Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Custom apps, online marketing and the unique customer experience – 2: empowerment from the crowd

Posted in strategy and planning, Web 2.0 marketing by Timothy Platt on January 9, 2011

A few days ago I posted a first note on the potential that custom apps provide for enriching the customer experience and as a means for organizations to present a unique value proposition in a unique way. In the course of that posting I touched on the issue of how custom apps can be assembled from pre-developed and tested components, and with minimal technical skills to create fully functional, branded products for use by a business or organization in its marketing. I left open, however, the issue of who would do this app developing and that is what I want to pick up on here in this posting.

A more traditional approach would be to plan and carry out all app development that would support and market the business in-house, or at the very least with strong and proactive in-house oversight if a third party developer were to be hired for this.

Those approaches offer a number of specific and important benefits, including but not limited to:

• Ability to plan and develop apps that explicitly connect into and support overall business and business marketing strategy and planning.
• Ability to actively and directly manage brand and how it is presented, and from initial planning on through the development cycle.
• Ability to systematically address identified communications and marketing needs with minimal overlapping and repetition of functionality where that could create customer confusion and with reduced likelihood of gaps in functionality offered.

This approach also creates potential problems and these have to be considered here too, including but not limited to:

• In-house tunnel vision and seeing the marketplace and the people you would reach out to through the filters of your own internal-to-the-organization assumptions and understanding.
• Yes, it is always possible to attempt a marketplace-driven reality check on what you develop in-house or through in-house direction, but focus groups and other tools for that are notorious for their limitations.
• And for this, with a very rapidly changing set of capabilities to chose from, and with the marketplace and its expectations changing just as rapidly it is important to note that if you develop in-house and “outside test” you limit your evaluation and your development potential to what you have the foresight to bring to the table for testing and review.
• This more traditional approach works best when you face a stable and predictable marketplace with relatively stable and consistent products or services that you are simply adjusting through a process of evolutionary change. And here, you also assume that your market demographics are going to be known and predictable so you can effectively sample them in assembling your test panels.
• None of these assumptions apply when you are dealing with a new and emerging communications and marketing capability such as web or handheld based apps and that is certainly true for the rapidly emerging and developing field of handheld apps.

Basically, what I am doing here is to set up an argument in favor of including a crowd sourcing capability for developing apps, at the very least.

• If app development comes from the communities you need to reach and connect with, the more active members of the demographics groups that you need to find will self-identify and they will tell you what the best ways are to connect with them and their peers.
• They will provide you with a roadmap as to which handhelds they prefer and use, and this is very important to know as different handheld platforms employ different connectivity protocols. Participation and insight from the crowd can help you avoid developing for the wrong coding and connection protocols, and with a focus on what the marketplace you would reach is actually using.
• This can, at least in principle, reduce your development costs to a minimum though I will pick up on some hidden costs issues further along in this posting.

Crowd sourced apps, however, cannot be an automatic and fully perfect solution for developing this area of social media marketing.

• On a strictly functional level, apps have to be able to connect into and process business information and the more rapidly this information changes, the more likely these apps will be important for the people you would reach out to, and the more likely they would be used.
• This means strictly third party apps that do not connect into your systems may offer less than fully useful information for users, but this problem should be self-correcting as apps that do not work well will be crowd-rated poorly and simply will not be used.
• You will still need to develop and maintain resources for people from the crowd to share their app development efforts through. And you will have to develop and maintain quality assurance and systems integration capabilities where you can test crowd sourced apps and connect them into your databases and other systems in stages. This would most likely be done through use of in-house testing servers and databases just as you would with significant web site update testing.
• You will have to accept a loosening of your control over your branding in at least certain ways, but that is a trade-off when you involve the crowd and crowd sourcing anyway. This process requires ongoing management and review.

I want to finish this posting with a brief case study, and the business I would cite here is one that very few people think of as cutting edge for anything – the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) of New York and New Jersey. If a business like the MTA can do this and do it successfully than any large organization can, and should at least consider doing so (see their Looking for the next great App.)

Senior management at the MTA sees their customers turning more and more to their handhelds for information and updates, as well as for communications and social networking, games and an ever-increasing more. They see a pressing need to reach people through their handhelds and through the app format that is increasingly turned to. But they face chronically recurring budget shortfalls so if they had to develop apps in-house they would not be able to do so. That is where the crowd comes in as an alternative for helping them to cost-effectively meet more of their strategic goals and needs.

My next posting on this will look into the issues and opportunities of fostering effective crowd sourced development and integrating the best of what comes of this into your business systems and with effective branding.

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