The conference room is filled with energy.  We’re actively discussing new tactics to drive growth.  Eager and motivated, the business owners say “mobile app,” and money-colored stars fill their eyes.  Like many people I talk to, their view of apps is akin to a child looking into a toy store at Christmas.  Yet like the pre-enlightened Scrooge, I often have to crush their joyfulness and dreams of a profit-filled, holiday shopping season.

I get their excitement.  I do.  App usage is at an all-time high with users spending 90% of their mobile time in-app.  And it’s easy to get caught up in the hype – the belief that apps can from nowhere like Santa Claus and shower us with holiday presents (or profits).  But if you keep reading those amazing app stats, you also see 25% of installed apps are never used and another 26% are abandoned after the first use.  It’s a noisy, fickle environment and one that requires careful thought and planning to enter.

All is not lost though, listen to E-Commerce Scrooge for a minute…

First, let’s narrow our focus to retail, e-commerce-driven apps (we aren’t Candy Crushing here).  Now take a look at the top apps in the market (according to App Annie).  How many retail apps do you see on the top of the charts?  Even Amazon, the top online retailer in the world, at the time of writing this is only 32nd on the list.  That’s behind Facebook, Netflix, and (…sigh) Pokémon GO.  Walmart, the largest brick and mortar retailer, isn’t even on this list.  Both businesses may still get insane amounts of traffic (and revenue) from their apps, but the lesson Scrooge has for you here is: just because you build it, it does not mean they will come.

Before you jump into the crowded app market, ask yourself these three questions:

#1:  Why am I building a mobile app?

There are plenty of easy answers to this question, like:

“Apps are hot!”

“Our top competitor has an app.”

“We need to grow sales.”

(Hint: none of these are correct)

The correct answer to this question, like all your business decisions, needs to center on your customer.  What problem are you solving for them?  Are you making your product more accessible or service easier to use?  If your customer doesn’t find value in the app, you won’t find them using it.

It can be hard to avoid jumping into the app market when it feels like everyone around you, including your competitors, are doing it.  But remember old advice from mothers around the world: “would you jump off a cliff just because everyone else is?”  Keep in mind, you can see your competitors’ apps, but you can’t see their results.  Just because they have an app doesn’t mean it’s successful.

#2:  What will my app do that my website won’t?

Many have a gut instinct here to think that mobile apps are totally different than websites.  In a way, they are.  But the customer has to get something important from your app that they can’t from your existing shopping experience.  If you want to make app that is exactly like your website, and it doesn’t do it in a faster, easier, or in a more pleasurable way – you could be wasting your money.

This is also a good place to think about your purchase frequency.  If your average customer orders two or three times a year, does it makes sense for them to use an app?  The trick here is not to think of mobile apps in a silo; think of them as part of your bigger mobile strategy.

(Note: not having a responsive website is also not a good reason to build an app.  If your website doesn’t give the greatest experience on the go, read this case study from MOZ and focus your efforts here first.  You can revisit your dreams of a mobile app later).

#3:  What am I getting out of it?

You’ve done a good job so far if you’ve effectively answered questions 1 and 2, which are all about your customer.  Next, ask yourself what your business is getting out of the app.  Unlike question 1, there are many good answers here (and you can have more than one).  A few examples:

“I’m learning more about my customer than I ever did before.”

“I’m more connected to my customer and their needs.”

“I’m making more money.”

There’s a lot you can get from an app.  They are a treasure trove of data and help you understand your customer better.  Explore their buying patterns, understand how they navigate, their content consumption habits; the better you know your customer, the better you can serve them.  And making more money, well, that’s the answer everyone wants to have.

Serving your customer needs to stay your top priority, but don’t overlook this question when defining your strategy, because you also should ask:

THE BONUS QUESTION:  Is it worth my time…and money?

One more thing to consider is whether or not the app is worth your time, and more importantly, money.  At their inception, apps can be expensive to build.  But often overlooked is the ongoing commitment they require.  Similar to your other web properties, a “set it and forget it” strategy will not build success.  Apps require consistent innovation (as in, technological updates) to stay relevant, and useful, to your customer.

Scrooge isn’t here to ruin your dreams, but rather challenge you to build apps that are customer-focused and business-driven.  These are easy questions that are sometimes hard to answer.  If you can answer them well, then it’s time to take the next steps.  If you can’t, focus your attention on other key pieces of your online experience and rethink how you can build an app that serves your customer and brings value to your business.

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