Killer App? Why Not Just Kill The App

As mobile usage increases, many brands are jumping on the app bandwagon. But columnist Aaron Strout warns this may be an unnecessary waste of time and resources.

Chat with MarTechBot


Over the past few years, a lot of companies have developed a mobile app — or at least considered it.

In some cases, a mobile app is completely merited. In others, it may just be the latest CEO whimsy — or worse, the brainchild of a brand’s digital agency.

The thing is, we really don’t need many apps. In fact, we could probably kill off about 95% of mobile apps out in the ecosystem and nobody would even think twice. This is because, in many cases, the mobile web can get the job done — for less money, and with more flexibility.

When Is An App Warranted?

In order to be successful, most apps need to address one of three issues: urgency, repetitiveness or boredom.

Urgency. When you think of apps that address urgency, consider real-time traffic or location data, stock information, banking information or other similar data. In some but not all cases, this issue can still be solved by delivery via the mobile web.

However, in the case of traffic data where someone is driving, it is critical that even if cell service is interrupted, the app (Waze, Apple Maps, etc.) can still provide turn-by-turn directions.

Repetitiveness. Think of something like Starbucks, where you are using your app to find locations and/or pay with your phone every day. This might also be the case for an app that helps pay for parking meters, checks weather, or even your e-mail client.

The thinking is that the activity is so rote that you don’t want to have to go to your browser and type in an address and then possibly have to drill down to a specific page to do what you need to do every time. You want the functionality at your finger tips.

Boredom. This obviously plays more into the “game” or “entertainment” space. The idea here is that if you plan to spend enough time playing Flappy Bird or Minecraft, your may not want to be draining your phone’s battery or incurring tons of data usage by doing this via mobile web. (Not to mention, an app interface is often ideal for games.)

These types of apps are probably the most likely to become “disposable,” but that isn’t likely to change any time soon.

What Does App Usage Really Look Like?

To support my thesis that most apps are unnecessary, I put a survey out to my connections on Facebook.

To give you some background: My 2,500+ contacts are made up of a mix of brand marketers, leaders of start ups, journalists, teachers and lots of other types of people that you might expect. They skew a little older than the general population, but definitely run from ages 12 all the way up to mid-80s. They are spread all over the United States — probably a little heavier in the northeast, Texas and California — and all across the socioeconomic spectrum (college kids to millionaires).

So, while I did collect over 100 different responses, I know that my methodology here is not ideal and that my sample is not necessarily representative or statistically significant. (For example, 64% of the people surveyed said they had an iPhone vs. an Android or other type of phone, which goes against other mobile statistical data.) Thus, you may want to consider the data as directional more than anything else.

The purpose of the survey was to look at three things:

  1. On average, how many mobile apps people have on their smart phones
  2. Which types of apps they use the most
  3. How often they access the web from their mobile device.

Apps Per Phone

A majority of survey respondents reported having fewer than 75 apps on their phone, with 59% having fewer than 40 apps. This is consistent with Google’s Our Mobile Planet report, which reports that smartphone users have an average of 33 apps installed on their device.

Graph 2

When you consider that native apps like phone, text, web, photos, music, camera, app store, alarm, calendar and email are likely to account for at least a quarter of those apps, that doesn’t leave a ton more space for custom apps.

Furthermore, it should be noted that not all of these apps are used on a regular basis. The Google study noted that respondents used an average of 12 apps in the last 30 days. More recent data from Nielsen showed a higher average of 26.8 mobile apps used per month — but that’s still a full 20% of downloaded apps not being used on even a monthly basis.

Type Of Apps Used Most Frequently

Diving deeper into my initial point, the next question I asked was regarding the types of apps my respondents used most frequently.

As you can see, a majority of the respondents gravitate toward apps that are more utilitarian. (Note that these are the apps that they use most, not the types of apps they simply have on their phones.)

Graph 3

Also worth mentioning is that I allowed respondents to provide multiple answers here, but 85 of the 100 chose “utilities” while very few chose “games,” “transactional,” “news” or “entertainment.” Some of this is biased by who I sampled, of course — but directionally, you get my point.

Even when you exclude native utility apps like phone and calendar, the outlook for most transactional apps isn’t great. The chart below from comScore’s The U.S. Mobile App Report shows that, of the top 25 mobile apps across Android and iOS, all save two (eBay and Amazon) generally fall into the categories of “utilities” or “entertainment.” No other transactional apps (e.g. Starbucks or Bank of America) made it into the top 25.

top 25 mobile apps

Mobile Web Usage

The last question in the survey asked how often respondents used the mobile web.

While I expected that nearly everyone surveyed accessed the web via their phone, it was surprising how many acknowledged using mobile web as frequently as they did (79% said they used the mobile web many times per day).

Graph 4

This finding supports the idea that a number of smartphone users are comfortable using the mobile web and thus would be able to access mobile sites for brands/activities that don’t meet at least one of the three criteria cited above.

It is worth noting that there are many studies which show that mobile app usage is much higher than mobile web usage. However, as you can see from Flurry’s chart below, most of this app time is dominated by entertainment (Games, YouTube, etc.) and social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.).


Once you exclude entertainment, social media, news, productivity and utility apps, you’re left with just 3% of time spent on “other” apps. This “Other” category is exactly where branded transactional apps (e.g. Starbucks, Amazon) might fall. On the other hand, 14% of time is spent on the mobile web.

Survey Conclusions

The punchline here — and the payoff for the title of this post — is that very few brands truly need to their own mobile app, particularly when delivering a great mobile web experience may do the trick. My August post on Walmart’s new Savings Catcher app is a good walk through of an experience that did merit a mobile app. But very few can make the same argument.

Questions For App Developers

For the digital lead that does have to field that request from their CMO or CEO to “build a mobile app,” here are a few questions you might want to ask before heading down the mobile app development path:

  • Will our app solve a problem associated with one of the three criteria i.e. urgency, repetitiveness or boredom?
  • Is there a use case where customers would need to interact with us where wifi/connectivity may not  be present?
  • What is the plan to keep the mobile app updated (it may only cost $25-75,000 to build but it needs to be maintained, just like a website)?
  • What is our marketing plan to drive adoption? Remember that you are competing with hundreds of thousands of other apps — many of which are much more useful and/or engaging than yours.
  • What revenue or KPIs will your app drive that a mobile optimized web experience couldn’t drive?
  • Are you willing to develop your app for multiple platforms (Android and Apple’s iOS are most prevalent but there are others like Blackberry and Microsoft that are still being used).

Knowing what you know, do you really want to create the next “killer app?” Or would you rather save yourself and your company time and money and just “kill” that mobile app discussion before it even gets started?

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily MarTech. Staff authors are listed here.

About the author

Aaron Strout
Aaron Strout is Chief Marketing Officer at integrated marketing and communications firm, W2O Group. During his tenure with the company, he has served as President of WCG and head of W2O's technology practice. Aaron has 20 plus years of social media, mobile, online marketing and advertising experience, with a strong background in integrated marketing. Prior to joining W2O, Aaron spent time as the CMO of Powered Inc. (now part of Dachis Group), VP of social media at online community provider, Mzinga, and as director of digital marketing at Fidelity Investments. Aaron is the co-author of Location Based Marketing for Dummies (Wiley) and writes a monthly mobile/location-based marketing column on He also recently launched the What 2 Know podcast (iTunes) which features industry leaders talking about innovation and best practices.

Get the must-read newsletter for marketers.