Insights on Marketing & Technology

What marketers are getting wrong about apps

Mobile users spend 86% of their time in apps, not browsers, according to Nielsen. Marketers have wisely jumped on the bandwagon. A total of 47% of marketers have already developed an app, and 65% are investing in them now. The problem is most marketers are going about apps all wrong. Here's why.

  • By: Rohan Ayyar
  • Published: 11-04-2014

Apps Aren't About Content

According to a study conducted by Forbes and Adobe, 60% of the marketers who saw an increase in app downloads attributed it to "exclusive content." In other words, these marketers are offering digital content that can't be found online through their apps.

As encouraging as hearing about companies increasing app downloads is, the approach to apps is based on a fundamental flaw. Exclusive content to users might be a good way to entice them to download a content app, but content apps aren't what consumers are looking for.

Yes, I'm aware of the success of Flipboard, with its user base of at least 56 million people (and growing at a rate of millions per week). But here's the thing: Flipboard isn't like a traditional magazine or blog. It's a magazine that you can curate yourself and share with your friends.

If anything, Flipboard's success means other content apps are already obsolete. Why use a different content app when you can just add content to your Flipboard?

Attempts to launch app-based magazines have also been dismal failures. Not even the massive conglomerate News Corporation could get "The Daily" to break even. Further, though Wired has 20 million website visitors each month, its app has a measly 100,000 users.

You might think that this we're on the precipice of a massive shift in the way we view content, but mobile is already here. We already know how people use their mobile devices.

Moreover, mobile users spend 86% of their time in apps—not browsers—but they're not using those apps to look at content.

Here's the breakdown according to research by Nielsen.

Take a close look at these figures. Where is content? It's buried in the News/Info section. Users only spend 2% of their mobile time in content apps. Compare that to the 11% of time that they devote to "Productivity/Function" (work), and you start to see just how small an impact your content app can make.

And if you think that's bound to change, sorry. News is also the slowest growing category, according to research by Flurry.


All right, so let's talk about customer retention. News apps should be better at keeping users than other apps, right? OK, I'll give you that one. For user half-life, news apps are strong performers.

Though consumers do seem to spend the most time in social and messaging apps, those apps are nearly the worst at retaining users (unless you happen to be Facebook). If consumer retention is what you're going for, it's starting to look like news apps are the way to do it, even if they have terrible usage rates, and they're growing slower than any other platform.


Email appears to be a much better way to retain users who are interested in content. Here's MailChimp's click data, segmented by industry.

As you can see, for media and publishing companies, even after sending 50 emails, click rates have only dropped from roughly 6.7% to 6.3%. If we extrapolated this, assuming click rates kept decreasing at this same rate and you sent out an email every day, your half-life would still be 14 months, far better than news apps.

What Is the Alternative?

So if news apps are unpopular, barely growing in popularity, and not as good as email for customer retention, what kinds of apps should you be thinking about using? Should you even be thinking about apps at all?
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