Lessons From App-Land

November 7, 2012
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Paul Jacobs took a few minutes out of his hectic schedule to offer his thoughts as our jacAPPS division reaches another milestone.  Here are his perspectives about how the mobile space has evolved and exploded over the past four years.

Four years ago this week, we took our own advice.  We had been advising our radio clients about the necessity of making the digital transition, backed by our Techsurvey data going back to 2005.  But in the midst of the worst economic downturn in our lifetimes, investment in digital assets became a very slippery slope.

Despite the logic to the contrary, we ignored the economic winds, followed our guts, and began our quest to become mobile application developers.  Not surprisingly, we started developing for radio stations, because it is our core business, and an industry where we saw the greatest potential.

In 2008, radio was losing the portability battle to the iPod.  You didn’t see people walking around carrying Sony Walkmans.  Another key plank in radio’s business model was under attack.

But a mobile app that provided a station’s stream (and soon, much more) on smartphones seemed like a smart idea, so we took the plunge and started jacAPPS.

Many of you might not know this, but when we announced the formation of jacAPPS, it actually had no employees.  Tim Davis (who had the brainstorm in the first place), Fred, and I were the only people involved.  The actual app development was done by a guy named “Stormy” who lives on the East Coast.  We honestly had no idea what we were getting into.

Within a few weeks we knew we had hit a home run.  In the last eight weeks of 2008, we sold 20 apps, and by the following July, jacAPPS began hiring dedicated staff and took app development in-house.  Today, we have a 100% “Pure Michigan” team that does great work custom creating and innovating apps not only for radio, but for virtually any category you can think of.

jacAPPS has developed close to 750 apps.  We are the largest mobile app developer in the State of Michigan (OK, multi-national Compuware claims that mantle, too), and a leader in mobile apps for the radio industry.  And while these are great statements to make, we have also learned a lot, made our share of mistakes, taken many chances, learned from them, adjusted, re-launched, tweaked, and everything else you can think of to take advantage of a rapidly shifting, dynamic marketplace.  Or to quote Mark Zuckerberg, we adhered closely to the “Hacker Way.”

So instead of patting ourselves on the back or spraying each other with champagne, we thought we’d mark our fourth birthday by sharing some of what we’ve learned on the road to 750 apps:

  1. If you aren’t in the game, get into it quickly.  I don’t think we’ve ever seen a product category explode so rapidly, much less have tectonic impact on virtually all of society – individuals, families, businesses, and organizations.
  2. Apps aren’t static.  Even if you start off with an app with a few basic functions, don’t stop there.  This is a fluid space.  Your audience’s needs change, and it’s important to keep your app fresh.  And by the way, every time you re-launch your app it goes to the top of the list in New Releases in iTunes – a great way to garner new attention and downloads.
  3. Don’t stop marketing.  Too many radio stations promote their apps for a few weeks and then move on to the next bright shiny object.  There are new smartphone owners in your market emerging every day, excited to download all these cool apps.  Think of them as potential new cumers who just moved into town.  You need to create a constant reminder about your app on the air, on your website, as well as via email and social.  These people aren’t buying radios, but many are buying their first smartphone – or tablet.
  4. Focus on a feature.  We’ve seen downloads jump when a station promotes a specific app feature instead of just the stream.  One jacAPPS client focused on the alarm clock looking to create that “First Occasion” opportunity by promoting the ability to wake up with their favorite station.  Other stations rotate features they promote, which keeps their app sounding fresh and updated.
  5. Keep it simple.  The biggest mistake that brands make is cramming too much content into their app.  In other words, don’t try to stuff your website into a mobile phone.  The best apps are those that satisfy one or two specific needs – things the audience can enjoy and appreciate.  Your listeners interact with you differently when out-and-about with their smartphone, compared with how they use you in front of a computer or listening to you on a conventional radio.  Get rid of the superfluous content in apps, and focus on what’s most essential.  Your app will be cleaner, more efficient, and more successful as a result.
  6. Ask the audience.  We’ve been fortunate to work with a number of clients that have conducted research prior to deciding on the specifics of their apps.  More companies need to go this route.  We encourage brands to bring in listeners that own smartphones and not only talk to them about what they want, but have them play with selected apps to identify the best design, the most desirable features, and other information that can take an average app and turn it into a great one.  Usability studies are a great learning tool that can lead to a more effective mobile outcome.
  7. Apps should be a cume-builder.  When we first started building apps, our assumption was that smartphones were great receivers.  Today, we know they are also a powerful bridge for sharing your content.  Everybody in the audience has their own audience, so today, when we design an app with branded content (blogs, podcasts, news stories, events), we encourage users to post it on Facebook, share it on Twitter, and email it to friends.  There is no greater compliment to your brand than a fan who wants to share it with others.  A great app allows this to happen seamlessly and naturally.
  8. Apps generate revenue.  While many are fixated on banner ads, we believe there are more effective options that have nothing to do with CPMs.  Because of the flexibility of apps, solutions include sponsorship, sponsored content, and client-generated features that are valuable to mobile users (like ordering a pizza for delivery).  Stations should also consider creating apps designed for their major events, as well as for popular segments of their station’s life group (apps for moms, entertainment guides, ski reports, concert listings, etc.).
  9. Whenever possible, do something unique or fun.  We like apps that pass the “two guys sitting at a bar” test.  You know, where one guy says to the other guy, “Hey, have you seen the WXXX app?”  When that happens, you’ve got a winner.  Every radio station has something special – a personality, feature, morning show, event, or tradition that can be translated to a cool application.  Your app should embody that aspect of your station and have it featured prominently.  This creates a high level of engagement as well as repeat visits.

Bonus prediction:  Get ready for the car.  Readers of this blog know that we’ve focused heavily on the changes that are upon us with the connected car.  The way that users access audio content is undergoing a revolution unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.  And smartphones and mobile apps are going to represent the ultimate solution for stations’ ability to stay present in the car of the future.  Broadcasters need to take the digital dash revolution seriously, just as we have at both Jacobs Media and jacAPPS.

We’ve learned a lot over the past four years, and we can guarantee that there are many lessons ahead.  The mobile space isn’t static.  New devices with more advanced technology are on the horizon.  And we’ll keep up with it because mobile presents a huge opportunity for broadcasters – probably more than any other digital platform out there.

So before we pop some champagne, a few thank you’s.  First, to the hundreds of clients from around the world who have entrusted their mobile app strategy to jacAPPS, we thank you.  Special mention goes to Greater Media’s Tom Bender and his boss, Peter Smyth, for having the courage and vision (and budget) to commit to the first apps that we built.  And to Entercom’s Tim Murphy and Ken Beck (and their boss, David Field), for having the confidence to select jacAPPS as their app developer while we were still a young company.  We couldn’t have done it without you.

And oh, by the way, it’s pronounced “JAKE-apps.”

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6 Responses to Lessons From App-Land

  1. [...] Paul has worked up quite a bit of knowledge about making a successful app. In a recent post on jacoBLOG Paul decided he’d share “some of what we’ve learned on the road to 750 apps.” [...]

  2. dave presher on November 11, 2012 at 12:20 PM

    Great blog! Very well done and well said!

    • Paul Jacobs on November 11, 2012 at 1:17 PM

      Thanks, Dave. As I said in the post, we’ve made mistakes, learned, adjusted, and continue to “fall forward.” It’s a great space to be in and I can’t wait to add new lessons when we hit 1,000 apps!

    • Fred Jacobs
      Fred Jacobs on November 12, 2012 at 5:58 PM

      Thanks, Dave. Much appreciated.

  3. Sweet Dreams | jacoBLOG on December 3, 2012 at 6:11 AM

    [...] Dreams December 3, 2012By Fred Jacobs When jacAPPS celebrated its fourth anniversary last month, it brought back memories of conversations I was having around that time with clients, [...]

  4. [...] With Their Cell Phone? You Might Be Surprised 0By jacAPPS | December 3rd, 2012 When jacAPPS celebrated its fourth anniversary last month, it brought back memories of conversations I was having around that time with clients, [...]

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