Four Questions Non-Profits Should Ask Before Jumping Into Mobile Apps

Posted by AnneryanHeatwole on Nov 24, 2010

Mobile applications gets a lot of attention today.  The market is growing every day. Cellular-News recently reported that this quarter’s worldwide smartphone sales increased 96% compared to a similar period last year, and that smartphones now account for nearly 20 percent of worldwide phone sales. Apps are admittedly a great way to reach out to new audiences.

But for non-profits, developing mobile apps can be a tricky undertaking. There’s a lot of hype around apps, and it’s hard to know how to approach the smartphone market. Planning for a mobile app that fits into a non-profit’s mobile communications strategy can make the difference between a great app and an app that doesn’t meet expectations. For non-profits wanting to develop apps, it’s important to make sure that they are meeting a real need – both for the organization and for users. Before launching an app, there are four questions non-profits should ask themselves: 

1. What does the app add to the mobile strategy?

If the app is only offering static information, it’s not doing anything different than a mobile website. Explains Holly Ross, executive director of NTEN, an organization that helps non-profits use technology, “I would definitely want [non-profits] to ask some questions. One of those questions would be, ‘Is this really an app, or is this a mobile website?’ If you’re just providing a list of information, it doesn’t need to be an app and in fact, no one is going to keep using that, they’re just going to go to your website on their smartphone.” 

For organizations that have had success with their mobile website or SMS campaigns, it’s important that the app offers something of added value that a mobile website would not.  NPR is an example of an organization that focused first on building a mobile website for basic news and headlines but when they turned to apps they used them for mobile audio and news delivery. 

2. What do users get out of the app?

The best kind of app creates an experience for the user such as interactive games or geolocation-based information. Says Ross, “The ones that succeed, I think, are the ones that are really focused on ‘what does my stakeholder need, and how can I deliver them that information in mobile format in a way that takes advantage of what mobile has to offer?’”  

Offering users a way to interact with an organization through a mobile application can have positive results. For example, The Monterey Bay Aquarium has an iPhone app called “Seafood Watch” that recommends sustainable seafood choices and offers local recommendations based on the user’s location. The American Cancer Society has an iPhone app that encourages volunteer recruitment, the New York City’s Museum of Modern Art offers an app that acts both as an audio guide to the museum and offers picture tagging, and the American Museum of Natural History that has an app that gives visitors directions based on their location in the museum. These create a richer experience for app users. Ross explains the importance of giving value back to users saying, “There’s got to be some sort of two-way thing going on.”

All of these apps offer something more than a mobile website or SMS campaign could; by reaching out to users with interactive, sometimes location-based, services the organizations are making the most of their foray into the app market. 

3. Who is the audience?

When developing a mobile strategy, it’s important to know the demographics of the audience you’re trying to reach. Nielsen Wire reports that in the U.S., the Apple iPhone OS has 28 percent of the smartphone market, while RIM's BlackBerry has a 30 percent marketshare and Google’s Android OS is at 19 percent. And while worldwide smartphone sales are rising at a rapid rate, Nielsen Wire reports that only 28% of Americans have smartphones – so building a robust mobile website could be a better choice if the goal is to reach as many phone users as possible.  Developing an app only for the iPhone could leave out a good percentage of and lready small percentage of smartphone users, and only focusing on apps could leave out users with access to the mobile web. Unless your organization is building apps for all major smartphone handsets, it’s important to know how much of your audience will actually be able to use the app.

4. What is the lifespan of the app?

Developing an app solely for a specific event can be costly, and marketing a specific event with an app won’t encourage users to come back once the event has happened. While repeated use isn’t a necessity for a good app (the previously mentioned museum apps have a high number of one-time users as they are applicable to visitors inside the museums), creating an app that doesn’t offer something fresh to users means that it might not get much attention after the hype wears off. Says Ross, “I think there are specific uses for apps that make them really right for nonprofits  and those will stay around. The geolocation stuff and game play in particular, but the kinds of things that nonprofits are typically pushing to apps now – mobile donations, RSS feeds, that kind of a thing – those will probably move to the mobile web.”

For non-profits that want to develop a great mobile strategy, apps can offer users an interactive, engaging experience. However, apps aren’t a one-stop solution for non-profits, and asking some smart questions can help non-profits make sure that they are building useful services for their users. 

Image via Flickr user liewcf

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