August 19, 2010

Is an iPhone App Right for Your Business? 6 Questions to Consider

SUMMARY: Apps for the iPhone have generated considerable buzz in the consumer world, but do they have a place in a B2B marketing strategy? The answer depends on several key factors, including the nature of your audience and the functionality you can provide through an app.

We asked a marketer from a large law firm to share details from their recent experience developing an iPhone app. Read on for six key questions that will determine whether the approach is right for you, and how you can manage the process.
by Sean Donahue, Editor

In March 2010, the law firm Morrison & Foerster LLP became one of the first professional services firms to create a branded iPhone App when it launched "MoFo2Go." The application put news, attorney bios, a GPS-based location finder and a simple game directly onto customers' iPhones, giving them new ways to connect with the firm while they are away from the office.

Launching the app was both a test of a new channel for the firm's marketing team, as well as a complement to the firm's reputation and market share among high-tech companies, says David Harvey, Senior Marketing Manager.

"It was a combination of wanting to make something that was useful for our clients, but also that lived up to our brand as a firm that 'gets' tech," says Harvey.

Since then, there have been more than 1,500 downloads of the app -- not to mention positive feedback from clients and press mentions about the firm's foray into new technology.

But developing an iPhone app was a learning experience for Harvey and his team, so we asked him to share some critical insights about the process. Here are six key questions to ask if you're wondering whether a branded iPhone app has a place in your marketing and communications strategy:

Question #1. Are your customers and prospects using the iPhone?

Although the iPhone receives most of the buzz about mobile applications, other smartphone platforms -- such as Blackberry and Android -- support apps of their own.

Deciding whether an iPhone app makes sense for your company starts with knowing whether it will reach a significant portion of your audience.

Harvey's team began exploring the idea for an iPhone app last year, at the suggestion of a partner in the firm's Palo Alto office. Working in the heart of Silicon Valley, this partner had seen how many of the firm's clients were using iPhones, and how much they enjoyed applications.

The iPhone may have lower penetration among your customer and prospect base -- in which case, developing an app for another platform, or forgoing an app altogether, would be a better route.

Question #2. What types of features can you offer app users?

Unlike mobile websites, apps typically provide a limited set of functions unique to smartphone users. So another major consideration before building an app is understanding what kinds of features and functions you can provide through the platform.

Checking out whether your competitors offer iPhone apps is an essential phase of the due diligence process. If several of your competitors already have iPhone apps, you must develop a set of functions that will differentiate your offer from the competition.

Harvey's team saw that few large law firms or other professional services firms were offering apps, giving them more flexibility to select features. In the end, the team settled on four primary functions that would be useful to clients on the go:

- A "People" section, which lets users browse or search bios and contact information for the firm's 1,000+ attorneys. Sorting features also allowed users to see attorneys organized by practice area or location.

- A "News" section, which provides updates of the firm's "client alert" news briefs, press releases and technology-related articles.

- A "Locations" function, which provides addresses for the firm's 16 locations overlayed on a Google Map. The map function lets users get directions from their current location to the nearest office, as well as highlighting restaurants, hotels, airports and other amenities in the area.

- An interactive game called "MoFo Maze," which lets users direct a ball through several layers of a virtual maze. In between each level, the app serves small facts about the firm and its practice areas.

"Building a game for an iPhone app is unusual for a global law firm, but we felt it was in keeping the spirit of what people are doing with iPhone apps."

Adding the game and some educational content about the firm also made the app more appealing to iPhone users who weren't already clients.

Question #3. How will your app support iPhone functionality?

You can determine what features would be most useful to mobile users by examining your web analytics and seeing where you generate the most traffic from mobile users.

"That's a good starting point, but I don't think it's the end point," says Harvey.

From there, you should ask how your app will be different from a mobile version of your website. The most compelling apps are closely tied to the primary communication functions of a smartphone.

For example:

- Bios on the MoFo2Go app allow users to click on an individual's phone number or email address to directly contact that attorney.

"You're two touches away from being in contact with any attorney."

- The location feature uses the iPhone's built-in GPS system to provide point-to-point directions from a user's location to the nearest office.

- The MoFo Maze game uses the iPhone's built-in accelerometer, letting users direct the virtual ball by tipping the phone in specific directions.

Question #4. Who will develop the app?

Developing an iPhone app requires special expertise and a knowledge of Apple's iOS platform and programming rules. If your in-house tech team doesn't have the expertise, you'll have to work with an outside partner.

Harvey's team had recently launched a new website with a development company that also had experience with iPhone apps. They tapped this group to develop MoFo2Go (See Useful Links below).

Working closely with the developer, Harvey's team created a "wish list" of functionality they'd like to have on their app. They then estimated the cost of creating these features against their budget to settle on the four features currently included in the app.

"We had to make some choices there -- 'This is what we can do within our budget,'" says Harvey. "Other things on our list we can come back to and do a second version."

Question #5. When do you need the app to be launched?

Launching a new product in an unfamiliar channel always requires additional time for planning and development. But iPhone apps present another challenge to the development process: Your app must be reviewed and approved by Apple before it can be released.

Apple makes no promises on approval time for new applications, but the company has said in the past that 95% of apps are approved within 14 days of submission. Ask your developer how long they've typically waited for approval or rejection of previous apps, but be prepared to build extra time into your development process to accommodate any changes that Apple may require.

For example, Harvey's team had its app reviewed and rejected within one week, because Apple requested changes to how the team had used certain icons as buttons. Once the development team made the changes, they re-submitted the app and had it approved almost immediately.

In all, Harvey's team spent several months on their iPhone app project:

- They began brainstorming the idea internally in October.

- They selected a vendor to build the app in December.

- The team and the vendor spent about 6 weeks building the app.

- They received approval from Apple in about two weeks, and launched the app in the iTunes store in March.

Question #6. How will you promote your app?

Once your application is available in the iTunes App Store, your team can begin promoting it to potential users in many different ways. Choose a multichannel approach that will best target your intended audience, and fit with your marketing team's current channels.

Harvey's team decided on a few select promotions to encourage the app to spread by word-of-mouth. Their outreach included:

- An internal email from the company chairman, telling all employees that the app was available and encouraging them to inform their clients.

- A press release and targeted PR outreach announcing the app's availability.

- Inclusion of a note about the app in email signature lines, with a link to the iTunes store for download.

- A full-page ad in the back of the firm's biannual print magazine, MoFo Tech.

"We've seen a steady climb in downloads since we launched it," says Harvey. "It has to be because of word-of-mouth."

Useful links related to this article

Creative Samples from Morrison & Foerster's iPhone App

Members Library -- Special Report: iPhones & Email Marketing - 10 Pros & Cons

Apple's iPhone Developers Center

The Rubenstein Technology Group developed Morrison & Foerster's iPhone app

Morrison & Foerster's iPhone App in the iTunes Store

Morrison & Foerster LLP

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