The case against mobile apps for restaurant brands

The conversation inside every restaurant brand about apps is heated. There are technology providers, white label solutions and solo coders trying to sell your brand an app. Despite the glossy sales pitch, there are some things you should know about building in app. They definitely aren’t for everyone. Here, we lay out the case against building an app, and the ways to build traffic and sales without one. Want to hear the flip side? Read the companion piece that makes the counterpoint: The case for mobile apps for restaurant brands. On with the negative case.

An app won’t generate new customers alone

For every brand, driving customers into the restaurant is the lifeblood of your business. As marketers and operators, we tend to look at every new tool as if it can drive our business. It seems we are always one tool away from cracking our business wide open. Here’s the fact – no restaurant brand has successfully launched an app that wasn’t already having success. Vendors celebrate the successful case studies like Starbucks or Domino’s. Those brands were doing just fine in the traffic department prior to launching apps that were specifically designed to improve frequency and loyalty from their legions of customers. Brands think they can launch an app without including rewards or at least special offers are not being honest with themselves. If incentivized, intelligent discounting isn’t part of your plan, do not expect mobile apps to drive trial unless the app is truly ground breaking.

A growing number of mobile users report downloading zero new apps per month.

90% of mobile usage time is in apps.

This may sound like a pretty pro-app argument. The reality is that those apps are well established corporations investing billions into user acquisition and ongoing engagement. Congratulations, your brand will now be competing against Facebook, Google, Snapchat, Pandora, Netflix, Amazon, Apple and every media and entertainment company for screen real-estate. Think your brand is as much fun as Candy Crush?

Fewer app downloads every month

Despite the dominance in usage of mobile apps on smart phones, people are seeking out few new ones. According to comScore, new app downloads per user are trending down. In fact, a growing number of mobile users report downloading zero new apps per month. This means the battle for real estate on the home screen is getting more and more serious. How serious, half of all smart phone users fall into this zero app category.

Without serious innovation it won’t drive awareness or usage

Go ahead an try any five restaurant apps for brands you never use. They likely have the same feature set and he same set of flaws. If you’re not familiar with the restaurant, the app does little to drive a visit or a sale. People inside many brands believe the mere creation of the app will be newsworthy. It won’t. To break through with consumers, the app has to offer a truly interesting experience. That might mean a novel design or an integration with the store.

Are you prepared to market mobile apps?

In many cases, brands tell us the app is a solution to the problem of low awareness or increased competition. If you’re already challenged by marketing this new app will create a new problem. The app is a product of its own. Like any product it requires a marketing plan, a budget, support and maintenance. That’s a full-time commitment. Many brands looking to the app as a savior know how hard successful launching a string of LTOs can be. Marketing the app is no simpler.

Think social media blows up when there’s a problem in one restaurant? Wait until someone has a malfunctioning app in their hand. The app is not just an extension of the brand, a successful app can become the brand – and that is a double edged sword. Spend some time on the app store to see how competitive listings are for mobile apps. Seems almost as tough as marketing a restaurant, no?

Wide adoption of mobile web

Over two years ago, the number of smart phone users surpassed the number of desktop computer users. Not only are more people than ever using smartphones to browse and shop, but this tells us that more technology investments are being made to improve the basic infrastructure. The mobile web has arrived and is getting stronger everyday. This means that having a great mobile website will accomplish most of the things the average brand hopes an app will do. At least it will provide proof of concept that your customers want an app.

True, a website will lack some of the functionality for loyalty, but testing guest interest and understanding usage patterns on the web will allow you to design and build a more useful app. A mobile website will also allow for use on iOS, Android, Windows, Blackberry and any other platform out there and keep brands above the fray between mobile payment services.

As you can see, much consideration must be made before leaping into development of an app. The investment of time, resources and of course money are critical. Want a look on the bright side? Read the companion piece that makes the counterpoint: The case for mobile apps for restaurant brands.

Is your brand really doing digital?

It’s 2017. Every business has elements driven or improved by digital tools. The chasm between the haves and have nots is widening. On one side, the progressive brands embrace technology to improve and future-proof their business. On the other: brands that are slower to adopt technology, often playing catch-up.

Every restaurant brand has a digital program. Every brand has an email list. Every brand is on Facebook. These are certainly foundational elements of digital marketing. But they’re now table stakes. Guests are exposed to so many messages that they are blind to them. They choose not to see them. The question is, are you really doing digital if you’re just doing the above? Slower moving brands have good reason to hold off. But innovative brands are testing and deploying new technologies and leveraging the tech the guests already use.

The most successful innovation starts from the goal of the guest, not the brand.

Prudence and caution are wise before making major investments in tech, such as a new POS or CRM system. Too much caution might leave brands stranded as those that take risks with digital innovation are rewarded. More frequently, consumers are expecting innovation as part of their core experience. Look at loyalty programs. Consumers expect a loyalty program to exist as an app. A stamp or punch card is viewed as outmoded. That view reflects on your brand.

First impressions matter

The loyalty program might not apply to casual or new guests. You still have other ways to win them up front. For QSR and Fast Casuals, digital displays or menus are powerful for communication. And what about the ordering process itself? Panera Bread credits self-service kiosks for a rise in traffic and profitability. Instead of loss of customers from reduced interaction, they’ve seen the opposite. Plus, the digital stations allowed Panera to move staff from registers to food preparation. McDonald’s is rolling out a similar system that will allow self-service ordering and table delivery.

Similar table side digital systems have popped up across casual dining concepts to varying effect. Brands like Chili’s and Red Robin have had kiosks for years. Guests can order beverages, pay their bill or play games. What we give up in interaction, we make up for in convenience. In these environments, they’re not replacements for hospitality, but complements. And they are already being improved upon. Look beyond your category for inspiration. Top brands are innovating cleverly, to provide value to their customers. Home Improvement brand Lowe’s is using a location based digital system that allows them to customize overwhelming shopping categories based on customer direction. How could a similar system aid guests at the table? These two touchpoints are just the beginning. They start from a place of the brand, and not necessarily the guest. The most successful innovation often does the opposite.

Don’t build it from scratch

Some brands are overwhelmed by the idea of creating technology from the ground up. There are so many amazing tools that have already been built. Look at all the software consumers use for location services. We all have our phones at the ready. We want relevant information. Right time and place. Digital enables that. According to a DMNews study, 78% are willing to allow use of their purchase information to provide a more personalized experience. When mobile phones were new, location based communication was definitely considered creepy. But our acceptance has grown quickly as consumers have discovered the benefits. Brands have many opportunities to capitalize and build relationships.

Everyone with a smartphone uses mapping software. Services like Waze, or ad platforms like Sito allow for messages to be incorporated into map or location-based content. These networks will then identify when a consumer who saw the message traveled to your location.

Google just rebooted its Popular Times feature from search and maps to include real-time traffic information. Dining brands can use this system to drive traffic during soft times, or divert people during a rush. Google has already done the work. People are already using the system. Now your team can simply to connect it.

A restaurant concept does not have to do everything to be relevant. There are dozens of news tools and platforms every month, so keeping up and identifying the appropriate tools is not possible. But staying on the sidelines while technology moves forward is not wise. Small tests and programs will help find the best tools and move your business forward. Gathering data from your customers to better serve and communicate simply can’t wait.