Thursday, 2 June 2011

Charity apps - to do or not to do

In the past few days I had a number of discussions with colleagues about smartphone apps - should charities do them or not?

We ended up with two schools of thought:

1) you build an app which people will find genuinely useful and will fire it up every now and then. Example of such apps are - Water Aid's toilet finder, Marie Curie's tea app, MacMillan app that helps you find an independent coffee shop where you are, St John's ambulance first aid app.
2) you build an app which will serve up your content in a simple, clear, easy to navigate way, much neater than your website - such as the latest app (US only), Amnesty International app (AI candle) or Red Nose Day.

Plus in both scenarios if the app is new, cool and everyone is talking about it - you get PR. Think Ihobo app.

I personally favour the first school of thought and see the logic in the PR argument although would think twice before investing a lot of money.

Just optimise for mobile

And here's why - there are three main barriers with apps:

1) people need to download them
2) they need to actively open them
3) and sometimes, they need to actively update them to get new content

This assumes a good amount of enthusiasm and some kind of need at user end.
And this is where I usually have a reality check......

We know that most of website content comes through our own marketing push through email, online advertising, PPC, media stories and now more and more through social media. With apps, at the moment, we don't have this mechanism unless people allow push notifications (and I am not sure how many people really keep them on).

So the user journey you have is:
User receives email, they pick it up on their mobile phone, they click on the link and...... they end up on your website... Which is ok, but not that easy to use as links are tiny and you can't press the link easily etc etc... User needs to be really keen to go and fire up the app in order to access that content...

Much better investment of time and money is to just optimise your emails and websites for mobile.

Apps graveyard

There is a graveyard of apps out there - most popular and used are games, and even only few of those catch on. In summary - really really difficult market.

Saying this, I think Red Nose Day app worked really well, but it had a clear ambition to serve a specific audience that they know they have access to for a limited period of time.

Also, there is no doubt that some charities have a very committed supporter base who will happily use their favourite charity app because it does something they need.

All in all it does come down to the basics of developing any digital/comms product - you need to clarify what your objectives are, what does success look like, how you'll measure it, who is the audience you are aiming the app at and what's their profile, how will you promote your app to that audience, etc etc..


From my experience prices of app development vary wildly and it's all dependant on how much of new design and technical wizardry you need for an app. I think it's best to keep it simple, use features that are well established, tried and tested because if app doesn't work once, that's it - it's unlikely users will try it out again.

Also, my tech colleague has been playing with Iphone app platform and has built some really simple apps. So if this is of interest, it's good to get internal teams to experiment. You just need to register with Apple.

Plus, there is an opportunity to partner an agency who want to do an innovative new thing in this space. As a result, a charity gets a free app and PR and the agency attracts new business :)

There are couple of other articles on this topc from the US which offer some additional insight along these lines:

And in this article they give some more examples and advice

And what about Android?

Keep a watching brief. Android market is not growing as the predictions have you believe and it's mostly because the app market is not managed and it's like Wild West. So a lot of rubbish
out there. Android adoption is on the up no doubt, but if you want to test app market, starting with Apple is probably the best first step. Both developer and consumer markets are more mature and if your apps works in this environment, it will work with Android too.