By Matthew Ockwell, Advanced Control Systems
The proliferation of mobile applications in the utility industry has given rise to a multitude of questions from utilities about how they can successfully use such tools to improve customer interaction and satisfaction. Utilities considering the deployment of consumer-centric mobile applications should pay particular attention to these four critical areas to ensure delivery of a useful tool that will result in maximum adoption rates:
1. Discover-positioning the mobile application so that consumers can easily find it
2. Convert-convincing consumers to try the mobile application
3. First Impression-meeting and exceeding consumer expectations with unique content and thoughtful design
4. Return & Share-having a user return repeatedly to the app and, even better, having a user share the app with friends and family
Discover- The Needle in a Haystack
This first crucial step deals with how consumers become aware that the utility is offering a mobile application. Consumers typically learn of the availability from either of two sources:
Sharing: When a product provides a positive user experience, the likelihood of the user posting a review or telling friends and family about it significantly increases. This is quickly becoming the new way the public gauges the value of products before they bother to try them.
The general population has grown weary of ads and pushy sales tactics, perhaps feeling that too many companies exaggerate what they have to offer. Instead, they have grown more reliant on the opinions of current or past users-they want another person to vet it before they take the leap. This requires the app to be used and reviewed, but how do you do that if most of the population is waiting on their neighbor to try it out first? The answer lies in targeting a core group of individuals who are willing to be the first users. The significance of these initial users will be explained in the next section.
|FIGURE 1: Discover|
Placement: Forrester Research says that up to 63 percent of mobile app downloads result from search queries in the app stores-not from advertising. Mobile apps are ranked similarly to how search engines rank websites-they skim the content provided in the title and description for keywords. If the mobile app is described as “MyCityPower” but a customer searches for “utility app”, the mobile app will likely rank poorly in the search results. The app stores also rank based on popularity metrics such as number of downloads and customer ratings. Of these, the most important in terms of attracting users is the customer ratings.
Convert- Look to the Stars
Assuming solid keyword placement and a good app description is in place, the next critical element is the power of user reviews. When skimming through the App Store or Google Play, you will notice all apps have a ranking of 1 to 5 stars. A recent study by Apptentive shows 96 percent of people would consider downloading a “four-star” app, 50 percent may download a “three-star” app, and 15 percent may download a “two-star” app. When an app is rated with only one or no stars, the general perception is that the app is not worth downloading. Not only does a low star ranking mean poor adoption, but the app also will suffer in the app store search ranking as previously mentioned. Google and Apple are focused on meeting or exceeding consumer expectations by providing the best search results based on the query used.
There is no denying the importance of a mobile app’s ranking in the app stores, therefore, how does a utility ensure that the ranking is as high as possible? The focus should be on the initial users. You may have heard of the Law of Diffusion of Innovation, which explains that certain segments of the market will be more likely than others to take a risk on adopting new technology. One example of this is the individuals who camp out in front of a store for a week to be the first in line to buy the hottest new mobile phone or gaming system. These consumers enjoy being technologically adventurous and love their voice to be heard. The law of diffusion refers to them as innovators, and they can significantly influence the chances of a mobile app’s success for better or worse. This group’s opinion is almost completely dependent upon whether the product meets or exceeds their expectations. When expectations are not met, it will reflect negatively in the review ranking.
User Expectation- Content is King
A mobile app user’s expectations are derived from his or her experience with the product, and are best met through a mix of thoughtful design and unique content that is relevant to his or her needs.
Unique Content: Advanced Control Systems has used various surveys and focus groups over the past three years in an effort to determine what consumers really want in a mobile utility application. Our research shows it can effectively be boiled down to two important questions:
“- During an outage, the question is “When will my power be back on?” (In other words, “How long will I be without lights, TV, the fridge or AC/heat?)
“- On a typical day, consumers want to know “How does my behavior (usage) affect my power bill?”
The outage question is an expected one, but most utilities don’t currently provide enough detail to customers to appease their appetite for information. Increasingly, consumers want proactive and detailed knowledge of an outage-not only to be prepared or to make appropriate plans, but also to understand why it happened. Jeff Conklin, a vice president at market research firm J.D Power and Associates, recently explained this.
“When consumers experience an interruption in service, the first thing utilities need to get better at is providing comprehensive information about the outage-including the cause and extent of the outage, when power will be restored, and status of work crews and any equipment that needs to be replaced,” Conklin said. “And the best utilities are now getting proactive with outage information by providing it to consumers at the contact point of their choice.”
|FIGURE 2: Convert|
Power outages don’t occur frequently enough to encourage most consumers to adopt the use of a mobile app that only deals with outage information. The app needs to include a mix of both outage and non-outage content (“gray sky” and “blue sky” content). The blue sky content will be more effective at driving adoption because the content is relevant to the customer on a regular basis.
FIGURE 3: Electricity consumers’ two most important questions
Our research shows people want to know how much their upcoming bill will be, and how they can adjust their usage to help lower it if needed. This scenario should be a win-win for utilities and their consumers, since the public can regularly check their usage and are less likely to be surprised or angered by the charge at the end of the billing cycle. These “surprises” often end up accounting for a significant portion of inbound calls to utility customer service representatives, which can cost utilities an average of $6 per call.
Thoughtful Design: Think of the design piece of the user experience as the role physical attraction plays in the dating scene. The way a person looks is often what convinces us to approach them, while their personality is what endears us to them for the long term. In the mobile application world, interface design is the physical beauty, or the first impression, that drives users to explore a new product and experience the content that is being served up. When users experience a new product, they gauge that experience by comparing it to a similar one in the past. In other words, the utility app will be judged based on other mobile applications your customers routinely use. If it does not look and feel professionally designed, users will not trust it.
Content and design is a delicate balancing act-utilities may occasionally get away with mediocre design if the content is rich and unique, but don’t count on it. In fact, it is likely better to not have a mobile application at all than to provide a poorly executed one.
Return & Share- Sharing is Caring
It goes without saying that utilities want their mobile applications to be successful, but how do you measure success? The short answer is to measure it by how many customers return to the app after they initially try it. Avoid the temptation to gauge success simply by how many downloads the app receives. Measuring the success of an app by total downloads is like measuring the profitability of a car dealership by how many people take a test drive-it is merely a first step in the process of getting consumers to adopt the product. Consumers need to download and use the app in order to decide if it is really worth their time. Focus on how many customers use the mobile application at least twice.
Even though it is difficult to measure, the ultimate gauge of success is when consumers tell others about positive experiences with the mobile app. Word of mouth results in the highest adoption levels because it is the most personal form of reference. Remember to focus on unique content and thoughtful design to meet or exceed your users’ expectations, and they will spread the word for you.
Here’s a useful exercise: Go to the App Store or Google Play. Pick a few utility mobile apps and read the reviews. What features do the apps offer? How do the images look? What is the ranking? Are the customers happy?
Delivering a successful consumer-centric mobile application is not easy, but you can significantly increase chances for success by listening to the users and building a product that is functional, unique and attractive. Keep focused on the four key areas highlighted here and you’ll already be ahead of the game.
Matthew Ockwell is product manager, OMS & Mobile Solutions, Advanced Control Systems (ACS).