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Apps don’t Magically Increase Reach

Apps are supposed to be magical. Well, not so much magical as they are a supposedly a requirement for most businesses, the main way to get in front of users whose time is increasingly dominated by mobile.

Admittedly, I feel a little schadenfreude whenever evidence points to the contrary, a big part of it coming from my own background in web technologies and my belief in the web in general. I’m always astounded by the disconnect between the time spent on mobile, and how few players seem to actually benefit from making the move. People aren’t understanding what makes mobile work1, but they want to follow the trends anyway.

So it’s not terribly surprising that app usage follows the Power Law, in that only five chosen apps are used by most users:

Based on this data and other findings in the new report, Forrester advises businesses to design their apps only for their best and most loyal or frequent customers – because those are the only one who will bother to download, configure and use the application regularly.

Intuitively, these findings make sense: apps are a powerful channel for retention and frequent usage, but they’re terrible for discovery and acquisition, both because the app stores make it hard to find apps, and the cost of installing an app is too high if the user isn’t already invested. It’s one of the primary reasons why those in-browsers banners that nag for an app install are so annoying; the accompanying app is completely irrelevant to most users of the site, and even getting the install is no guarantee of actual use afterwards.

The lesson here is that while apps can reinforce existing user behavior and enhance the user experience, they’re not a substitute for acquiring users or building brands via non-app means2.


  1. Cue the same frenzy and learning process with watch and wearable apps.

  2. The glaring exception here are apps built for businesses which are mobile-only, either because they make use of the phone’s sensors (e.g., Uber, Move) or the mobile killer app, chat (e.g., Snapchat, WhatsApp).

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