Rebecca Wang: Building Brand Loyalty, by App

It might be hard to believe, but popular smartphone systems such as iOS and Android hit the market only a decade ago. The ubiquitous pocket-sized mobile devices—more computer than telephone—have transformed our lives in myriad ways, offering users opportunities to shoot and edit pictures and videos, exchange text and email messages, engage in social media, get driving directions and surf the web anytime, anywhere.

Already undergoing a transformation brought on by online retailers, shopping also is being changed by smartphones, says Rebecca Jen-Hui Wang, assistant professor of marketing.

A published expert in mobile marketing and omni-channel strategies, customer relations management and social and new media, Wang has recently been studying the effectiveness of branded mobile software applications—more commonly known as apps—in increasing the bottom line for retailers.

Unlike paid apps, which consumers buy to play games or obtain other services such as music or video streaming, branded apps are offered free of charge with a purpose in mind.

“The goal is not to get revenue or to promote the app itself,” Wang says. “It’s a facilitating tool to build brand awareness, hopefully engage customers and then build brand loyalty.”

The question, Wang says, is whether it is a worthwhile investment for businesses to create a mobile app. “And my research is showing that, ‘Yes, it is,’” she says. “It’s actually worthwhile for you to launch a branded app and get customers to engage with your brand.”

However, Wang warns that if a business puts out its own branded mobile app, it needs to be engaging or consumers might tune out not only the app but the brand and product itself. “It has to be fast, it has to be fluid and it has to be functional,” Wang says.

“Point one is, really think about what you want your app to do. If you’re a retailer, it should be a good storefront. But even as a storefront, recognize that there is limitation to the mobile device, and even just the mentality of the consumer using the mobile device.”

For example, she says, in e-commerce, consumers will typically limit smartphone purchases to products and brands they are familiar with—think laundry detergents. Apps can be great for helping consumers build routine shopping lists, she says.

“My hypothesis even for big-ticket items is that they will still need something that allows for better comparison, like a PC with a larger screen with better user interfaces for you to make that kind of decision. Mobile devices are not without their limits.”

An effective mobile app should be utilitarian enough to provide information to help shoppers with purchases, Wang says. But it shouldn’t be so overloaded with data and graphics that it crashes. “Identify your goal. What are you trying to accomplish? Don’t just launch something because everybody else is launching it,”  Wang says.

“Think about what storefront you want with your app. How is it going to differentiate with your website? If the app is supposed to be habitual and the website is supposed to be exploratory, that’s great, then there are certain functionalities that have to go into it. If you are an existing customer, I might use existing data to figure out your habitual purchases and lists, and I’m going to show you those items in the limited screen you have—or maybe complementary purchases. For instance, if I see that you buy eggs all the time, maybe I show you eggs and bread and bacon.”

Even if a business does go the mobile app route, Wang says it would be a mistake to abandon other online marketing strategies, including a website for PCs and a website optimized for use on a mobile device.

“A lot of times a mobile website is in fact the first interface between you and a customer on a mobile device,” Wang says.

Ultimately, “omni-channel” consumers—those who shop via mobile device, PC and in person—are the customers who spend the most, she says. “If you think you can shift your investment as a firm—from PCs or websites to mobile—then that’s a huge mistake because you actually need all the path forms to complement each other.”

Story by: Daryl Nerl

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