By Sierra Jiminez, reporter
FORTUNE — The app gold rush continues. Gross revenues in the mobile app market hit $3.6 billion in 2011. By the end of this year, they’re expected to hit $5.3 billion. But many of the world’s most popular apps have one thing in common: they’re games like Angry Birds or feature game-like mechanics such as Foursquare.
Apps that perform more prosaic tasks, like calculating the tip or dolling out driving directions, are harder to discover according to Mark Beccue, a senior analyst with ABI. Getting users to tinker with an app over and over, meanwhile, can be an even greater challenge. “Figuring out the answer to that problem is like an extension of the internet boom,” he says. “It’s very hard to predict where the next best idea is going to come from.”
Former Apple (AAPL) executive Lars Albright thinks he has the answer. His new company, SessionM, uses virtual rewards as an incentive to draw smartphone users back to any type of mobile application — not just games. SessionM allows users to collect mobile points by continually visiting and completing tasks in the apps they’ve already downloaded. It works much like a typical credit card rewards program. Users can eventually cash in the points they’ve accumulated for real-world items, including gift cards and charity donations. “The idea is to create these nice engagement hooks that reinforce visitation. And from there you can really draw in more revenue and bring in more ad dollars that are spent effectively,” Albright says.
SessionM provides technology that coexists with already existing mobile apps. Developers can add the service at no charge without interfering with the design of their application. If it’s a success, Albright will have turned a network of mobile applications into one big gaming system, spanning categories as diverse as personal finance and travel.
When Albright speaks people listen. That’s largely because of his track record in the mobile advertising and development business. Albright co-founded Quattro Wireless back in 2006 and he was the man behind Apple’s mobile advertising network, iAd, a product of its $275 million acquisition of Quattro Wireless two years ago. Unlike the hard-to-read miniature text ads, Apple’s format features slick graphics and interactive elements. The acquisition put Apple in direct competition with Google’s (GOOG).
Major companies including Viacom (VIA), Fox Sports (NWS), and Demand Media (DMD) have already signed on as partners. And while the results for each company’s app success vary with the service, one average Albright says users have spent nearly twice the amount of time engaging with the applications than prior use. Even for apps that are already popular, that’s a huge success, says The Weather Channel’s Executive Vice President of Digital Productions Cameron Clayton. “We definitely don’t have a reach problem with our app. For us it’s about getting users to stay on longer,” Clayton adds. On average, Clayton says the brand’s 33 million unique visitor spend less than 4 minutes on the mobile application. After integrating SessionM, that time increased by more than 40% he says. “It’s really a unique dynamic that’s been developed, and it puts SessionM at a real sweet spot in the marketplace,” he argues.