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Wednesday, November 3, 2021

The Role of Mobile Apps in the Omnichannel Experience

By Ben Johnson

If you asked me four or five years ago, I would have said that mobile apps are dead. Who installs an app anymore? I wasn’t crazy. Comscore had been reporting since 2015 that the number of people who install apps was shrinking. By 2017, comScore warned that according to its research, the majority of US consumers download exactly zero apps.

Thought: The Role of Mobile Apps in the Omnichannel Experience
The Role of Mobile Apps in the Omnichannel ExperienceBen Johnson
Thought: The Role of Mobile Apps in the Omnichannel Experience

What struck me most was the way a handful of super apps dominated the user's smartphone screen: Amazon, Facebook, Instagram, The Weather Channel, maybe a step counter and some hyper-casual games. Other than that, screens were bare.

Today, however, I must admit that my prediction was off. By a long shot. Fear of COVID-19 prompted consumers to seek out contactless shopping options, which in turn led to an explosion of app installations. According to App Annie’s annual “State of Mobile” report, consumers worldwide installed 208 billion apps in 2020, which drove a record $143 billion in mobile sales. Instacart finally turned a profit.

The astute reader will point out that prior to the pandemic, the Top 10 app charts contained shopping apps from brands most Americans never heard of, like Shein, a consumer fashion shopping app popular in China. 

Fair point, and one that makes me wonder: did apps make a comeback, or did they never go away?

Apps have been here for the duration. Moreover, they’ve been slowly working their way into the omnichannel experience, and playing a key role powering a greater “commerce” experience (Cash App is the third most downloaded app in Google Play, after all). 

The more dependent we become on digital channels to fulfill basic functions, the more that those channels become integral and differentiated from each other. In this respect, the proliferation of mobile apps is inevitable, given the really poor experience of the mobile web. 

The mobile web is driven by brands that launch “mobile first” sites, but in reality the mobile web is the average of multiple experiences. Consumers don’t want average experiences, however. They want superlative ones, the kind that only an native mobile app can provide for those who engage in commerce via a smartphone.

Apps also work better in low bandwidth scenarios. They can store a wide range of data and elements (i.e. “remember things”) so that people can continue using them offline, which leads to better experiences. 

For instance, mobile websites rarely remember who consumers are, and require them to log in each time they put an item in the basket. The result is a highly disjointed experience. Native apps, on the other hand, keep consumers logged in, creating an always-on experience that is conducive to commerce. With apps, consumers can make purchases, send payments or invest in crypto in just a few taps. 

An integral part of commerce is finding customers and trading partners. Native apps also play a big role in turning customer acquisition into an omnichannel experience. The most obvious example of this is app store marketing. Each year brands spend billions in app store optimization and user acquisition campaigns that drive users to the app stores -- budgets that have nothing to do with website SEO. 

Going up a level, while brands create native apps and consumers adopt them in order to fill in gaps in the buying experience, they’re actually providing a key role in powering the overall omnichannel commerce experience. Although it gets the most attention, shopping is only one expression of commerce. Digital commerce also encompasses e-grocery, payments for services, food delivery, restaurants and more. 

Instant Apps & App Clips

Many of these commerce experiences are actually powered by Instant Apps, a technology that was introduced in order to let people “try” a game or an app before committing to installing it. Google introduced its version of Instant Apps in 2016, and Apple rolled out its version, App Clips, as part of iOS. 

Rightpoint immediately saw the power of Instant Apps, and was one of the first companies to deploy them. Ben’s team built an Instant App for B&H Photo, a major electronics retailer based in New York City, which was previewed at Google I/O.

What’s really interesting about Instant Apps and App Clips is the way they’ve worked their way into a wide range of commerce use cases. For instance, led by Ben, Rightpoint built an App Clip that allows Mobile Gas customers to pay for purchases using their mobile phones. Years before that, Rightpoint collaborated with the Where team (since purchased by PayPal) to build an Instant App for Cumberland Farms called QuickPay, which allows users to scan a QR code, pay for gas via their phones, and earn rewards from those transactions.

Instant Apps and App Clips will likely transform mobile shopping in important ways. There’s a body of research that shows apps promote customer loyalty. When I download an app to my phone, I’m always logged in, which means I can easily make a purchase. That ease of use leads to more purchases, and soon that brand becomes my go-to store.

Instant Apps and App Clips have the potential to chip away at that advantage. Consumers don’t need to install an Instant App or App Clip in order to access a brand’s shopping cart or payment flow. Suddenly, I can purchase concert tickets via Ticketmaster or see what houses in Miami are going on Zillow without bothering to install the entire app.

Eliminating the friction of app installation cracks open the entire commerce experience for mobile. Consumers can spontaneously decide to order groceries from a local store for curbside pickup, and access the checkout flow and even pay for it using a preferred digital wallet -- all without ever installing the app. Spontaneity is key here. With payment streamlined with digital wallets, impulse shopping has never been easier.

It’s fair to say that Instant Apps and App Clips will usher in an era of finely-tuned commerce experiences to whichever device the consumer is using.

These are exciting developments to be sure, but they’re not wholly new. Rather, they are a continuation of the work Ben has been doing for these past ten years for Rightpoint customers, which is building solutions for companies that are app-first, and the first to transact on apps. Today, more companies are keen to catch up, now that they realize native mobile apps are a critical part of the omnichannel experience.