The case for an app for everything… or not. On mobile trends and chicken sandwiches

“There’s an app for that” is becoming a common refrain around the world when smartphone owners want to order coffee, give money to friends, find and pay for parking, find a date, or hail a taxi. Getting an app is not just good business strategy, says MC Moatti in her new book Mobilized, but essential to staying in business. As people spend more time on their phone than on their computer, companies must reach them there to survive. Says Ms Moatti: “to be effective, mobile marketing requires dedicated mobile products such as smartphone apps.” Ms Moatti advises to build an app because the alternative is stagnation and eventual bankruptcy.

A classic chicken sandwich. Source: Chick-Fil-A

Is there a better way to illustrate this post than a classic chicken sandwich?
Source: Chick-Fil-A

As validation of her theory, Chick-Fil-A’s new app, very late to the market, is currently the number one free app in the iOS store. It helps that customers are offered a free sandwich just for downloading the app, but beyond that initial freebie, Chick-Fil-A did their homework and created a product that removes barriers for its customers and makes it easier for them to buy chicken sandwiches. For example, data suggests that just ordering ahead is a big deal: “82 percent of millennial parents say they would do almost anything to avoid long lines at fast food restaurants when they are with their children,” the company noted in a press release announcing the launch of the app. “In fact, nearly half (48 percent) said they would rather not eat at all than stand in a line.” So if half of a store’s potential customers walk away the moment they see a line, having an app that grants them faster service is surely a win for Chick-Fil-A and a win for its customers.

Yet, despite the advantages of an app for both Chick-Fil-A (more orders, more sales) and its customers (faster food, less standing in line) there are contrary trends in app adoption.

  1. App fatigue where where recent data shows that users are spending more time on a smartphone but in fewer apps. Says Mary Meeker in KPMG’s latest Internet Trends report: the global mobile user has an average of 33 (37 in the US) installed apps but only use an average of 12 apps daily. The most amazing stat is that 80% of the time spent on a smartphone is spent in only 3 apps! The global user spends 4 hours a day on their phone while their US counterpart spends 5. That’s a hefty chunk of time in very small group of apps. What are those three winning apps? Globally they are Facebook, WhatsApp, and Chrome, while in the US they are Facebook, Chrome, and YouTube. There is a limit to how many apps users download and keep using on their phones. App retention is as challenging as gaining and install as almost a quarter of all users open an app only once, about a third open it more than 11 times.  
  2. Messaging apps are the new home screen (data from KMPG’s report.) Users are spending a lot more time in messaging apps and brands are paying attention by offering users a range of services that engage users within messaging app. From shopping and reservations to hailing an Uber, transactions are done without leaving the app.
  3. In some cases, the mobile web is enough. There is a high cost to developing apps and mobile web sites are providing a good alternative. If a user can find what they need faster and with less hurdles on a mobile website, then there may be no actual need for an app. In fact, in the United Kingdom, the Government Digital Service decided that native apps were too expensive to build and maintain and opted to optimize responsive sites instead. The British Treasury estimates that $8.2B was saved over 4 years. Says Ben Terrett, the former head of design at the UK GDS said that apps are “very expensive to produce, and they’re very very expensive to maintain because you have to keep updating them when there are software changes.” Mr Terrett realizes the need to reach users on smartphones but said that “for government services that we were providing, the web is a far far better way… and still works on mobile. Sites can adapt to any screen size, work on all devices, and are open to everyone to use regardless of their device.”

Taken together, these trends might represent a shift in how companies prioritize the need to develop an app. Developing an app is time-consuming and expensive. Once launched, it is extremely challenging to get users’ attention, to drive them to install and continue to use the app. Users are already spending a large chunk of their attention in messaging apps. Would it be better to reach them there, where they are already active? And consider the type of information and services offered. Is an app really necessary or would a great mobile web site do the job just as well if not better? What about Chick-Fil-A? Will users tire of the benefits the app offers and prefer to order on an enhanced mobile web site or in messenger? Should Chick-Fil-A have launched a Facebook Messenger bot first?

The bottom line is that building an app is no longer the business panacea it was only a few months ago when Ms Moatti wrote her book. True, mobile-first is still the right tactic to adopt when trying to reach consumers, but the channel to do so must be chosen with a bit more care.



2 thoughts on “The case for an app for everything… or not. On mobile trends and chicken sandwiches

  1. Interesting article, Hagit.

    You wrote: “And consider the type of information and services offered. Is an app really necessary or would a great mobile web site do the job just as well if not better?”

    In most cases, a great mobile website is sufficient particularly if all that’s being offered is static information that doesn’t change. Suppose someone is looking for a specific service business’ info, one that they only visit in person on occasion. They’re not going to start looking for the restaurant’s app just to look for a restaurant’s hours/phone number/address — they’ll likely Google it or search on Yelp. It’s a short action that Google and Yelp have taken care of.

    You wrote: “What about Chick-Fil-A? Will users tire of the benefits the app offers and prefer to order on an enhanced mobile web site or in messenger? Should Chick-Fil-A have launched a Facebook Messenger bot first?”

    If Chick-Fil-A’s app only offered access to generally static information, I’d say it wasn’t a wise use of resources. However, everything their app offers removes the pain of going to Chick-Fil-A and getting food with young children, with specific advantages over a typical messaging system and even over Facebook Messenger (based on the Chick-Fil-A press release you linked to):

    (1) App lets users easily customize their meal(s) w/o having to worry about phrasing – versus jumping around between the Chick-Fil-A website and the messaging app, hoping the user has used the correct terminology to place their order

    (2) App requires a user “check in” to ensure the Chick-Fil-A gives the user a fresh meal, probably via beacon or a single tap in the app – versus having the user remember to provide a long unique code at a specific time via a messaging app OR having to determine the one designated staff member in the store to say “I’m here!”

    (3) App has payments integrated – versus jumping out of the messaging app to a separate payment app and hoping the user sends the payment correctly (or, even has an acct with that payment system)

    (4) App recalls a user’s order history (hopefully so users can easily reorder that exact meal later) – versus users typing it all over again in a messaging app every time

    (5) App easily sets up a membership acct and, with enough purchases, gives the user their favorite food for free on occasion – versus getting a non-customized/generic free food item/flat $5 via the messaging system

    (6) Finally, App (if done right) should reduce the amount of data needed to be sent/received for each order, given that all of the required code and images would be downloaded on the initial app install. This means that, even with a slow data connection, a user should theoretically still be able to place an order – versus the problems referenced in (1, 3, 4) and that a mobile website would require many page loads (and related code/image downloads) each time to create an order, go to confirm it, pay for it, etc.

    If I were a big Chick-Fil-A customer, I’d totally see the benefit of their app and would strongly prefer it over a mobile website.

    • I love this comment! Thanks for taking the time to write it.
      I agree with you completely: if the app offers a significant benefit to users, then there is a case for developing it. Chick-Fil-A seems to have done their homework on this one.

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