Forget Apps, Text Still Reigns in Mobile

The flurry of recent media announcements around mobile apps probably has you thinking this might be your easy marketing answer for 2010. Beware the hype, because beneath the excitement lies plenty of stats that show it’s still a plaything compared to text messaging, which continues to deliver impressive year-over-year growth across all demographic groups.

Don’t get me wrong. Mobile apps can be a great way to engage in the right context, but the reason that text continues to be the dominant force in mobile marketing is simply reach and usage.

Nearly every cellphone in the U.S. is capable of text messaging and because it’s used for regular personal communication, it’s always top of mind in terms of general daily use. By comparison, only 18 percent of all phones in the U.S. are smartphones. Further, Juniper Research forecasts that smartphones worldwide will account for just 23 percent of all new handsets sold per annum by 2013, hardly representing the mass market for general consumer goods and services.

If we dig a little further, the landscape becomes even clearer. Firstly, the mobile applications market is heavily dominated by the iPhone, with a recent Nielsen survey finding that Apple’s store dominated all app downloads with a 25 percent market share. Secondly, and more importantly, the iPhone only represents 4 percent of the entire mobile market. These are hardly mouth-watering statistics unless they’re your specific target market. Thirdly, unlike text messaging which is universal, you cannot build a mobile application that works across all phone platforms. The Nielsen App Playbook Survey identified more than 10 major app stores, so you need to either split your resources or find a lot more money.

As some have suggested, mobile applications are currently the flea on the elephant.

If we next look at usage, there are some telling statistics that again highlight why text messaging provides a better return when marketing to customers. In results released from its analytics platform in September 2009, Flurry showed that only one-quarter of iPhone apps are used more than 90 days after they are downloaded. So it’s hardly representing value for money as a brand-building tool, either.

Strategy Analytics confirmed this with its October 2009 report that showed only four to six mobile apps are used on a consistent basis. Brands need to be aware that there’s intense competition for share of the mobile phone desktop. It stands to reason that consumers are not going to continue to download and use an unlimited number of mobile applications, and there are many questions over whether we have reached the saturation point already. This doesn’t leave a lot of room for grabbing consumer attention for those without big budgets or unique functionality. The reality is that most mobile apps are downloaded and discarded to the bin unless they’re compelling and have an ongoing mobile usefulness to them.

An interesting example of an app that failed to identify the value it was creating for the consumer is the recent Vanity Fair Oscars app, Vanity Fair Hollywood. Although the app promised consumers it would be “all you need to know about every nominee,” it contained little real content or insider information and far too much advertising from sponsor partners. The result was a number of reviews that questioned why they took the effort to download yet another advertising installation.

Unlike most mobile apps, text messages are simple and firmly integrated with consumers’ daily lives. Your text message and branding sits there right among conversations with family and friends. With this kind of cut through, a targeted text message, such as a relevant mobile coupon, can generate consumer interest quickly. Mobile apps for brands and businesses will have significant trouble doing anything like this. Those that do succeed and have long-term appeal do so because they provide something unique, separate to any branding and marketing.