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Your App Is Not Your Business

by Duncan Blair, Invoke / December 17, 2015

Note: This blog entry is available in English only.

 

“My business is an app that does something.”

No, it isn’t.

Your business is not an app, anymore than it is a telephone call, an email, a retail store, a person interrupting you as you stroll through the mall, or an SMS.

Your business is much more than that. Your business is the value that you exchange with your customers. It is your reputation. Your brand. The feeling that you give people following your interaction or transaction.

By decoupling this value from the channel, or channels, that you use to deliver it you are able to leverage additional, even better channels to build relationships with your customers.

“Invisible Apps”

 

It seems that 2015 has been the year of invisible apps. These apps leverage existing channels and platforms as their interface – things like email, SMS, Slack or Facebook Messenger. The familiarity of the existing channel or platform helps drive adoption (see Nir Eyal’s excellent California Roll rule).

We are starting to see tech startups understand that their business is not defined by their distribution, and mature beyond the mindset where innovation is synonymous with technology.

Partly, this is a result of understanding the way that people currently behave, then specifically solving for these points of friction. Success is less about technology, and more about genuine insight.

While this has recently garnered a lot of attention, it is not a new phenomenon. Yelp started as an email newsletter and evolved into a website and app. So did ProductHunt. Frank & Oak were initially online only, and are now adding retail locations. Nearly 100 years earlier, Sears was mail order only before they expanded to brick and mortar locations. The only surprising thing about the recent popularity of invisible apps as a distribution platform is that it took so long to get here.

A Trojan Horse for Business to Business

 

If your business is serving other businesses – particularly technology companies – I cannot imagine a better platform for distribution than Slack. By hitching your wagon to that rocketship disguised as a platform, you can integrate your value-exchange into the lives of millions of workers at hundreds of thousands of businesses around the world. Startups like Large (your team’s personal assistant) and Roomino (travel booking) are working exclusively in this space. While others like SupportKit (customer interaction and communication) and Meekan (scheduling assistant) are using Slack to expand their reach.

Instantly Ingrained in Peoples’ Lives

 

On the other hand, if you are looking to better serve consumers, look to the platforms and channels that are already deeply ingrained in their lives. Since your business is not your distribution channel, think about what your customers use to solve problems on a day-to-day basis: SMS, email, Facebook Messenger, Google Calendar, Twitter, and more. There are hundreds of examples of businesses doing interesting things in these spaces, such as:

These businesses are focused in a single “invisible” channel, while others that already have web or mobile apps are adding additional channels to their distribution (Denarri, Luka). Even Domino’s got in on the act with their clever Lion-winning ‘order by emoji’, part of their Domino’s AnyWhere suite of applications aimed at getting pizza in your hands as fast and friction-free as possible.

Brands and products are actively exploring the space, but needs to be figured out? What’s still invisible?

Broad or Narrow Focus?

 

There are a couple of different approaches that business starting as “invisible apps” (i.e. not those adding invisible apps to their existing channels) are taking.

Loosely, these could be described as department vs. speciality store approaches.

On one side, you have businesses like the much-hyped Y-combinator grad Magic (great backstory here), that promises to be an always-on personal assistant, able to help you satisfy (almost) any whim. Need a burrito? Magic can help. Want a tiny great white shark to tickle? They’ll give that a good college try.

Tickle-A-Shark

On the other side, there are specialist services such as Riley, that promise to help you with the undeniably painful task of finding a new apartment, and Miley, who helps you find a job.

While Magic has attracted a lot of attention (for good reason), I tend to think that the more focused, specialized applications are likely to win out in the long term. Increasingly, this will look like service-based industries being virtualized. Think travel agents, recruiters, real estate agents, banking, and personal shoppers.

Evolve Fast or Evolve Faster?

 

Most businesses in this space have evolved to include additional channels over time, usually building their own proprietary platforms. Look no further than the aforementioned Yelp, ProductHunt, and Sears.

Often, the right channel or platform for distribution depends on the context of consumption. Building a gif search on top of Twitter (Slashgif) makes sense, given that sharing gifs on Twitter is popular. Providing a virtual assistant to an office through Slack (Large) makes sense, because that is where your real assistant would be.

But what if there are multiple contexts for consumption? Or your audience has multiple different channel preferences?

More recently, Fooji has gone from originally being Twitter-only, to now offering an SMS option.

The question is, how quickly does this need to happen? Does the simplicity, and occasional novelty, of the single-simple-channel business help fuel growth? Or do consumers quickly crave additional fidelity that can be provided in a fully-fledged app, website, or even physical store?

My hunch is that answer will vary wildly based on the vertical that the business is trying to tackle, the variety of contexts that the brand can meaningfully extend into, and the actual utility of the channel for that vertical.

Things are about to get even more interesting

 

This is just the beginning. The coming of the personal assistants (choose your favourite flavour from Apple’s Siri, Google Now, Microsoft’s Cortana, Amazon’s Alexa, and Facebook’s recent debut of M) means that we are about to see a whole lot more invisible apps – both standalone, and as part of larger channel strategies for established brands.

I am excited about what this means, and I think there is a huge opportunity for both established brands and new disruptive companies to think about the simplest possible interaction that is representative of their value proposition. This is a huge design challenge, and one that gives me (and most of the Invokers I speak with about it) goosebumps.

Remember, your business is not an app. Your business can, and should, live across those channels through which you can build relationships and deliver value to customers with the least friction, be that SMS, email, mobile app, face-to-face or via drone. By effectively decoupling the value you provide customers from the channel through which you provide that value, you are helping remove barriers to your business growth. All while expanding the audience(s) you are able to reach.

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