Sunday, January 23, 2011

Applying Strategic Planning to App Development

How can the kind of strategic thinking that traditionally goes into the planning of an advertising campaign be used to develop insightful applications that drive brand engagement?

Pitching apps to marketers ain't easy. Despite the buzz and enthusiasm that generally surrounds the mobile, smartphone, and app space within the advertising industry, most marketers are still hesitant when it comes to devoting significant resources towards the development of an application as part of a brand's communications plan. Questions abound: how many of my consumers use smartphones? How can I measure their behaviour? Isn't the ROI (Return on Investment) better if I just do TV, like I usually do? This post doesn't seek to answer these questions. But it does seek to answer one (or at least get the conversation started): How can I develop an insightful application that drives engagement with my brand?


Picture this: a room full of smart, business-savvy individuals, each trying to drive interest in their company from a specific audience. The only thing is, they're not all jostling amongst each other - they've divided into two separate groups.

On one side of the room are the technology entrepreneurs: they're smart, innovative, up-and-coming developers, programmers, and businessmen who live and breathe the technology industry that they were born out of. They're forward-thinking, always looking to push boundaries in the web and mobile space and always on the lookout for ways to change - using technology - the way that users go about their lives. Applications, augmented reality, HTML5 - you name it, these guys are on the cutting edge. But there's a problem: though they know the technology through and through, in many cases they may not be as proficient at knowing their two primary audiences: the marketers who have the money to invest in application development and the consumers who will ultimately use the app to engage with the marketer's brand.

On the other side of the room, are the marketers (and, in spirit, the consumers who they're trying to sell their products and services to). They're product and brand specialists who have grown into their roles with a more traditional mindset towards the business - they're advocates of the 4Ps (Product, Price, Place, Promotion), brand benefit ladders, and "above-the-line" versus "below-the-line" advertising communications. That said, they've recently warmed to the idea of engaging with their consumers in the digital space: looking for a microsite to serve as the hub of their latest campaign and looking to use Facebook and Twitter to connect with their fans using social media. But there's a problem: though they know their brand, the marketplace, and their consumers through and through, they don't know the technology. They're curious, to be sure, but they're not yet sold. They know that their consumers are looking to make their lives easier, and they're eager to use their brand to help them do that, but neither party really understands the technology and how it can fit into their lives.

This is where strategic planning - traditionally used when planning traditional marketing and communications campaigns - fits in. Acting as a conduit that aims to bring these two groups together, the application of strategic planning practices to the development of applications can lead to apps that are developed from the ground-up to be insightful, addictive, and socially-driven tools for driving brand engagement and delivering against the brand's objectives. Below I will offer a few top-line thoughts on a strategic framework that can help technology entrepreneurs, marketers, and consumers enjoy the party together... =)


How do you develop an app (or a proposal for an app) that's strategic, in the kind of way that marketers can both understand and champion? Easy: you use the basic principles of strategic planning to build an app that, from the ground up, is designed to grow the marketer's business. This means that you must leave all your amazing app ideas on the table for now and focus on some good ol' sleuthing...

1) Work Against the Brand's Objective
First, what's the objective? Every brand is in a distinct position it its market, and as a result of that, every brand will have a distinct objective or set of objectives for the year. A brand's campaign objective usually includes two elements. One is the source of new business, that is, the group of consumers who's increased engagement with the brand will help the brand's business grow. Is the source of business new users, existing users, competitive users, lapsed users? Another element is identifying the best way to grow the business within the identified group. Do we want new users to try a brand for the first time? Do we want to give existing users ideas so that they'll use the brand more often? Do we want to instill category users with the competitive advantage that our brand has over others?

2) Build in Ways to Measure Success
Once you're clear on what the brand is trying to do, you must also be clear on how the brand is going to measure how successful it was in achieving its objective at the end of the year. Measurement and ROI have become one of the biggest mandates in the industry over the past few years - you're going to have to prove to a marketer that an application had a role in delivering against a brand's objectives. Metrics differ based on the brand's objective, of course. They can be gathered by tracking brand diagnostics among the app's users before and after some time using the app, by measuring time-spent, downloads, scans, etc. Knowing how the success of the campaign will be measured and building tracking mechanisms into the app itself will go a long way towards proving that it works.

3) Know the Situation
Now comes the fun part. It's time to mine for some golden nuggets - insights - that will help ensure that the app connects with a brand's consumers on a deeper level. To do that, you need to outline the brand's situation, which typically involves 3 steps. First, what are some insights that are true to the brand and its promise to its consumers? What is the brand known for, and what makes it different and better than its competition? Next, what are the traditional trappings of the brand's category? What is the traditional way that other brands in the category engage with their consumers, and how can we approach it from a different angle and break through the category conventions? Finally, what are some insights that are true to the consumer, and how they live their lives? Are there any consumer trends and issues that the brand can tap into and take advantage of?

4) Develop and Test a Strategic Approach
Coming out of the situation analysis, you'll no doubt have a few insights into possible approaches that the app can take in order to deliver against the brand's objective. You'll need to develop these insights a bit further - grow them into full-fledged strategic approaches that outline the insight and how the app is going to tackle that insight in order to benefit the brand. Each strategic approach will capture a brand insight, a category insight, a consumer insight, or a combination of each, in its outline. But which approach to move forward with? You might, at this point, test the approaches with a group of the brand's consumers. Based on their feedback (which you may want to quantify), you'll have a good idea on which approach to move forward with.

5) Make it "Sticky"
You're now into creative development - finding ways to express the strategic approach of the app in several ways creatively. As you're going through this process, remember to aim for a creative app idea that's "sticky". Advertisers typically refer to "sticky" ideas and messages as those that are so insightful, engaging, and useful that they tend to break through the media and advertising clutter in a way that consumers actually want to engage with them - again and again. The same is true for "sticky" application ideas, perhaps even more so. You're looking to develop an app that the brand's consumers will want to engage with as often as possible. An app that they'll want to keep on their home screens and show off to their friends. This "stickiness" factor is usually achieved by developing an app that is either so exceedingly useful that it makes someone's life easier (by streaming content, tracking data, facilitating decisions) or so exceedingly entertaining that it makes someone's life more fun. Aim for one of these and run with it.

6) Make it "Social"
So, you've succeeded at developing an app that's so useful or entertaining that it's destined to be the cream of the consumer's application crop for years to come. That's great, but apps that operate as "individual tools" can only take brand engagement so far. The trick is to use the app to open up engagement for the consumer beyond just the brand itself - to other consumers of similar mindsets. The brand, and app, not only provides "sticky" value to the consumer, it is facilitating a connection with others by acting as a "social platform". By finding ways for the consumer to talk to, connect with, and engage with others through a social platform, the consumers themselves - with their own energy and enthusiasm - will take the engagement with the brand to the next level. The ultimate form a brand's social platform can take is one that not only facilitates social connections, but social contributions - to the extend that the consumers themselves actually gain control of the app and help to shape how it evolves.

So what's the result of this - of applying strategic planning and a strategic framework, no matter what the elements, to application development? Well, hopefully, the result is a room full of technology entrepreneurs - happy that they've developed a boundary-pushing app that has changed the way its users go about their lives, marketers - happy that the insightful app that they've signed off on is helping to drive engagement with their brand and deliver against its objective, and consumers (there in spirit) - thrilled that they've got something that's useful, entertaining, and socially addicting. In other words... a party.

What other ideas would you add to the Strategic Framework above? How else can we strive to develop apps that are insightful, that drive brand engagement, and that deliver results?


  1. I think you identified the chasm quite accurately. Approaching apps requires thought and energy beyond just one off "throw something out there", and that's often exactly what happens... "Let's just build an app" without much further thought probably won't be successful, and thinking strategically is the right way to go about it.

  2. Good point, Rob.

    When building an app as a part of your own start-up or initiative, you're in control of its success and failure every step of the way. Putting it out there, getting feedback, and evolving the platform based on the response can be an enriching part of the experience.

    When building an app for a client, however, with the purpose of achieving a specific purpose for a brand, there's a lot less leeway. You've got to get it mostly right from the get-go... and a greater amount of planning at the beginning of the process can definitely help with that.

    Thanks for the comment!


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