Mobile Evolution: The Importance of Standalone Apps

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Today’s guest post comes to us from Geoff Cook, co-founder and CEO of MeetMe, a leading social network for meeting new people in the US and the public market leader for social discovery (NYSE MKT: MEET). MeetMe is building a portfolio of mobile social apps and recently launched two: Charm and Unsaid. Cook will also be a featured speaker at this year’s Inside Mobile Apps conference, joining a panel on Leveraging App Discovery. 

In the beginning, a developer created a web site, then she created a mobile app based on that web site. Today, she creates a portfolio of mobile apps without regard to the web site. The industry has learned the bigness of the small-screen opportunity and evolved to capture it.

The social app landscape on mobile is marked by single-use-case standalone apps – apps like Snapchat, Vine, Instagram, and Tinder. Indeed, the largest social developers recognize that standalone app innovation must occur alongside improvements to the core product – Facebook with Instagram and Messenger; IAC with Tinder; and Twitter with Vine.

Mobile users are accustomed to applications that are simple – that do one thing extremely well on a small screen that is always available. Bloating the user experience with feature after feature rollout, no matter how innovative that feature may be, is not an option on mobile devices.

On mobile, novelty has replaced viral channel innovation as a path to growth. Rather than spending all the energy tweaking address book import tools and Facebook sharing funnels – energy that may have paid off dramatically in 2008 with Zynga and the Requests channels, or even in 2012 with Socialcam and Open Graph – today that energy is best spent on the mobile product itself, making the experience so good and with such a unique hook that it will spread over lunch tables and watercoolers around the world.

Snapchat, with its self-destructing photo hook, is the poster child for growth by novelty. You don’t need to appreciate the philosophy of ephemeral communication in a tech culture shifting from performance to spontaneity. No, all you need to know is that self-destructing messages are cool; they were cool for Mission Impossible and Maxwell Smart, and they’re cool today. And they happened to have changed the entire social messaging space. The product hook was viral.

Tinder is another. In this case, the hook was how well it works. It’s funny how the level of attractiveness is so high on Tinder despite its going mainstream among a population known for obesity – it’s almost as if it’s that way by design. The simplicity of a UI popularized for the web by Hotornot and a product that simply works well created a juggernaut that continues to roll today from one country to the next. Standalone apps, with their single-minded purity, have the viral edge over apps trying to do too much.

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Geoff Cook, MeetMe co-founder and CEO

The ability to attract new audiences is yet another reason why a product innovation often works better as a standalone app than as a new feature of an existing app. Imagine an app for Meeting New People that has a messaging system. Imagine that in the course of improving on that app a concept arose for a unique Messenger different from popular offerings like Kik, Wechat, and Google Hangouts that would dramatically improve the messaging capability in the core app. It would be far too limiting to take a novel, differentiated messaging concept and apply it to just one set of users interested in just one use case: meeting new people. The innovation would demand it be given a chance to blossom as a standalone app, and also launch as an enhancement to the core app itself.

There are also tactical advantages to standalone app development. A legacy app may have a lot of users, but it also often has a huge codebase and dramatic risks involved in tearing something down to start anew versus building on top of the foundation. Standalone apps are unconstrained by legacy decisions and habituated users. They enable faster iteration, until they eventually themselves become legacy apps.

Take the example of social apps. While there is wide variety within the category, most have some combination of feed, messaging, commenting, profiles, photo, video, and virtual currency. Focusing on modular components and recyclability of features without having to reinvent the wheel for every app can save a significant amount of time and cost when building the next app. In addition, a shared monetization infrastructure across the apps makes monetization easy to plug in when the time comes.

But just how important are the standalone apps really? Are they just feeder apps to the core app, to the mothership? No, the mothership is just as likely the kindling for the standalones. Ultimately the pace of change in mobile is so dramatic that the concept of “core” is quaint. There is only growth or the lack of it. You must use your advantages – your team, your technology, your audience – to help you drive growth. If the standalones help leverage the “core” app, great. If the “core” is nothing but a platform for growth in the standalone, that works too.

But where do ideas for the next standalone come from? Of course, they come from everywhere. The noted children’s author Mo Willems put it as pithily as I’ve ever seen:

“A lot of people think of ideas as objects, or animals that you hunt. You go into the woods, you find an idea, you capture it and you bring it home. And ideas really are more like gardens. And every day, you’re planting lots and lots of ideas. Some of them get eaten by birds, and never go anywhere. Some of them grow up to be really horrible things. Some wither and die. Every now and then, over time, some idea grows up to be big and beautiful and filled with fruit. You can cut that down and burn it for profit.”

If generating an initial concept depends on a rich garden of ideas within your company, the exploitation of the idea depends on how well you execute the concept. Building a successful mobile company depends on embracing creativity and discipline, managing ambiguity and focus, accepting failures and recognizing success.

At my company, MeetMe (NYSE MKT: MEET), we divide our product pipeline in two and we are equally focused on both: launching new standalone applications to accelerate the growth of our overall user base – and enhancing our “core” app to drive engagement and viral growth.

That app happens to be MeetMe.  Along with our website, our MeetMe app has more than one million daily active users and more than $30 million in LTM revenues.  Our first two standalone apps are Charm and Unsaid, both of which we launched in the past few weeks. Charm has been called “where Tinder meets Vine.” It adds another dimension to apps like Tinder and realizes people are more than a profile photo.  Unsaid is an anonymous college feed that tells you what people really think on campus.

Creating standalone apps is more like a football game than a soccer game. You have a limited number of downs to get in the end zone. The ball isn’t always moving in one direction or another based on your competitor’s actions. You aren’t tweaking levers constantly but submitting discrete concepts to Apple for approval. You put together a few good builds, and move the ball forward, always looking for that shot at the end zone. If you fumble on the drive, you march out there again, and you take another shot, this time with a different look, but you’ve now given your competitor an opportunity, and you’ve wasted time.  Ultimately, you win if you field the best team that can efficiently ideate apps and execute growth, and take advantage of a lucky bounce.