concierge, rewards, personal assistance and customer relationship engagement services for its clients – Fortune 500 firms around the world in telecommunications, restaurants, financial services, luxury brands and other industries. Consumers, primarily high-net-worth individuals, interact with brands through the Aspire platforms, including proprietary apps.

“We always encourage the client to keep it simple and align with their immediate objectives,” said Jona Neo, group product director, digital and technology solutions.

An app that dumps too much on a consumer too soon is asking for trouble, she said.

“It’s about the consumer getting a sense of what you’re providing, and creating a habit with him. Then once you have a base that’s loyal, you can start rolling out new features. Sometimes clients see a trend and want it, but they may not need it. We help them roll it back to simpler things that everyone wants.”

Know your users – and don’t waste their time

At GameStop, communicating about a specific game or gaming system with a member who is loyal to a different one is a big problem; customization is key in the app and every other area.

“We’re very mindful of their behavior,” said Smith. “To send them the wrong thing totally disenfranchises them.”

Up to a couple of times a week, members receive personalized push notifications in the app, which he said has been “a godsend for us. Even those members who may have stopped our emails have the push on the app.”

For an event July 30, for example, GameStop saw a 40.7% lift in transactions and was able to determine that many shoppers heard about it from the app.

Proactive engagement with consumers is critical, but so is constantly monitoring and adjusting how many and what kind of messages are communicated, said Neo of Aspire Lifestyles. Through apps and other communications, client companies send targeted reminders and prompts – to mark customer milestones, after they’ve made restaurant reservations, to buy gifts for special occasions and so on.

Typically, success for an app means honing in on just one or two key functions, said Feinberg.

“The most used app is the Starbucks app, and it does something very specific: People pay with it, and they get free drinks.”

Experiment, and experiment some more

“Most companies could use the app to experiment, but they just don’t,” Feinberg said.

Among those experimenting with interesting and useful features: The Gap app lets users mix and match garments and share results on social media. The Sherwin-Williams app lets users color virtual walls in endless colors. Sephora has a digital try-on feature; users “try on” false eyelashes or lipstick shades.

At GameStop, experimentation led to a recent move to auto-issue certificates; within the app, without a user being in a store, a consumer can see various offers and reward certificates. Smith said the app is going to become “a heck of a lot more robust,” with another potential experimentation being a virtual loyalty card that does away with a physical card.

Refining the integration of social media and brand apps is another area of experimentation. Experticity, a Salt Lake Citybased company that helps brands including Dyson and The North Face with marketing through real-life influencers including retail associates, just launched an app that is a social media network for “expert” influencers. The app will reward more than a million members, to start, with insider content and products from brands.

Other companies are experimenting with adding a virtual “bot” feature to their apps. Neo of Aspire Lifestyles, for example, said a lot of clients in North America and Asia are asking for a chatbot function. It interacts with customers using automated scripts based on keywords and improves its interactions as it goes. Aspire is working on a different prototype, which it expects to launch in 2017.

American Express, too, is tapping the power of a bot. It just launched the Amex bot for U.S. Consumer and OPEN Card members to help them take advantage of rewards. For example, a card member might receive a message about how to access the Centurion Lounge at an airport after purchasing an airplane ticket, or get a reminder that she has free premium Internet access at a participating hotel.

Instead of launching the bot in a proprietary app, American Express launched within Messenger, tapping that app’s real-time functionality. Feinberg, of Purdue, expects more of that type of approach in the future – brands partnering with existing platforms for certain functions, rather than creating proprietary ones.

“Technology is moving very quickly; phones are moving very quickly,” said Feinberg. “Time will move the needle – as time marches on and people use an app that works well, they’re going to expect apps from others to catch up.”