If iPhone applications follow the path of other Internet innovations—including blogs, podcasts and RSS feeds—it appears b-to-c, corporate-developed iPhone apps are about to be followed by a batch of b-to-b ones.
According to app activity aggregator Apptism, there are more than 78,000 iPhone apps today in the Apple iTunes store, which registered its billionth download in May.
While most early applications came from independent developers and focused on games, social networking and novelties (Lightsaber, anyone?), branded consumer apps were a close second. Consider the Virtual Zippo Lighter from Zippo Manufacturing Co., which had been downloaded 5 million times as of the end of July and ranks in the top 20 iPhone apps of all time, according to comScore.
In the b-to-b realm, one of the best-known corporate-branded iPhone apps comes from Bank of America. The app, released in late December, lets customers do their banking from their iPhone via a more sophisticated interface than they can get from a Web browser. While the bank doesn't break out how many iPhone users it has, it does report more than 2.5 million of its customers do some banking by mobile phone.
“We've seen an uptick in it since we started [with mobile banking] two years ago,” a spokeswoman for Bank of America said. “It's about a combination of things—accessibility, flexibility, distribution.”
In July, FedEx released a branded app for its users, FedEx Mobile for iPhone, which provides up-to-date shipment tracking information.
Another precursor to increased involvement by b-to-b marketers is the arrival of b-to-b publishers on the iPhone app bandwagon. Reed Business Information's Variety, for example, introduced an iPhone app that includes b-to-b news, reviews and multimedia coverage of the entertainment industry. Other b-to-b publishers that have entered the iPhone app waters include AllThingsDigital.com, Forbes.com and Wired.com (see case study).
Marketers can create iPhone applications or deliver an ad into another application. For both environments, there are a growing number of iPhone application development tools.
Mobile ad company Medialets caused a literal stir when clothing retailer Dockers used its development application to create a “shakeable” ad that uses the iPhone's accelerometer to let users shake the ad into action.
Another unique aspect of Medialets' approach is that it is focused on letting advertisers build app-style ads that are then embedded in other popular applications. For instance, the Dockers ad was put inside of, and helped monetize, a gaming application called iBowl.
The app-as-advertising approach should be familiar to marketers, according to Rana Sobhany, VP-marketing at Medialets, noting that in addition to b-to-c brands, her company has worked with such b-to-b advertisers as FedEx and Siemens.
“If marketers can distribute their app alongside a better-known, more viral app, they're going to get better reach and have their message seen by more users,” Sobhany said.
Other iPhone specialists are focused on helping companies build their own iPhone applications. For instance, NewsGator has released what it calls the iPhone Media App Framework, which makes it easy to build an information-distribution iPhone app. To date, the framework has been most attractive to publishers. But b-to-b marketers could use the framework to build applications to distribute information on their own, much as companies today build their own Web sites, newsletters and blogs, said NewsGator General Manager Walker Felton. M