Three Things You Should Consider Before Building a Mobile App

Building an app-based offering around your association's interests could put your message out there in a whole new way. But the right strategy and scope matter when you're introducing a new mobile tool.

Last week, I gave some pre-holiday press to a really nifty idea for an app.

“I’m Stuck,” quite literally a tool to yell at Congress while you’re in a traffic jam, is an iOS and Android app from the U.S. Travel Association and Building America’s Future that allows the public to draw attention to the country’s deteriorating travel infrastructure.

As an advocacy tool, it’s a stroke of genius, and given the right public-relations push, it could become a mainstream product. If nothing else, there’s room for it to inspire other associations looking to turn common pain points into action. To give an example from a recent news story, what if veterans had a similar app where they could complain about their long waits for medical care? Perhaps they would have drawn public attention to that issue sooner.

But choosing to do an app isn’t easy, and the wrong approach can lead to problems. So with that in mind, I wanted to offer up three quick considerations from the startup world for associations looking to jump in head-first with their apps.

1. Are You Keeping Things Simple?

A month ago, I highlighted an interesting post by Draft founder Nate Kontny that discussed how to invent new things by simplifying what’s already out there.

The social network Yo may be the ultimate example of his point. All you do with the app is send a short, two-letter message to someone you want to reach out to—literally, the word “yo.” Despite offering 138 fewer characters than Twitter does and little choice as to what the other two characters say, the app has gained unexpectedly major ground in just a few weeks, keeping up momentum despite some hacks that have sidelined the service. It’s earned its share of snark, sure, but folks like venture capitalist icon Marc Andreessen have defended its value.

That’s because it boils down communication to its essence, something that has value in our always-connected culture.

Associations looking to go mobile need the reminder. A lot of players will be involved in any big project you do, and sometimes the job of a project manager is to say no and to limit the scope as much as possible. I’m not saying you need to whittle it down to the point of Yo, but there’s something to be said for not putting the kitchen sink into your mobile apps.

2. Are You Solving a Common Problem?

Recently, an offbeat little service got a huge amount of press pretty quickly. Very little of it was positive. That’s because the service, Washboard, did something that sounds silly on the surface: It was a subscription service for urban dwellers who often need quarters for laundry. Pay $14.99 a month, and you’ll get mailed $10 worth of quarters.

As an urban dweller myself, I understand the common hassle that led to Washboard’s creation. Living in an apartment in a big city often means that you don’t have your own in-unit washer and dryer, and people generally do laundry on evenings and weekends—which, inconveniently, is a time when most banks are closed.

But the problem with Washboard is that its scope was so narrow and the cost/benefit ratio so low—you still have to do the laundry yourself, no matter how you get the quarters—that the audience and expansion opportunities were extremely limited. For these reasons and others, Washboard’s founders quietly closed up shop last week.

Now, kudos to the creators for even trying, because they clearly won way more attention than most startups get. But their tale shows that the value proposition has to be clear and easy to build upon. If your audience is limited, the value has to be huge. If your value is relatively low, the audience has to be wide.

3. Are You Doing Your Homework?

You may be familiar with the regulatory drama around Uber and Lyft in cities worldwide, but it’s nothing compared to the drama around alcohol delivery.

That’s something two services that operate in Washington, DC, Ultra and Instacart, learned after the city clamped down on app-based alcohol-delivery services. Now, the situations are slightly different—Instacart, a well-funded grocery startup with a growing presence, serves up a lot more than beer, while Ultra’s entire business model leans on brews—but the problem in both cases was that neither service had a liquor license. (Disclosure: I learned Instacart was no longer delivering alcohol in the city the hard way.)

But what’s interesting here is that a third service in the District, Klink, is still operating. According to reports, one reason is that Klink spent a lot of time researching its options and working closely with the city’s Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration to ensure that what it was doing matched the letter of the law. Granted, this could change (just ask Airbnb about its regulatory headaches), but for now, Klink is still alive in DC.

No matter what happens to Klink, it’s a good reminder to do your market research and understand the potential pitfalls of an app you create. What could go wrong—whether with your vendors, a social network’s ever-changing API, or some currently unknown outside force? You should know the impact of the sky falling before you’re already standing on the clouds, so you can plan for it.

Strategy Matters

What’s clear in each of these cases—including “I’m Stuck”—is that the platforms succeed or falter based on their strategies. So much of what associations do is predicated on having the right strategy, so that’s not the hard part.

But apps need to have a clear purpose and value right off the top, which is why event apps are so often where we see associations putting their mobile energy. But “I’m Stuck” proves there are still so many other ideas to try and so much opportunity to explore.

Consider your audience. You know their pain points—or at least the things that will draw their attention.

That’s where you start building—but only if you have the right materials.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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