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Are Nonprofits Wasting Time Developing Mobile Apps?

As nonprofit campaigners, it's our job to engage our constituency, move them up the ladder of engagement, and of course raise more money. New tools and mobile apps should always be on our radar. But have nonprofit campaigners in the U.S. been drinking too much Kool-aid these past couple of years and putting too much faith in mobile apps?

Consider what the most popular mobile apps are today. According to a June 2010 Nielsen survey of 4,200 people who had downloaded an application in the past 30 days, games were the most downloaded and followed by music, social networking, news and weather, maps, search, video and movies. I'm fairly confident the majority of downloads had nothing to do with advocacy considering just one year ago, the "All-Time Top 20 Iphone Apps" included IFart, Facebook, IBeer, Google Earth, Super Monkey Ball, The Weather Channel, etc.

Your probably not surprised by these trends, so why are nonprofits so obsessed with developing apps that probably aren't generating much return of an investment? Check out this thought-provoking below post by Lindy Dreyer from SocialFish who cautions nonprofits and associations to put the breaks on developing mobile apps.


Mobile Apps are a Waste of Time for Associations

* deep breath * There. I said it. And I know I’m going to get a lot of grief over it, so let the debate begin.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and my thinking has been influenced by research, including the September Pew Internet report on “The Rise of App Culture,” and a report on global mobile statistics from MobiThinking. I believe that associations need to get mobile right, and fast. I disagree that apps are the answer. Here are five reasons why.

1.) There are too many barriers to using your app
So, first someone has to have a phone that works with native apps–for the most part, that’s an iPhone, Android, Blackberry, and maybe a Windows phone or other smartphone. Then, assuming your app works on all of those phones, they have to download the app. Then they have to USE the app. See? That’s three significant barriers right there.

2.) Popular app types don’t favor association apps
App users heavily favor games, followed by news/weather, maps, social networking (inflated by successful Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter apps), and music. To me, these are lifestyle apps, and each of these categories will be dominated by the big players in those spaces. I could never advise an association to try to compete for mobile app users in any of these niches.

3.) Association members are not ready yet
According to Pew, only 29 percent of adults with cell phones use apps on their phone, compared with 72 percent who use SMS (text messaging) and 38 percent who access the internet. App users skew younger and male, too. If we’re fishing where our fish are, apps are a miss this year.

4.) By the time association members are ready, mobile apps will be on the decline.
According to ABI Research, mobile app downloads are expected to peak in 2013, then start a slow decline. According to their senior analyst, Mark Beccue,

“We see two emerging trends: first, many applications (increasingly built on web standards) will migrate from app stores to regular websites, and for some sites you won’t need an app at all. In addition, more and more popular applications will be preloaded on mobile devices. Social networking apps in particular will be pre-loaded on new products.”

This is important. The first thing people think of when we talk apps is native apps–the ones you download from the App Stores, or the ones that come pre-loaded on your new phone (and pre-loading partnership deals are probably not an option for associations.) But as mobile web browsers and the sites we design for them get more sophisticated, “web apps” will begin to take the place of native apps. If you used http://asae10.org from your mobile phone, you used a web app. And you didn’t need to download anything–you just went to the URL in your mobile web browser. One less barrier. So to be clear in this post, [native app = bad]  and  [web app = good].

5.) There are better ways to invest in mobile this year.
A year from now, building mobile apps will be cheaper and easier. We’ll know more about the market, and there will likely be more of our fish in the sea, so to speak. There will also be more vendors with web app options, rather than native apps. So for this year, where should associations be spending money on mobile? I can think of a few things to invest in…

  • Optimizing website content and user experience for the mobile web
  • Researching member use of mobile (including iPad/tablet),
  • Optimizing email for mobile web
  • Continuing to optimize presence in Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, which have the most popular social networking mobile apps that people are already using.
  • Experiment with opt-in text messaging (especially for event registrants, volunteers, and grassroots advocacy use). Remember, the adoption rate for SMS is 2.5 times the adoption rate for mobile apps.

Think I’m wrong? Then at least test the concept before you commit big dollars to it. Don’t rush in to building apps, and waste resources you need for other kinds of mobile innovation.

More Resources:

Reader Comments (12)

YES.. there is something funky in the Kool-Aid.. Apps are in many ways the way the web is moving, but the average person won't go to the trouble of downloading (and maintaining) an app if it doesn't offer tangible value (or fun like games etc).

I think Apps offer value if they apply to someone's life in a meaningful way, or perform a function that will continually be of value. A good example might be an app that helps you make green choices in the supermarket, or ethical choices in restaurants or when traveling.

Unless the value and the incentives are really there, I think cause driven apps run in to a big barrier of engagement, because people are required to go thru the steps of actually finding and installing the tool in the app store, instead of typing an address into their mobile browser.

There are so many APPs being developed that are simply informational, or exist for a campaign with a finite lifespan, in which case, I think it's better to create a mobile site that is easier to maintain and keep up to date, and usually less expensive to develop. Another advantage is that mobile sites can be easily tailored to various devices. Apps can too, but with a lot more development time and cost.

The other thing to consider is that with the new iPhone software, you can bookmark a web page to your home screen. By creating a mobile-specific icon and a good alert when the person first hits your mobile site encouraging them to do so, you can effectively create a web-based "app".
November 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSteve Rio
Regardless of the trend for native vs web Apps, I think we also need to recognize the quality of the App itself. Apps that provide information, access or functionality that is timely, relevant and valuable are useful and become part of people's habits. Too many Apps that I have experienced don't make my life easier; they expect me to care enough to make an extra effort or seem to have no regard for how a user actually behaves. Essentially, the App sucks.

An App that sucks is a waste of time and effort, whether you are a not-for-profit or not. Not-for-profits need to make sure the App and the user experience are going to accomplish what they expect, and don't let the people who sell App development tell them it will.
November 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterStephen
I see no purpose in an app from nonprofit. An app has to do something for me like providing me with amusement, information, and/or productivity. I can see investing in other mobile technology such as sms test messaging as a way to further their mission.
November 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAnn Marie van den Hurk
I agree with most of what's said, we developed an app for a campaign last year that was mostly a flop - though our colleagues didn't hold that against us as the whole campaign was about innovation in tech, trying new things out to see what worked, supporting movement building, and creating a perception that the movement was everywhere. On those metrics, it was a modest investment and modest success, or, at least, not a massive failure. Would I do it again? Probably not, at least not without doing more member research as is suggested here.

But let's not be too negative. Monterrey Bay Aquarium's sea choices app rocks! I'm sure there are others out there that do.
November 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJason Mogus
I disagree that apps are a bad idea for all nonprofits -- if nonprofits are able to turn their advocacy and information into useful resources or fun gameplay there's great value in having an app that works with your nonprofit location, museum or center. With new DIY publishing tools it can be nearly free to convert your mobile site assets into an application, blending mobile web development and Android/IPhone dev without heavy dev overhead costs. Distribution and adoption then become the big barriers to entry (you are absolutely right here) and nonprofits need to leverage partnerships and use their internal assets to make their apps valuable to their constituents. If the app creates no value there's no reason to create it.

If nonprofits are smart about development they can create a mobile app for less than $50K including time & tech that reaches hundreds of thousands of new clients....that's the cost of one outreach staffer. Building in an effective call to action on top of a fun app is the greater challenge: understanding why your people are engaged in your cause and growing that relationship through ongoing app use (push notifications, badges and achievements, social gaming gifts, virtual goods for aid, etc) along with evolving the app and game to keep it engaging long term.

I use ~20 apps a day along with some mobile web sites and RSS feeds for information: Twitter and FB remain the first places to invest valuable nonprofit energy along with YouTube before making the leap to app development. Mobile websites do not build the same daily visitation habits that games with regular push notifications from an app can do and nonprofits need to think about the sticky engagement factors in all design challenges from web to mobile. There are only a few advocacy/educational apps that I'm using regularly but I am more apt to use an app if it weaves education and gameplay or up-to-the-minute information. We're seeing more nonprofits ready to experiment with game design partnerships, tech toolbuilding and new ways of communicating their core values and I'll be tracking what's working in Causebuilding Games at SXSWi this coming March if you have other great ideas of nonprofits succeeding in this space.

What would work best long term? If Angry Birds and the Avian Welfare Coalition got together.....if Zynga had roped the Red Cross into sharing real information & resources in their games during disaster relief efforts.....if art museums gave detailed art tours through a playful app instead of flying half a world away to see an art collection up close. I think we need these kind of mashups between commercial gameplay and real world action to see measurable results from mobile cause building campaigns.
November 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterEvonne @amoration
Evonne, I suspect that you are an early adapter and love to play with new tools and apps that you find helpful and fun. For a nonprofit to spend $50K to build an app is a serious investment just to experiment with and see if will fly with their supporters. I think most of the apps that nonprofits have built have not been successful - mainly because supporters don't find them valuable. However, there are certainly a couple of apps such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Sea Choices app that Jason Mogus mentioned in the comments section that are successful. Why? Because it provides really great value to the organization's supporters by helping them make sustainable restaurant choices. Not only is it great for their supporters but it's a great app for "foodies" and diners who support the local/sustainable movement. Thanks for sharing your mashup ideas. I like them.
November 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAllyson Kapin
The main point I am taking away is that if you are going to build a mobile app for your cause, you have to do it well. It is clear that people are spending more and more time using mobile apps and they spend the most time on apps that are most interesting and relevant go their lives. The best choice is not to stay totally out of the sea, it is to be the best fisherman in it. The fact is that the fish are there and ready to be engaged with.

A nonprofit app that has been made particularly well is IJM Mobile for the iPhone. In addition to the iPhone app there is also a mobile site: http://mobile.ijmmobile.org

I think there is a lot of potential in what IJM has done here.
November 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLK
Hey Allyson,
I think the best way for non profits to approach the mobile trend is to go with mobile webapps, since its cost effective, easy to maintain and work on almost all platforms. We are starting a campaign for non profits organisations, so they can create and monetize their mobile sites for free on our platform. You might want to take a look at www.gmbhnews.net , it's idiot proof and one of the easiest and fastest way to create a mobile optimized version of a website.
November 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChristina
We’re always interested to read perspectives on the changing information environment, but we’re surprised how negative you are about the future of mobile apps for Associations.

As a digital and mobile publishing provider with more than 60 magazine-branded apps in the iTunes Store, we find that Association publishers are among our most enthusiastic clients. When they see how Texterity’s mobile magazine apps can brand their association, be updated with live feeds, enriched with video, and downloaded for enjoyment “in airplane mode,” they are quick to recognize the potential in member acquisition, retention, and service. Additionally, mobile apps produced by Texterity are far more affordable than independent pursuits and can build on existing digital edition files.

As for “mobile barriers,” please note that subscribers with any modern, web-enabled device can access streamlined “mobile editions” of their favorite magazines – no download required.

With regard to your assessment about “app types,” we have to disagree. When the nation’s largest publisher -- (AARP) -- comes to us to create 3 magazine apps, it’s hard to ignore the trend. They are not only using apps to better serve their members but to dispel stereotypes about “senior citizens.” http://www.aarp.org/about-aarp/press-center/info-09-2010/AARPDebutsFourAppsforiPhoneiPadandiPodtouch.html

As for the prospect of rev gen, Media Post’s Research Center has just offered some exciting information. They estimate the United States has a mobile population exceeding 300 million and a mobile internet user base about to surpass 100 million. They report:
“A nationally-representative survey of US mobile phone users conducted by Lightspeed Research for mobileSQUARED, revealed that 49 million of US mobile users have engaged with an advertisement of some description on their mobile phone.
• 12.3 million mobile users ‘have clicked on the advertisement and went on to purchase an item’
• 7.82 million mobile users have ‘clicked on the advertisement and looked at the item advertised on their mobile phone and ended up buying it online’ “

In the Association world, this “advertisement” could promote membership, a trade show, an annual meeting, whitepaper, professional development course, or even branded merchandise.

To think that this powerful base of mobile users does not include association leaders and members seems rather short-sighted. Perhaps your colleagues will be encouraged by association peers who have embraced digital solutions and are now looking toward mobile delivery. Check out http://info.texterity.com/info/associations?fm=2#pg1

Our own BPA-certified research, available free at http://www.texterity.com/info-request, shows a strong interest among digital readers for mobile delivery and social media integration. In tracking the performance of our first iPhone app (though granted, produced for a guitar magazine, not an association), early metrics support the efficacy of mobile magazine apps. Flurry Analytics (April, 2010) revealed:
• The mobile app reader spends an average 21 minutes per session, compared to 6 minutes spent in a typical B2B web edition or 4 minutes on a B2B website.”
• Mobile app readers typically enjoy 5 sessions compared to 1.2 for B2B web edition readers or 2 sessions for B2B website visitors.
• Mobile app engagement impact was more than 13 times the investment made in typical web sites or web editions.

But don’t take our word for it. Please see what FOLIO: has to say in their comprehensive Association report: http://www.foliomag.com/2010/2010-association-publishing-survey Rebecca Rolfes, founder and EVP of Imagination Publishing, is quoted as saying, “My personal feeling is that the mobile space is where it will go for associations.”

Sounds good to us.
December 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJill Baker
I think with more than 60 million smart phones in the US, the market for those using apps is huge, so I disagree that they're a waste of time - especially for non-profits. If you do it right, the potential for success is most certainly there.
December 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterWill
I'm in complete agreement. Several clients have approached us asking for their own iphone our android app. My first response is always "why a mobile app vs a universally-available, non-device-dependent mobile website?"

With the exception of a few ideas which could only be achieved with an app, a mobile website always ended up being the best solution.

December 28, 2010 | Unregistered Commentersquare
I think the decision isn't whether or not associations should invest in app development, but what types of apps they should develop. It's the intended use that will determine an app's applicability to your members and ultimately its popularity.

For associations whose vision is to use apps for information access will probably miss the mark. Mobile websites are a much better bet for that. Apps that are about your association and its activities will have limited appeal.

Productivity apps that are about what your members do every day at work will be big winners. Make an element of their day-to-day job faster, easier or possibly even more fun, and the association will be their new BFF.

And truly useful, applicable, productivity apps take a great deal more work in the R&D phase. The resource allocation is greater, but so is the payoff.
January 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLinda Ridge

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