Opinion: Why You Have Your Mobile Metrics Wrong

The following is a guest contributed post from Tom Farrell, VP of Marketing at Swrve.

Sometimes we have to pinch ourselves in order to remember that the smartphone is little more than 10 years old. From the simple act of meeting up with someone at a specific time and place, to how we perform any multitude of tasks, or simply while away the hours–smartphones have altered almost every aspect of our lives.

It has taken time for some businesses to understand how those changes have transformed the rules for success. Mobile is not just a change in the way in which we interact and communicate; it often changes the nature of products or services themselves. We do everything from book trips to play games to sell clothing totally differently than we used to, so the old ways of measuring what makes a product ‘good’ don’t apply anymore. If you’re still using traditional metrics in the age of mobile, you might be falling behind.

The Games Industry – A Parable

A long time ago in a galaxy far away, computer games used to be sold in a box for $50 or so. Designing games was a craft–an ‘art’ even–and one way to tell that your art was successful was long play sessions, which would be measured in hours, in an ideal world. Fast forward to today, and things are very different.

Games are now primarily delivered via smart devices, and revenue is driven by in-app purchases and advertising. Most importantly, these titles now compete with a range of alternatives (social media, email, traditional media, etc.) for the user’s attention at any moment in time, and those moments may be short: the length of time it takes to wait for a cup of coffee. In this world, long play sessions are a decidedly mixed blessing, and it is certainly true that optimizing solely on that basis would be a mistake. Games need to be meaningfully playable in one or two minutes.

So the very definition of a ‘good’ game has changed, and in turn products have changed to meet that new requirement. And while the gaming industry has largely learned this lesson, that isn’t necessarily the case for many other mobile businesses.

When Too Much ‘Engagement’ Is A Bad Thing

Along the same lines, consider the metric of Engagement, or in plain English, the amount of time each specific user spends in your app. More time is better, right? Well…actually,no. In fact, in many cases it is a very bad thing, and if you unthinkingly prioritize an increase in engagement, the chances are that you may be making a very grave mistake.

To understand why this is the case, consider the fact that the vast majority of mobile businesses fit into one of two categories:

  • The first type depends on attention, and sells advertising on that basis. Think Facebook and other social platforms, traditional and modern media outlets, and the games companies mentioned above.
  • The second type depends on helping individuals get things done. Think Uber for rides, Trivago for booking travel, or Venmo for giving money to a friend. We don’t use these apps to kill time, and in fact we have a reasonable expectation that killing our time is precisely what they won’t do.

If your app is in the second category, ‘better’ engagement is usually a bad thing. You’ll still want to check that too many users do not ‘bounce’ out of the app because it confuses them, but in general you want users to achieve their goals quickly and painlessly.

In most cases, you will want your business to be in the second category. The first, as indicated by the examples given, is dominated by some of the world’s largest and most successful companies. Needless to say, competing with companies like Facebook, EA and CNN is a challenge.

The second option, however, is not so dominated by established players, and only requires that mobile businesses do one job well. The challenge here is to ‘become a verb’ (think Google), and be the go-to brand for a particular task or user requirement.

To succeed at that, you’ll need to design for the native mobile audience. That requires making the process as simple, intuitive and quick as possible. You will need to build native mobile interfaces. And you’ll certainly need to ensure you’re really optimizing for the right metrics.