Why Companies Should Build Free Apps

The fundamental responsibility of marketing is to attain and then retain attention. When I was a kid, there were only so many ways to attain attention for large brands who need substantial volume: print advertising in magazines or newspapers, television advertisements, radio, retail. In other words, in order to attain attention large brands have to go where the consumers are and that’s where the vast majority of consumers were. The most popular shows on tv in the 1970s and 80s, for example, routinely attracted 28-35% of all viewers, which frankly was all of us. If a company wanted to get its name in front of 30% of the country at once, it could buy an ad slot on one of these shows. 

(Source: Benedict Evans)

Why do we care about attention? Because as the world is evolving it is proving to be the ultimate finite resource. We can make more money, we can extend our bank accounts with credit, but we always only have 24 hours in a day and we spend 1/3 of that time sleeping.

Once attention is attained then the role of marketing is to retain those people. In many ways, this was done the same way via the same channels, but others were also available. Sears sent periodic catalogs to people’s homes, for example. The best companies got those who browsed to buy, and those who bought to buy again.

The problem now is that the world has changed. Attention is far more difficult to attain. Remember those television 30 ratings from the 70s and 80s? Television’s influence has dwindled since then. From 2016-18 the top rated show was The Big Bang Theory with only an 11 rating.

The options have exploded with the Internet and mobile. Social and communication apps now control 50% of attention, but many of these are not platforms for advertising. The top six apps by active user are all social media apps¹. The long tail, though, is very long, and those consumers even on these six platforms are not paying attention in the way they did 40 years ago.

How about retail? The options there have expanded as well. We hear a lot about how Amazon is taking over retail but it still only accounts for 6% of all retail. Walmart another 9%. That leaves 85% scattered amongst millions of websites and retail stores, with dwindling focus on physical retail.

(Source: Benedict Evans)

So how do companies survive and grow? By owning its own attention and retention avenues. And apps are a critical component of that strategy.

What very few companies have figured out is that functional applications help solve both the attaining and retaining portion of the marketing puzzle. By creating functional applications that attract high volumes of user activity (read: sessions), companies can create a virtuous cycle where consumers actually seek out a company’s marketing and willingly (!) ask for it to be blasted at them over-and-over again in the form of an icon that sits in a favorite spot on the launch screen and an app that provides value.

Think about how many companies you willingly asked for more advertising. There aren’t many. Apps can make that happen.

My thoughts on this have changed over the years. Once upon a time companies built apps and sold them in app stores. We helped DEWALT do this with DEWALT Mobile Pro construction calculator (now discontinued) for years.

What I came to understand, and what DEWALT couldn’t, is that a free app that customers willingly downloaded and used was far more powerful then the income the app could generate. After all, DEWALT isn’t in the app business; they are in the construction tools business. By discontinuing DEWALT Mobile Pro, they gave up on millions of consumers who would use the app hundreds of millions of times, constantly reminding consumers of DEWALT and its brand, and helping DEWALT sell the construction tools that makes them a powerhouse in the industry.

¹ Interestingly this does not include Apple’s Messages app, which I will bet would be ranked easily amongst these six apps.