I was asked to give my opinion on how watch companies can best make sense of, and utilize iPhone applications by the IC-Agency over in Europe, that spends a lot of time trying to figure out how luxury brands should utilize the Internet. I do the same for watch companies so I was happy to think about the salient issue. You may have noticed that over the past few months, it seems as though every major watch maker is releasing iPhone applications that are mostly free to download. These are marketing tools for them, and the question for them is why and how to do it, and the pay-off for you (the consumer or user of the applications), is having useful and fun watch applications for your iPhone or other mobile phone devices.
The bottom line is that iPhone applications are made in the hope that they will get people to buy watches in one way or another. Watch companies like to be where eyes are. With the millions of iPhones out there, and the over 80,000 (and counting) existing iPhone apps, it makes sense for them to want to vie for some of that action. So allow me to answer a few of the main items that are relevant and that the IC-Agency suggests are important. I further encourage you all to comment and add to my thoughts. Also, although this discussion is focused on the iPhone, I am going to use the term "mobile phone app" as much as possible. Mobile phone apps are here to stay, aren't just for the iPhone. Blackberry, Palm (for the Pre), Google Android, and Window Mobile all have downloadable application stores accessible via phone that have free and paid applications. These devices should not be ignored as they will quickly gain traction.
What brands should take into account before launching an application
No brand is going to make their own application, so they are going to hire someone to do it for them. I highly suggest that the software developer is aware of a brand's needs and the feature set that the company wants to have is well thought out and made clear to them. Do not assume that the developer will "fill in the gaps." The entire application should be planned and worked out before starting work on anything. Otherwise brands will be disappointed. Hire a project manager if necessary. A big and common problem is spending lots of money to have an application that does not work as intended.
Of course before that is all after figuring out whether or not an application is right for a company. Not only are you going to invest time and money into an application, but you need to consider what you want it to do for you as a watch maker. Before doing anything, a company needs to invest in media professional media (fancy images and videos of their products), and compiling standardized specifications for their products. No company just needs an iPhone app because "everyone else is doing so." For many people, the iPhone app might be the "face" of a company" - so brands need to evaluate whether they have what it takes to make this face look good enough.
Lastly, any software is an ongoing commitment. You don't just make it and then forget it. All apps are software and are thus never really done. If one commits to an application, they also commit to updating it and fixing issues down the road. The second the consumer notices that a brand has a mobile phone application, they will expect it to be updated often and in a timely manner with ALL new products and some news. If a brand isn't able to keep their website up to date with good information, they surely aren't going to be able to handle an iPhone app.
Best practices when making a mobile phone application
The iPhone app is not just an electronic catalog. Look at the most popular iPhone apps that people download. Guess what, they are either fun or useful... or both. You want something that people are going to use frequently, not just once. Nothing is worse for a brand than having a person enthusiastically download an application only to realize it is boring or pointless. So the message here is; think about what it will do, and it has to do something. Either this functionality is highly complex (which will require all sorts of systems aside from the application itself, or basic (a fun little tool that will take the power of a brand and imbue it into the user's phone). Complex functionality will require serious development. It should involve functions such as real-time inventory tracking (allowing a user to discover what models a nearby store has), checking out how functions work (virtual watches), or involve certain social networking functions (such as group voting on watch designs or wish lists that are accessible to the community.
More basic functions include limited virtual watch faces that mimic what it would be like to give with a watch. Many people use their mobile phones as clocks. So give them a taste of what it would be like to live with the real thing but having a functional animated one on their screen. In addition to the time, it is a good idea to incorporate a calendar, and maybe other functions like a stopwatch or alarm. Make it fun, fluid, and most important functional.
The bottom line is that people use application during micro waiting times. Maybe while in transit or in line. People aren't going to sit back in a recliner and dedicate 30 minutes or more to an iPhone application. Once launched, the app needs to be instantly interesting and usable. Plus, it should take just a few seconds to "get started." If you make someone wait too long or think too much, you are going to lose them. The fun or function should take well under a minute to start, and be a fulfilling experience if only used for a minute.
What watch brands can concretely expect from these applications
Screw up on the presentation of an iPhone app and you've damaged the brand - maybe for good. If the application isn't really nice, then ditch the entire project. No app is better than a crappy app. No brand can afford that type of negative perception. The value of a good application is on various levels. A well executed system will pay-off by having a positive association by the user with the brand. Everything goes back to the watches. If the company can make a good iPhone app, the perception is that they can make a good watch as well. It is really that simple.
Branding related effects from iPhone apps can take years, but sometimes only a little boost in brand perception is all anyone needs to make a purchase decision as some point. Direct effects from the app on potential consumers really depends on the functionality. At the very least, a brand should allow the user to learn about the product line in detail, with pricing and availability. The application should also have a function to introduce new products easily, and clearly. There can also be social networking functions that allow people to express interest over a watch (maybe a simple "I want this" button). People sometime need reassurance from others that the watch they like is enjoyed by others. Many watch lovers feel a bit solitary in their passion unless they are very active in online watch lover communities. Bringing this collective passion to a mobile application is a good idea.
In the end, there is no wholesale way to evaluate the effectiveness of an app, because each app will be different. If a company allows for some manner of commerce or sales via or through the app, it will all depend on how well such functionality is integrated. Making sure a user interface and e-commerce specialist is on the application development team is a must for such complex functionality.
Futurology and application evolution
It is hard to predict what will happen in the future, but downloadable content for mobile devices is here to stay, and will only become more popular. This also means that the expectations from them will be higher, and they will have increasing amounts of functionality. Currently, most watch companies are sorely stuck in "Web 1.0." This means that their online presence is a one-dimensional tool for visitors to get some information only, and usually very limited information is available compared to what people want. If the way watch companies operate online now is an indicator of the effectiveness of their iPhone applications, I suggest they hold off making an iPhone application until they have a website that is actually useful for consumers that demand more from a luxury company. Which is also a way of me saying, "stop being so hostile to Internet sales." It makes you look antiquated, and unfriendly.
Watch companies both fear and misunderstand the Internet for a most part. And guess what, iPhone applications are a close cousin to the Internet, and any complex functionality on them uses the Internet. If a watch company does not wish to embrace the Internet as a powerful sales and marketing tool, then they can forget getting much use out of an iPhone application.
On the other hand, those watch brands that embrace the Internet and all that goes with it including iPhone applications and alike will need to closely consider how they can consolidate their efforts. Tools like an iPhone application, brand website, Facebook, etc... are too much work to handle independently. The future will provide methods to make these important marketing and branding (not to mention sales) tools work together.
There will also be more apps available on more devices. Most phones aside from just the iPhone will have applications that can be wirelessly downloaded. This means that watch companies will need to make multiple applications for each phone operating system. Another important area is standardizing watch specifications. It is possible that third parties will create watch related applications and will utilize on standardized watch specifications to include those brands who adhere to them. Right now there are no standards for explaining the specifications of a watch, but I believe this is coming (and should already have been here).
What I am trying to indicate is that many watch companies are already behind the times, and need to catch up before venturing into the creation of an iPhone application. Brands who embrace current media technology will have a hard time deciding how to make us of the many available programs and communication tools. The best results will be from examining what words for other more established luxury brands, not necessarily watch brands. Remember, that working simplicity is more important failed ambition, and that watch companies need to embrace what makes sense, not just what looks cool.