NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- For all the love that marketers show iPhone apps, these micro-utilities and tools actually generate surprisingly little buzz in return.
A study for Ad Age by PR firm Porter Novelli and its partner Crimson Hexagon looked at a handful of branded iPhone apps that came online this year and found that their launch didn't generate any big spike in the volume of online chatter about the apps. And any uptick in conversation volumes tapered off quickly in the days after the apps' rollout.
And brand perception, as measured by improvements in positive conversations about the brand, barely budged in the months after the apps launched. In effect, these utilities didn't arouse much passion in either direction. The conversations around them were largely neutral, along the lines of: "X brand has an app now."
For instance, one blogger wrote of the Dunkin' Donuts app: "The tool is just a simple ordering and setup tool that lets you email or text your friends, tell them when you're leaving, and give them the option of ordering stuff from Dunkin Donuts." Another wrote of the Whole Foods app: "To help sort through the recipes, the app includes an 'On Hand' feature that lets customers enter ingredients and then receive meal recommendations."
"The financial value we can extract from a brand perspective, at least in the two to three months post launch, seems very limited," said Megan Costello, manager of professional services at Crimson Hexagon, which measures online consumer sentiment. "There's no remarkable impact corresponding to the iPhone app launch."
For the study, Crimson Hexagon looked at iPhone apps from Barnes & Noble, Dunkin' Donuts, Pizza Hut and Whole Foods, studying the conversations around them in the weeks before the launch and at least three months after the launch. The company has an index of 2.4 billion posts and analyzed the conversations based on them.
Of course, the findings also reinforce that apps should not be built simply to goose some short-term brand buzz; rather, they should be a way to deepen engagement or drive revenue. Still, said Joe Russo, Porter Novelli's global research director, he would expect some improvement in brand affinity around the time of an app launch. He suggests part of the problem is that the sea of iPhone apps -- now numbering more than 100,000 -- is swallowing the prospect of building any significant buzz.
"There's so much clutter and just such a flood of apps out there that unless you're really looking for them, or [receive] a pre-announcement that is meaningful to you, you won't even know about it," Mr. Russo said. One could also attribute the lack of pervasive conversations about the apps to that only about 7% of U.S. wireless subscribers use an iPhone.
Branded apps, of which there are more than 255, according to the Attention Digital blog, already compete against unbranded apps. Apps that deliver news or reference services are most often used by consumers over the longest periods of time, according to a recent study by mobile apps analytics firm Flurry.
Consumers are also likely to skip over even the most function-rich branded apps simply because they're branded, said Aaron Watkins, principal of Appency, a mobile-apps marketing agency. He brings up MasterCard's Priceless app, which lets users find shopping deals and entertainment. He's not a MasterCard customer and said he "would discard it without a second glance because I would assume that it wasn't relevant to me. This is a problem when the brand is using the app as a new consumer acquisition tool."
'Nook' boosted app
One interesting data point, however, came from the Barnes & Noble app. Conversations around the app jumped handily when the bookseller announced the arrival of Nook, its e-book reader. Discussions about the app got wrapped into conversations about Nook. This suggests, anecdotally, that brands may want to consider dovetailing their app announcements with a related strategy or product if they want more mentions for them. Nook's announcement boosted conversations about Barnes & Noble's iPhone app, as consumers talked about the app as part of the book retailer's broadening distribution strategy.
There may be, however, a silver lining in all this. Since apps are not grabbing the spotlight, brands don't have to feel the pressure to deliver the be-all, end-all app from the get-go.
"Apps may really be connecting with a really engaged segment of a brand's audience, so [brands] could simply dip their toes in the water, gauge user feedback and not feel they have to launch a best-in-class experience right away," said Crimson Hexagon consultant Ed Schneider.