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Why many branded mobile apps will fall short

Corporate technology teams are falling all over themselves to create mobile apps, often hiring outside experts given scarce internal talent. But is their focus misplaced?

Mobile apps generally fall into two big categories. Some projects—the ones you hear trumpeted loudly like the Starbucks loyalty system—are meant to engage customers or prospects. Others, such as Family Dollar’s store management solution, are attempts to streamline business processes. That trend is reflected and reinforced by high-profile alliances between IBM and Apple, and (more recently) between Red Hat and Samsung.

Given new statistics about the shortage of development talent along with new research about attention spans, businesses might want to prioritize the latter. At the very least, it seems time for a reality check about who it’s possible to reach with a branded mobile app.

Here’s the thing: app downloads aren’t really a great indicator of success, even though it’s what many organizations still hold up as evidence.

Most people use just a handful of apps regularly: the mix depends not just on the person, but on the day and what they have to do on that day. Forrester Research dubs these interactions “mobile moments,” the point when someone reaches for his or her smartphone for specific information, in context.

“Owning mobile moments equates to owning at least a part of the customer relationship,” the research firm writes in report released this week with this rather ominous title: “Your Customers Will Not Download Your App” (registration required). “These moments can be monetized or, in the case of e-business professionals, used to serve your customers in their moments of need.”

So, for example, someone might consult an app to check into a flight or seek a departure time update. Or she or he might conduct in-store research, looking up technical specifications for a product or conducting a price check.

Communications and social networks claim the most mobile moments today, accounting for roughly 21% of the time people spend on their smartphones, according to Forrester. Media plays—notably weather and sports—are the next biggest category claiming attention. The best a brand can really hope for at this stage of the game is to engage its most frequent or loyal customers.

The biggest takeaway: enterprise mobile development teams should spend more time seeking ways to engage people through apps they already use. Forrester’s researchers note:

Few enterprise apps offer enough compelling, exclusive services, functionality, and information or the phenomenal convenience necessary to be just a destination. Even firms such as United Airlines allow passengers to export their boarding passes to Apple Passbook for convenience or look up flight information or purchase tickets on third-party apps such as TripIt or Orbitz.

Against that backdrop, what are enterprise mobile developers actually prioritizing?

A separate study by 451 Research lists customer relationship management and customer-facing apps as the top priority, ahead of those that prioritize worker productivity, customer service, or internal business processes such as field sales resource management. Close to half of the 480 respondents expect to release at least 10 mobile apps during the next two years. The survey was sponsored by Kony, which counts Aetna, Citi and Weight Watchers among the companies using its mobile application development platform.

Right now, many organizations haven’t really figured out who should be accountable for projects. Among the 451 Research respondents, at least 42% of apps were “owned” by line-of-business teams rather than a corporate information technology department. That creates internal tensions and funding questions, and things will get worse before they get better: another forecast, this one from Gartner, suggests that demand for mobile development services will grow five times faster than capacity between now and 2017.

“Organizations increasingly find it difficult to be proactive against competitive pressures, which is resulting in their mobile apps becoming tactical, rather than strategic,” said Gartner analyst Adrian Leow.

All the more reason to focus mobile expertise where the investment will have the most impact.

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