Is “Building an iPhone App” really a Good Mobile Marketing Strategy?

Do you remember when you first saw the iPhone? The simple yet elegant design, the engaging interface. You’ve heard that mobile is gonna be big, and now that the iPhone is the best-selling mobile phone, maybe you’ve started to think about creating an iPhone app for your organization.

Yes, creating an iPhone app can help you foster engagement with a particular target audience, but is it prudent to focus all your mobile marketing initiatives on this one platform?

itunes-targetIn late 2008, Target launched its native iPhone app. The application allowed iPhone users to describe their intended gift recipient using four criteria, and then shake the phone for a random gift idea from Target. Of the 243 reviews in iTunes as of today, the average rating is 2.5 out of 5. The largest complaint seems to be that the product listing is limited and you get the same results frequently. It appears the application is intended to offer an entertaining experience, to promote brand awareness. If you’ve used the UrbanSpoon iPhone app, you’re familiar with the interaction. Yet UrbanSpoon allows the user to explore and learn – it leverages the geolocation of the user to suggest restaurants relevant to their selected criteria. With the Target branded app, you have to have already committed to accepting suggestions of Target products. Personally, I do not see much benefit in this application.

Walmart iPhone AppWithin the past few weeks WalMart has released their own iPhone application. The Valentine’s Day themed “Blow a Kiss” application allows users to “Blow a Kiss” into the iPhone to send love messages via email, or “receive great gift ideas” from Walmart. Like the Target application, the reviews have not been particularly positive, perhaps prompting the question if native iPhone applications are really a good channel for retailers.

Beyond the lackluster response to their iPhone app, Walmart has definitely adopted a strong mobile strategy. For Holiday 2007 and 2008, they sent out specials via SMS. They had hundreds of thousands of subscribers. Unlike the iPhone applications listed above, that seemed primarily intended to entertain and allow the user to engage with the brand, the SMS campaign was quite obviously intended to drive traffic into Walmart stores. The use of SMS created a sense of urgency, ideal for a mobile campaign.

While text messaging may seem downright “low-tech” compared to the capabilities of an iPhone application, the potential reach of the campaign is worthy of consideration. It is stated that 57% of mobile subscribers 13 and older use text messaging on a regular basis, with hundreds of messages being sent each month.

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Walmart actually has a complete array of Mobile services and offerings. They have also launched a complete mobile content provider offering at wmtmobile.com, and have optimized Walmart.com for iPhone users, with streamlined navigation to the product listing, a store locator and a way to create and save a shopping list. Note, I think this collection of features is very interesting, as I was of the perception that walmart.com and the Walmart stores did not always have the same inventory.

There are many ways to meet consumer needs and increasing desires for mobile-optimized experiences. Native iPhone applications, mobile web apps and SMS are only a few of the options in considering a mobile marketing campaign. Ultimately it comes down to recognizing what you hope to achieve, and finding a way to reach the audience you need to, and provide them with the value they expect. Is an application for a single (albeit powerful) platform the way to go?