2014 is the Year of Mobile App Insights

The mobile app revolution is upon us, but like any good uprising, chaos is rampant, and we don’t yet have a clear picture of many of the winners and losers among app marketers. In a recent survey of retail executives, 71% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that native mobile apps will become the single most important touch point for engaging with consumers in the next one to three years. And across multiple industries, the use of mobile apps as a communications channel has risen steadily.

Despite mobile growth, however, most merchants aren’t yet using their apps to great effect, and a large part of the reason for the gap is a lag in measurement. Many companies are still creating mobile apps only to send them out into the universe, cross their fingers, and hope for the best. The ability to measure the success of those apps – or to make improvements based on performance insights – is severely limited.

There are several factors impacting app measurement. The mobile channel is still a relatively minor contributor to sales revenue for most companies, which means mobile app analytics haven’t been a high priority on the budget agenda.

Many merchants also haven’t integrated their apps into a broader marketing or communications strategy, which means those apps are also naturally isolated from traditional measurement activities. And finally, even for those professionals who have wanted to track mobile app activity closely, there have been few technology solutions available with the necessary analytics capabilities.

All of that is about to change.

As 2014 approaches, the very factors that have kept mobile measurement in the background are about to push app analytics front and center. The mobile channel is growing as a revenue driver, merchants are beginning to integrate apps with other communication efforts, and technology platforms are emerging to support in-depth measurement of app activity.

2014 will be an inflection point: the year of mobile app insights.

All metrics are not created equal
Plenty of companies tout the success of their mobile apps today, but only through a distorted lens. For example, the number of total app downloads is often cited as evidence that an app is performing well. Unfortunately, app downloads are no indication of whether consumers actually use an app, or whether an app is moving the needle on business objectives.

The number of downloads an app generates is a vanity metric. It looks good on paper, but doesn’t signal whether an app is performing the way it should.

As app measurement matures, companies will start tracking and evaluating more relevant statistics. Research firm Forrester has laid out what some of those metrics look like. At a high level, companies need to understand how apps impact consumer engagement and financials. However, to get to those conclusions means monitoring things like user context and user behavior.

At a contextual level, companies need to understand who their users are, and how those users are accessing their mobile apps. App logins are the most direct way to establish a user’s identity, but even in the absence of a login, there’s a lot that can be learned through device monitoring and pattern analysis. For instance, companies can track how app audiences vary across different smartphone models, wireless carriers, and mobile operating systems. By understanding audience patterns, companies can better target ongoing development efforts for the best return on app investment.

At a behavioral level, app publishers should begin tracking everything from individual user preferences, to typical navigation flow, to the different responses generated by a call to action. Continuous testing of user activity allows a company to optimize an app over time, and even to customize the app experience for different consumers. For example, one set of users might spend more time with an app when the home screen displays several images, while another set of users might prefer a list view upon opening the app. The more a company can tailor the experience to those preferences established by consumers over time, the more engaged its users will be.

As analytics capabilities continue to evolve, companies will eventually have access to comprehensive tools that allow them to track users easily across multiple platforms. A consumer’s activity within an app will map to their behavior on other websites, and even to activity in offline locations like retail outlets and event sites. That type of cross-domain analysis is out of scope for most companies today, but it won’t be in the future. Once companies start tracking mobile app metrics in depth, the sophistication level of usage analysis will accelerate rapidly.

The measure of success
By 2016, Forrester predicts that U.S. mobile commerce sales will top 31 billion dollars. And yet, Forrester also found in a recent study that only 46% of businesses surveyed reported having a mobile analytics solution today. That means that the majority of companies don’t know basic information such as how much time users spend in an app session, how often they return to an app, or what they find most valuable in the experience. Without those details, companies can’t significantly improve app performance, or the impact their apps have on business objectives.

Ultimately, companies need to establish the same measurement disciplines in mobile as they have on the web. Today there is a critical gap between app development and app insight. But as entire industries and consumption patterns continue their shift to the mobile domain, that gap will have to close.

It all starts now. And it all starts with app analytics and deeper insight into mobile consumer behavior.

Bob Moul is CEO of Artisan Mobile.

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