The single-app strategy: Yes or no?

A question we often get at Localytics: Does it make sense to have a single-app strategy, i.e. one main app where your customers engage with your brand/product at a single destination? Or is it better to have 5-10 apps that are incredibly specific to a product or offering? We’ve worked with companies that do both.

Mobile app(s) should be a large piece of your and how customers interact with, and perceive, your brand. It speaks to all four buckets of intelligent digital engagement.

Let’s use some big retailers here. Target, for example, at one point had these notable apps:

  • The main Target app
  • Healthful (pharmacy)
  • Registry (bridal and baby)
  • Cartwheel (discount offers)
  • Target Connected (lights system)

This was the full roster as of about early 2017. Since then, Healthful has been shut down and Cartwheel was folded into the main app. Much of the broader Target shopping experience is now in the main app, although Registry and Connected also still exist.

One of Target’s biggest competitors, Wal-Mart, made a similar play: the brand has  two apps, one for general shopping and one for e-commerce grocery.

So if the big brands of retail are consolidating towards one app, should you? A look at the pros and cons:

Internal capacity: Maintaining 5-10 specific apps requires a lot of marketing and development muscle. There’s a lot of resourcing, budgeting, and general time management that needs to be done. Working on 5-10 apps is time-consuming and takes time away from other business priorities.

Loyalty: Merging makes sense to drive loyalty towards the brand to 1-2 central places; that’s believed to be the reason Target folded Cartwheel into the main app, for example. Increased loyalty typically leads to increased sales, and that’s the underlying goal of these decisions.

How specific are your offerings? If you offer very distant products/services under the same brand, well, then it can be valuable to differentiate. In Target’s case above, people looking for deals (Cartwheel) are not the same audience as people looking for baby registries, necessarily. But as most brands have products and services that are closely related, consolidation can make sense.

User experience: If user experience is very important to you (it should be), and you have the internal capacity to manage multiple apps, a multi-app strategy might be more beneficial. The experience will be better for that specific product/service, as opposed to jamming lots of products/services into a main app, which can make things harder to find and reduce the user’s experience with the app. (See also: load/launch times are usually faster for each app in a multi-app strategy than “one app to rule them all.”)

Downloads can suffer: Look at some download data for Carousel, which was a separate app under Dropbox that they eventually discontinued:

Screenshot 2019-06-18 at 11.21.52 AM

When you have multiple apps, in terms of capacity you now need multiple marketing strategies to make sure users see a need to have 2, 3, 4, etc. apps on their phone from the same brand. It’s easy for 1 or 2 of these apps to have terrible, or quickly-declining, download numbers.

How logical is the separation? Google Drive and GMail, as one example, almost must be separate apps. But did Facebook and Facebook Messenger need to be? While you can argue having Messenger as a standalone app made it faster and made messaging a more central component of how you interact with Facebook, when those apps were initially decoupled, people did not see the value. If you’re going to have multiple apps, make sure it’s easy to explain/brand/message to users why they need to download each of the apps in your world.

Once you decide which way you want to go, get all-in from Day 1. The biggest challenge will be internal capacity; this is true for almost every client we’ve worked with on single-app vs. multi-app. If you have the budget and marketing and development resources to maintain multiple apps and can deliver a strong customer experience , great! Proceed with a multi-app strategy if your products and offers differ enough. If you lack internal capacity or all services within your brand are similar, a single-app strategy is typically a better choice.

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