Should Your Branded Apps Be Toys or Tools?

Don't Get Caught Up in Playing Games

By Published on .

Tom Martin Tom Martin
Branded apps are hot right now. Clients want them because they are cool and agencies want to build them because they want to be cool. And as one of the folks here at Zehnder who sits in a lot of digital ideation discussions, both internally and with clients, I find one of the first big debates is always the question of "Should we be building something fun or useful?"

Like most things in the digital, mobile and social media worlds, there probably isn't a definite right or wrong answer to that question. However, my two cents is screw the games, build a tool. Here's why.

First, toys are trendy. If you have kids you know what I'm talking about. Every Christmas there is a list of the hottest toys. But aside from super-cool and usually super-expensive toys like an iTouch or a Wii, you seldom see the same toys on that list from one year to the next.

Second, toys get boring. They're fun for a while -- some for longer periods of time -- but in the end, they just get boring. We're off to the next shiny thing, the next "hot toy" that hits the shelves.

Third, toys (read game-type applications) don't really do anything to sell your product. And in the case of those silly Facebook apps that let me toss a sheep or buy someone a beer, my total interaction time with the app is mere seconds. Is that really helping to convert me or reinforce my loyalty to your brand? I think not. It's just a silly diversion. And I give it the attention it deserves.

No, I say for my clients' marketing dollars, give me a tool. A tool isn't trendy. A tool doesn't get tossed aside because I get bored. Because I don't buy the tool, I buy the solution the tool delivers. And that is the power of tool apps. You can build apps that virtually solve a consumer challenge while politely linking your client's brand to that solution. In fact, built correctly, you can actually charge people to buy a tool app. Kraft did this with its iFood Assistant app, which sold for 99 cents and made the iTunes Top 100 Paid Apps list.

For instance, what if the Yelp iPhone app had been built and branded by Chili's? I mean, let's face it. Chili's isn't going to get 100% of my dining wallet no matter how much I like them. So what is the harm in giving me a tool to help me solve all my dining challenges? Each and every time I open the app, and there will be many, I'm presented with the ever-present Chili's logo, which, if clicked on, automatically generates a listing for the closest Chili's location to my current position. Do you think I'm ever going to delete that app from my phone? Do you think I'm going to tell my friends about it? Will I blog about it or Tweet my love of the app? Yes, yes and, uhh, yes. And if it was also a Facebook app that pushed Yelp reviews of my friends to the top of the review list? Would I use that app on my Facebook page? I think so.

So for the cost of what a client normally spends on producing a single campaign, it could build such an app, push it out through the social media world, and maybe even maintain it for a year. What's the CPM on that? According to Yelp's site, 20 million folks visited in February. I'll let you do the math.

Don't get me wrong. Toys are fun. Toys are sexy. Toys win ad awards and get written up by the media and can land you on the "Today" show talking to Matt Lauer. And that's all fine. But toys get tossed aside. They get discarded and sold at garage sales. Just ask Woody and Stinky Pete. And that's why I hope we counsel our clients to build tools, not toys.

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Tom Martin is President of Zehnder Communications, with offices in New Orleans and Baton Rouge. He can be reached at Tom.Martin@z-comm.com. Or follow him at @TomMartin.

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