SEMA News—October 2012

BUSINESS TECHNOLOGY
By Mike Imlay

Mobile Utility

Bettering Your Business With Apps

  According to Michael Beller, vice president of Media Works and emerging media at Source Interlink Media, apps nowadays are more likely to be developed to better a business and its operations than to merely awe or entertain consumers.  
   
The words “there’s an app for that” have become somewhat of a cliché—and with good reason. Not long ago, many businesses pursued mobile applications mainly as a gimmicky exercise in marketing. Having a cool branded game or similar whiz-bang app was considered a trendy way to burnish a company’s image with smartphone and tablet users. But times are changing, and the world of apps is maturing.

According to Michael Beller, vice president of Media Works and emerging media at Source Interlink Media, apps nowadays are more likely to be developed to better a business and its operations than to merely awe or entertain consumers.

“There’s a whole range of ideas coming from our clients that fall into a lot of different buckets,” Beller explained. “They could be database-driven apps; they could be more marketing-related apps for reps to use with retailers; or they could be more consumer-based apps to help consumers learn about their products. It’s all really interesting.”

Laying the Groundwork

Of course, the term “app” is shorthand for an application or software program accessed through a computer, smartphone, tablet or related device. Up until recently, the question facing many manufacturers—and even retailers—was whether to hop on the app-development bandwagon at all. Now, however, with a wide range of utilitarian apps available—especially those designed for mobile devices—there’s no question that they can make a business more efficient, productive and portable. So what are some best practices in approaching mobile apps and/or related emerging media?

If your company’s goal is to improve its marketing to consumers, mobile optimization of your website is always a recommended first step. While not technically app development, such optimization lays the foundation for other digital marketing efforts. Beller pointed out that customers in a retail environment can easily research information, compare pricing and even make online purchases via their smartphones while waiting at the counter. If a website isn’t mobile optimized, frustrated consumers can quickly bail on it in favor of another company’s site that is. Fortunately, mobile optimization can be accomplished easily and inexpensively.

“We tell our clients that no one wants to pinch and zoom anymore,” said Beller. “No matter who develops it, you have to have a mobile website.” One example would be including an easy-to-use online database containing product information, availability and pricing.

After optimizing its website for mobile viewing, a company can next move on to consider whether specialized applications make sense. The realm of choices is broad. Apps can be:

  • Utilitarian—for instance, enabling customers or even staff and field representatives to look up products and information from their smartphones or tablets.
  • Brand extensions—applying the power of a brand to an app that’s not necessarily directly related to core business but that nevertheless supplies a service to users.
  • Content-driven—offering users videos, reviews, news, feeds and related marketing collateral or updates pertaining to a business.
  • B2B tools—such as a marketing app created so that sales reps can educate potential buyers about a company’s offerings at trade shows, events or in the field.
  • Training related—specifically for a company’s employees or sales representatives.

According to Beller, deciding what type of app to pursue comes down to two considerations.

“First,” he said, “it depends on what specific vertical you are in—direct to consumer, direct to retailer, inventory management, web-based versus mobile-based. The other consideration may be a challenge that needs a specific solution. For example, a company may need an inventory-management-type make, model, year app for a certain part it manufactures.”

Branding Utility

  Toyo’s recently introduced app was designed to educate the company’s sales team, dealers and dealer customers about Toyo products.
 

Toyo’s recently introduced app was designed to educate the company’s sales team, dealers and dealer customers about Toyo products. It displays product overviews, features and benefits, training materials, multi-media product videos, commercials and photos along with media stories and product sizes and specs.

   
“You should identify your target audience and the content that is important or useful to them,” agreed Amy Coleman, senior director of marketing for Toyo Tire USA Corp., which recently developed an innovative iPad business app with Source Interlink Media’s assistance. “Establish a good outline of the project in advance. This will act as your road map and guide, establishing the content you need to gather or create and milestones along the way.”

Toyo’s recently introduced app was designed to educate the company’s sales team, dealers and dealer customers about Toyo products. It displays product overviews, features and benefits, training materials, multimedia product videos, commercials and photos along with media stories and product sizes and specs. It also features PDFs of product brochures, the company’s dealer magazine and links to the Toyo website and social-media channels. It has proven to be an extremely useful B2B tool for the company’s field representatives.

“The goal was to consolidate product information into one, easy-to-use-tool,” Coleman said. “It was first launched with our Proxes 4 Plus and now features 17 products. It’s a tool that can be used in sales meetings, in employee training, on the showroom floor and at events, including the SEMA Show. The sizes and specs data is pulled from our website, which is updated regularly so our sales department and dealers will always have the latest information at their fingertips. This is the first time all Toyo product information is together in one tool for our sales department and dealers.”

In terms of audience for an app, it’s perfectly okay to think small, said David Kennedy, publisher of Source Interlink Media’s Custom Truck Group. The group’s Diesel Power magazine recently turned to Source Interlink Media’s internal app developers to create a niche diesel-fuel finder that helps to extend the publication’s brand beyond its core business of editorial and advertising.

  Toyo’s recently introduced app was designed to educate the company’s sales team, dealers and dealer customers about Toyo products.
 

Source Interlink Media’s Diesel Power magazine recently turned to the company’s internal app developers to create a niche diesel fuel finder that helps to extend the publication’s brand beyond its core business of editorial and advertising. Users can find diesel fuel stations anywhere in the United States where they happen to be. This is a convenient tool, because many times diesel is not as commonly available as gasoline.

   
“The app itself is basically utilityware,” Kennedy explained. “Users can find diesel-fuel stations anywhere in the United States where they happen to be. We thought this would be a convenient tool, because many times diesel is not as commonly available as gasoline. So leveraging a Google map with our architecture, users can enter their location and find retail facilities that sell diesel fuel in their area. Then, to make the tool more useful, we gave it a functionality to allow it to plot a route so that you could know where diesel-fuel locations might be along your way—say a 100- to a 1,000-mile drive—and be able to plan your trip accordingly.”

Currently the app is iPhone-based but will also work on the iPad, with an Android version also set to debut soon. (Of course, depending upon a vehicle’s connectivity, the functionality from the mobile device can be extended to an in-dash command system.)

“A diesel fuel finder app like this is clearly only for people with diesel vehicles—obviously not the majority of the United States—but it becomes a tool for our audience with their own wants, needs and desires,” Kennedy said. “It puts us in a unique position to be able to develop utility products and platforms that go beyond the usual ways we’ve been reaching our audience.”

Kennedy believes that, with some brainstorming, other specialty-equipment businesses could easily follow suit.

The point is to leverage a company’s knowledge of its own specific marketplace with branded apps that are useful to its niche consumers. A good question to ask is, what is the broadest type of app that you can create to engage your limited audience?

“You want to brand an application that’s useful and makes your audience return to it, perhaps on a daily basis,” Kennedy said. “Think of it in terms of a frequently asked questions page. What is the question that your customer asks on a daily basis? What are the common needs of both your current customer and a possible customer in your category? Regardless of whether you’re a carburetor company, a shock-absorber company or an exhaust company, start with the core questions or customer interactions that repeat over and over again.”

Obviously, most businesses will lack an internal app-development squad. As with all things digital, a company should resist the temptation to turn to amateur developers—especially those without a solid business or marketing background. Moreover, said the experts, it’s a company’s inside knowledge of its core business, operations and consumers that should drive any app-development process.

No matter whom you call upon to help you develop an app, the mature approach will be about real solutions, not gimmicks or flashy marketing. Whether aimed at your own employees or a wider consumer audience, seeing apps as the true utilities they are will greatly further your business.

Emerging Media at Source Interlink Media

 

Further Background Reading

SEMA News previously offered an overview of applications and their development in our story “App Crazy” (SEMA News March 2012, p. 96.) The article addressed the diversity of industry apps, from branded entertainment offerings and OBD-II-related products to mobile apps developed specifically for differing automotive platforms.

   
According to Michael Beller, Source Interlink Media is so convinced of the power of apps and related emerging media that it has built an entire department alongside its traditional print enterprise to address high-tech digital solutions for itself and clients. As part of that effort, the publishing house acquired Mind Over Eye, a CGI animation house specializing in 3-D modeling and related technologies. In addition, it combines a full range of creative services from design print ads to logos with its Media Works section—an internal unit that can specifically work on emerging media products both for Source Interlink Media’s own brands and for those of its clients.

“Within the team here we have coders, engineers, designers, product developers—we really have an end-to-end internal solution, which is very unusual for any publisher,” he said. “The unique position we’re in is the relationships we have with a lot of our clients. In the past, they’ve been largely advertisers. It’s a natural extension to offer these services directly to them.”

Beller sees this plethora of emerging media services as a sort of modern extension of the traditional custom publishing concept. While not a marketing company or an agency per se, Source Interlink Media strives to bring a special expertise to app development for clients.

“Because we work closely with aftermarket companies, we understand all their different verticals,” Beller said. “Everybody here lives and breathes that stuff.”

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