Why apps that fail to reward ultimately end up failing

I was in a client meeting the other day when I was asked a very blunt question. We were talking about behaviour change, gamification and apps. His question was simple. “Why do many apps, gamified or not, suck and fail?”

From a fail point of view, probably the main cause of failure is that no one ever sees them. All the money went on dev with nothing left for promotion, the cause of death for many an app.

The second reason is that the usage opportunities are so narrow there’s little point in having an app. Staying at a hotel chain the other day I was invited to download their app “to chat live with a host”. Really? I can’t just ring room service or talk to the concierge? I’m sure that it does other stuff but if this is their lead functionality, unless I am mainlining this chain’s loyalty programme, that download is never going to happen.

These two are pretty obvious, as are their solution. Don’t spend all the cash on dev, have a plan to promote your app. Don’t develop an app that only you need…

Another fail is the experience itself. This is more subtle…

The experience, particularly in health, may well not be all fun but could be challenging, interesting or even plain hard work at times. The key is that it must be rewarding. This too is a concept clearly understood by the mobile gaming industry. Many games contain an element of the “grind”. This is when, at points during the game, you have to carry out repetitive tasks in order to achieve a better level/equipment/skills which allows more interesting stuff to happen.

The way that this is handled should be of enormous interest to anyone wanting to harness gamification techniques to drive behaviour change. It is well documented that our brains release dopamine – a key reward neurotransmitter – both when we get a reward and/or achieve an objective and in anticipation of that reward or achievement.

It’s easy to see how this could work from a health behaviour change perspective. Starting with simple day-to-day objectives and tiny changes which are rewarded, then building harder to complete multiple missions around diet, smoking, activity, health education etc. with each carrying increasing perceived rewards. The piece about perceived rewards is key. The rewards experienced via dopamine can be triggered virtually as effectively as in reality.  This explains why so many millions of hours have been eaten by Candy Crush Saga™…

So the three main answers to my client’s question are as follows:

  1. they’re invisible
  2. they’re not useful
  3. they’re not rewarding

You might just survive getting one wrong (as long as it’s not the first one) but good luck surviving two!


The Fall and Rise of Useful Advertising

Remember when programmatic was going to effortlessly turn DDA (digital display advertising) into a push-button instant revenue generator for clients, agencies and media owners alike? As we all know, this prophecy hasn’t quite turned out as many would have hoped. But fear not. As Joe Hoyle explains, the digital world is well-served by opportunities to fulfil everyone’s and every brand’s qualities and ambitions.

Programmatic tools were widely deemed to be the promised land for digital display advertising (at least that’s what the media industry wanted us to believe).

However, it didn’t count on the power of consumers to deploy their own new set of powerful tools, effectively enabling them to ’cock a snook’ at the advertisers and their agencies who were producing a glut of ubiquitous, lazy creative that followed them around the web like a bad smell.

And it’s a real shame, because brands can most certainly advertise, entertain and sell products and services, whilst still delivering useful customer experience as added value that will engage the audience.

Back in 2008, online display advertising was starting to get really interesting – both technologically and creatively. There was an opportunity to start delivering real, tangible super-rich customer experiences inside new, larger-format display units that could be targeted to specific users and even personalised in terms of their content. In parallel, programmatic media buying was gathering pace.

Things were looking up for advertisers. They were about to be armed with tools that would allow them to buy media on the fly at much better value, target more accurately and progressively re-message to encourage consumers further into the purchase funnel. We were even starting to look at producing commerce-enabled campaigns.

A step back

However, things didn’t go exactly to plan. It quickly became obvious that the new media technologies couldn’t serve or interrogate the more advanced and intelligent creative that was being produced. As a result, the industry ditched creative innovation in favour of simply following the media money until advertisers became disgruntled with the return to basic creative messaging and a meaningless 0.01% CTR.

The stark legacy of this practise is an industry that has clearly become more and more inward-looking over the last few years. Also, it has completely disregarded the audience and, in turn, its clients’ needs. What it also precipitated was a general widening in the gap between the creative and planning departments.

An integrated approach

So what’s the answer to this? First and foremost, we need to adopt a completely new creative approach to digital advertising… one that intelligently combines all tools at the disposal of creatives and planners and encourages them to work more closely to realise digital’s true potential. Hopefully, campaigns will then become much more integrated, using a combination of channels and mobile devices as a enablers rather than standalone channels.

Putting users first for Vodafone McLaren Mercedes

In our experience, the best results come when campaigns put users’ needs at the forefront of the strategic planning phase.

When the Vodafone McLaren Mercedes F1 team approached us a few years ago, they initially wanted us to stream a selection of HD videos inside our proprietary display unit. They wanted to create a distributable channel inside a media unit that could be seeded in paid media and blogs then shared across fledgling social media and earned, free media.

This was all well and good (not to mention also being a media first) but something was missing. We felt that the audience we were targeting would be more engaged with another data set that was available. So, we set about taking the difficult steps to persuade the racing team to provide is with the live telemetry from the two McLaren cars of Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button. And it worked.

Over an extended campaign of four years using essentially the same unit with updated functionality and content – much like an app these days – we delivered 10% interaction rates and astounding 32-minute interaction time during practice, qualifying and race sessions.

Lessons we’d all do well to learn

There are several key take-outs from our work for Vodafone Maclaren Mercedes, and subsequent campaigns that still ring true.

First, campaigns don’t just have to advertise, they have to engage and fulfil.

In the campaign for Vodafone Maclaren Mercedes,  the content channel was as critical as the content itself. As someone once said, “if no-one can hear you scream, you may as well whisper for help!”.

Secondly, programmatic and fast-pace retargeting deliver highly-sought efficiencies for clients and their brands – the real challenge is to reignite a passion for innovative and successful advertising that engages within this landscape.

Finally, and possibly most importantly, people – be they customers or marketers – will always find a way around limitations. The best way to make this work is to collaborate, co-create and re-imagine together.

Read the full Vodafone McLaren Mercedes case study

The Brand Frying Pan and the Motorbike Helmet

Imagine a land where marketers wandered around town centres armed with frying pans, embossed with their brand names, with which they smashed in the face anyone they met going about their business. Not surprisingly, the denizens of this land went and bought motorcycle helmets.

Immediately the marketers launched a campaign to have the helmet shop closed down.

Welcome to the “through the looking glass” world of ad blocking. As consumers (..people?) we are exposed to a lot of truly awful mobile ads. Ah, the cry goes up but it is advertising that pays for much of the lovely content that you ingrates consume. And this is true. 

But, it is not the great content or even good ads that has got us here. If they were all we were exposed to, no one would ever need or want  an ad blocker. 

One of the biggest drivers of this behaviour is our obsession with quantity and measurability and our neglect of what quality of experience do we wish our audience to have. There are few things in the world that you can annoy people into buying – except maybe an ad blocker.

Using hyper-rationalised approaches to marketing is very enticing. We have what we feel is predictability and control, which becomes self-reinforcing and comforting. We can base our actions on what the numbers say and, when things don’t go as expected why, we can explain that too with the numbers  – there is a self-referential certainty to it all.  It’s all under our control and we get real time feedback so that each little achievement releases a bit of dopamine in our left brain. Which makes us feel very good. For a short time. So we go back for more. Sound familiar? It should, it’s the basis for addiction.

This is not to say that measurability and scale aren’t good things, they are. In the right proportion and as part of a holistic view of what is going on they are incredibly powerful. One of the simplest things we can try is the use of empathy (not sympathy – although that may well be appropriate in some cases) – how do we really think they are feeling about their overall experience of us and our brand.

If they are over-relied upon or used alone however, well… Welcome to brand frying pan land where the helmet shop is the most successful business.