Does my brand need an app or not?

Net-A-Porter was the first luxury fashion retailer to launch an iPhone app back in 2009. The increasing fragmentation of communication platforms has presented brands with both opportunities and challenges when talking to their audiences. If anything, the sheer number of digital channels is causing problems for brands trying to convey their message while maintaining brand identity.

One key area of focus and a choice faced by many businesses is whether or not developing an app is the best option. Mobile is naturally a crucial area of growth, fuelled by the proliferation of smartphones and tablets.

However, with the introduction of HTML5, the web is catching back up.  No one is likely to say there isn’t space for both websites and apps in our lives, but the question of what separates the two of them is being asked with increasing frequency. What things does the web do well that apps can only hope to emulate badly, and vice versa?

Since their advent, smartphones have generally favoured an app ecosystem over the web. Even those with established user-centric sites are changing tack. LeapFrog, the children’s educational brand, which announced it will close its online LeapWorld site this month to invest more resources into its app marketplace, is just one example and a response, to customer feedback. Naturally, Facebook’s new AppStore is indicative of this market too. Are such changes due to technical innovations, the growth of the smartphone market and a fundamental change in people’s relationship with their personal technology, or are brands overlooking the mobile web at their peril?

At a recent online debate1, panellists from Net-A-Porter and Specialmoves discussed what companies should consider when initially contemplating an app.

Net-A-Porter.com was the first luxury fashion retailer to launch an iPhone app back in 2009. The company said the aim of it apps was to offer customers streamlined experiences optimised specifically for certain user actions. For instance, the Net-A-Porter app for iPhone and Android enables customers to browse and view products quicker than via the web; and the Net-A-Porter Magazine app for iPad is tailored for users to browse and shop editorial content.

Interestingly the company has adapted its management strategy in response to the speed of change that occurs in the digital environment and the need to react more quickly to customers’ needs. Net-A-Porter started out with a combination of in-house developers and external iOS experts but has since focussed on nurturing in-house talent. This enables it to react quickly to changes or updates happening on the website and ensures it is carried across to apps and mobile sites crucially. With designers, developers and testers sitting alongside each other and actually communicating with each other, the brand can move from concept to creation very quickly.

Successful apps can gain millions of users, yet many rarely generate income – an important point to consider before diving in head first. Apps have previously been designed using templates and simple design and fonts. However, as the Web’s infrastructure becomes richer, app design needs to keep up to reflect this. Designers and developers need to exploit the attributes that give the brand its individual tone of voice and authenticity, such as the correct images and typography.

Designers should first and foremost think about the different uses of apps and the Web and above all, put the customer at the centre of the thought process before beginning the development.  The need to achieve seamless design across desktop, tablet and mobile environments is a complex challenge that requires close collaboration across the entire organisation if it is to be implemented correctly. However, these processes are crucial for the development of a seamless brand experience, which, if done correctly, will resonate hard with the customer and keep them engaged.

Julie Strawson is the Marketing Director at Monotype Imaging and the Founder of Brand Perfect.

Web vs App debate 11th July 2012.