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(originally published by Booz & Company)


Dialing for Dollars with Phone Apps

To establish whether participants’ attitudes toward brands changed after they used the apps, the researchers had participants complete an online survey about 10 days before the experiment. In addition to answering questions about whether they owned and used a smartphone, they indicated how often they used products in the categories represented by the eight brands. Finally, the researchers used an 11-point scale to measure the participants’ attitudes and purchase intentions toward two brands from each of the eight product categories: the test brand and a competitor’s brand.

During the experiment, participants were presented with the eight apps in random order. They were required to interact with each app, and could do so for however long they wished. Over the course of the session, the researchers tracked the participants’ heart rate. Previous research has shown that when people are focused externally (playing a board game, for instance), their heart rate slows down, whereas when they are engaged in something that requires greater introspection (trying to answer a question, say, or research an issue), the rate increases. The researchers wanted to see if this difference would extend to app usage.

After interacting with the last of the eight apps, the participants took a survey that again measured their degree of engagement with the eight product categories, along with their attitude and purchase intentions toward the brands.

The researchers found that in general, the phone apps made the participants think more favorably not only of the brands, but also of the overall product categories they represented. This latter finding was unexpected and potentially significant: Apps could be a way for advertisers to reach across traditional product or gender boundaries to appeal to new types of customers.

There was, however, only a small shift in participants’ intentions to actually buy a product from the app’s sponsor. And not all branded apps had the same effectiveness. Applications that employed an informational style were more successful at making people want to buy one of the brand’s products. Additionally, although there was no significant difference in the heart rates of women when they used the two types of apps, male participants had much faster heart rates when using informational apps, suggesting they were “focusing attention internally and thereby encouraging the generation of personal connections with the brand.”

The authors conclude that because many people view their smartphones as extensions of themselves, packed with personal data and customized interfaces, branded apps could be a highly effective form of advertising. Smartphones follow consumers wherever they go, and branded apps are all the more powerful because it is the consumer who decides whether to download and opt in. Unlike pushy messages, such as those delivered by television commercials or text messages, apps can subtly improve consumers’ attitudes in a format they want to see and use.

But the researchers caution that the study also implies that successful apps are hard to produce. “Designing an informational app that consumers find useful in their daily lives is a lot more difficult than building an experiential app by creating or adapting an interactive game,” they write. It requires a larger budget of time and money. But if the end result is something useful to consumers, apps could be “one of the most powerful forms of advertising yet developed.”

Bottom Line:
Using branded mobile phone applications increases consumers’ positive attitudes toward a brand. In addition, apps can boost people’s impressions of an entire product category, making them a potentially useful way of reaching new consumers. Informational apps, which help people solve problems or gather data, are the most likely to improve a brand’s bond with consumers because of the personal connection that is forged.

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