Is a corporate app right for your business?

Companies in a range of sectors are starting to use apps to communicate with investors, journalists and other audiences. Should your company launch one? And if so, how?

The number of apps on Apple’s App Store grew from zero to half a million in just three years. In 2011, the owners of Apple and Android smartphones and tablet PCs downloaded 25 billion apps, according to estimates from mobile analytics company Flurry – up from just six billion in 2010.

There are apps to aid almost every activity. But are apps a viable tool for communicating financial and other corporate information to an organisation’s stakeholders? Yes, as a growing number of companies are discovering.

The list of companies offering smartphone and tablet apps designed for communicating with investors, analysts, journalists and other regular consumers of corporate information grew steadily during 2011.

Two of the pioneers were Nestlé – which launched the first version of its iPhone corporate app in October 2010, closely followed by iPad and Android versions – and Shell, which also offers apps on both Apple and Android devices.

Today, the list of firms with bespoke corporate apps includes corporate giants Allianz, Cemex, Daimler, Dassault Aviation, Oracle, SAP, Shell, Siemens and Zurich Financial Services. Many more companies have corporate apps in the pipeline and are set to launch them later this year.

Because it’s still early in the history of corporate apps, they vary in performance, quality and usability, says David Bowen, founder of Bowen Craggs & Co., an online effectiveness consultancy.

“There is no standardisation about how users should navigate apps because the technology is new and people are accessing them on different platforms,” he says. “There is no convention as to how people should access the information through the app. Some use drop-down menus, others use clicks, and some, like Oracle’s app, lead you back onto the website and don’t work offline.”

What do corporate apps offer to users?

Nestlé’s app, which attracted 1,000 downloads in its first 12 days and 30,000 downloads in just one year, enables users to access the company’s latest news, press releases, reports, presentations and weekly share buy-back updates.

Shell’s app, which attracted more than 3,500 downloads in its first month, provides access to real-time share price information, quarterly results, annual reports and investor fact sheets. Users can also watch videos and download photographs of the company’s activities around the world.

Siemens’ app is a little different, as it does not contain financial results. Instead, in addition to press releases, it offers a range of content about Siemens’ business activities and an interactive quiz about environmentally friendly cities and other sustainability-related topics that are linked to its commercial interests.

As such, this app is more of a brand-building tool than a financial reporting tool.

Benefits and drawbacks

Apps have one big advantage over mobile versions of websites: their ability to display information to users when they are not connected to the internet.

As long as users have downloaded the latest company information to the app at some point, they can read that information via the app when they are offline during a flight or on a subway train, for example.

The ability to download information in advance and read it offline makes corporate apps ideal tools for regular consumers of information about your company, such as journalists and market analysts, says Amélie Héritier, e-communications manager at Nestlé, who helped to develop the app. But, as Nestlé acknowledges, the need to download an app before it can be used renders apps less suitable for one-off or infrequent consumers of information about a particular company, such as job-seekers.

Héritier says that apps are particularly powerful tools for disseminating concise, time-sensitive forms of financial and other company information, such as the latest share price, news releases and results presentations.

Yet the desktop PC remains investors’, analysts’ and journalists’ preferred medium for consuming more detailed information, such as the annual report, she adds.

Apps have benefits as corporate reporting tools. They can be easy for users to personalise – so investors, journalists and others can choose to receive the information they want, and nothing else. Nestlé’s app, for example, allows users to specify the kind of press releases and news alerts they want to read.

Peter Gough, founder and partner at digital consultancy ORM London, says that it is crucial that companies designing apps give users the opportunity to shape the content that they want to receive. “Users need to be able to stream the content so that they only receive what is relevant to them.

They should also be able to share information or data with colleagues or assistants, post it to corporate or public social networks and liaise via instant message within the app with colleagues.”

The other benefit of corporate apps is that, unlike mobile websites, they give a company a presence on the Apple iTunes store and the Android App marketplace.

And according to Alistair Crane, CEO of app developer Grapple Mobile, apps make financial sense as a low-cost communication tool.

“Cross-platform mobile apps are an effective way of dramatically reducing the print and distribution costs associated with creating and disseminating shareholder information,” he says.

How to get your app right

As developers of one of the world’s first corporate apps, Héritier and her colleagues at Nestlé have learned a number of important lessons about maximising the effectiveness of a corporate app. If your company is thinking of creating an app, it’s well worth bearing the following in mind:

  • Work out which devices your professional audiences own and use, then build versions of your app for the most popular platforms. This is likely to mean building Apple and Android apps. Apps are less popular among BlackBerry users.

  • Build different versions of your app for the iPhone and the iPad. An iPhone app can also work on an iPad, but tablet users’ aesthetic expectations are higher than smartphone users.

  • Instruct the agency or department building your app to embed user analytics functionality at the outset to ensure that you can learn as much as possible about who is using your app, and when and where they are using it.

  • When building Apple and Android apps, be conventional in your use of the navigation buttons on each device. Make sure that these buttons do what users expect them to do within your app.

  • Ensure that your app enables your company to deliver “push notifications” to users. This enables you to deliver targeted messages – such as the notification that the latest results announcement is now available – to users at any time.

  • Make sure that the app is linked to the same content management database as your corporate website. This minimises the amount of work required to keep the content on the app up to date.

  • Remember that Apple can take a week to approve your app before it can appear on the iTunes Store. Factor in this week – plus a further week for potential redevelopment work if Apple requests it – into your app development timeline.

  • Prepare to update your app regularly, based on user feedback and the lessons you learn from user analytics data.

  • Remember that an app is not a replacement for a mobile website or a traditional website; it’s a complementary communications channel.

Is a corporate app right for your organisation?

Consider creating a corporate app if you have:

  • Audiences such as journalists or investors, who are interested in receiving information about your company on a regular, rather than occasional or one-off, basis.

  • Regular, time-sensitive information to communicate, such as research results, financial reports or news announcements.

  • A desire to position your company as technologically innovative: Siemens, for example, has a corporate app that is specifically designed to showcase its innovative activities and company philosophy.