Building Super Apps: points to ponder

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The concept of Super Apps and the success stories in China (WeChat, Alipay) and South East Asia (GoJek primarily) have been well documented, especially in tech & business columns. The discussion took centre stage again, even in mainstream media recently after it was revealed that the diversified Tata Group has plans to build a Super App of their own. 

“There’s an app for that” to app fatigue

The App Store was launched in 2008. The full extent of its potential wasn’t perhaps apparent back then. It clearly has been a game changer in many ways – it has changed our lives in many ways and spawned countless new entrepreneurs and industries. What we take for granted today – mobile payments, video calls and consulting with doctors, breaking news alerts, entertainment on the go and so much more have been enabled by that initiative.  It has inspired several entrepreneurs who’ve gone on to create and build industries thanks to mobile apps. Who would have thought a gig economy or EdTech would become common just over a decade later? 

In the initial years of the App Store, the novelty factor was still at play and there were several apps which were simply mindless fun – even downright silly. Remember the fart sound apps and cats which would repeat what you said? However, there were apps which made us more productive, had utility value, addressed special interest groups and so on. There were a glut of apps then, mostly focusing on doing one thing and doing that well. Currency conversion, world clock, identifying plants & birds…the list was endless. ‘There’s an app for that’ was a great summation to convey that you can get almost anything done through a native app. Things that we take for granted today – listening to podcasts, streaming movies, watching Instagram stories, hailing cabs and more are thanks to the app revolution. 

However, phone hardware limitations (storage) and time-pressed, distracted lifestyle meant that there were only a handful of apps a consumer would access regularly. Google coined the phrase ‘toothbrush test’ to gauge if an app has the potential to be used at least twice a day. One might check the score on a sports app several times in a day but the need to book hotel room nights through specialist app for a hotel brand may only be on a few occasions in a year. It may be very tempting for a brand of wall paints to create an to visualise how a room looks with a new colour of paint but the usage occasion is likely to be just once a year. Ditto for say, a health insurance brand. 

All of this led to app fatigue and many enterprises realised that a native app is not a must-have for their business. So ‘proceed with caution’ was the mantra. There are categories where a native app is an advantage or must-have: news, audio & video streaming, utility services and  so on. So it has now become a fight to attain the ‘must-have’ or at least ‘use often’ status when it comes to apps. 

The trigger for Super Apps 

The rise of Super Apps is attributed to China and Indonesia where buoyed by the huge traffic to a couple of apps, their brand owners decided to utilise that base to offer more services. Over time, the convenience of being able to accomplish many tasks in one app (thus negating the need to have multiple apps) caught consumer fancy. WeChat, GoJek are not just for chats or food delivery but help accomplish anything from doctor appointments to bank transfers. 

Aside from the plain utility value there is ‘cool quotient’ attached to brands such as GoJek led by the marketing of its tech capabilities and hence attracting geeks and product managers. This has a positive ruboff on the brand especially among the youth who are likely to see it as a great brand to hang out with. 

In India, apps such as Paytm which started of as a simple wallet service, today offers bank transfers, online shopping, financial services, pickup & drop and more. It also offers mini programs within the app: doctor consulting, food & pharmacy, a unit converter to name a few. Personally speaking, I see some value in such Super Apps provided they allow for tasks to accomplished as smoothly as a specialist app previously used and offer the same or better user experience. For example, Bookmyshow was my default app for booking movie tickets. But since I could use Paytm for the same task (and just as seamlessly) the usage of the former declined. However, my go-to app for food ordering is Swiggy (though that app too is morphing into an ‘accomplish-it-all’ one) and have not been tempted to try other specialist or generalist apps which may offer a similar service. 

The journey to a Super App

In my view the journey towards a Super App begins after acquiring a sizeable, loyal user base through a basic, focused service offering first.  That offering’s overall experience and brand equity must be so good that it becomes a habit or default option.

The confidence to offer a multitude of services arises out of that first step. Paytm build their user base through simple wallet payments. Amazon has built a solid user base through Prime and the basic shopping service. 

Once consumers are habituated to their service it is easier to offer additional services such as what Amazon is doing with offering food delivery (in Bangalore for now), pharmacy delivery etc. Ditto with Reliance Jio – the huge subscriber base is already being tapped to offer Jio Cinema, Jio News, Jio Engage and more. Even though Jio Mart is a separate app for now it can possibly be integrated into a Super App (if & when it happens) later. 

Even in a scenario where a single app is used for multiple services & utilities they all have to be held together with a common theme or need. The services on offer should appeal to a majority of the user base. If the ‘super app’ offers something incongruous to a large section of their users or something that is best served by a ‘specialist’ app elsewhere it may not sit well with the overall offering. For example, a user could rely on specialist apps for sleep tracking, intermittent fasting or mindfulness coaching and expecting them to switch over to a super app may be impractical. 

It’s a bit like the ‘integrated homepage’ concept which existed a few years ago. My Yahoo and iGoogle were built along the same lines. But they were aggregators for top news, weather, etc., but for specialist reference or reading one accessed other sites. 

Super Apps and conglomerates

Aside from the likes of WeChat, GoJek and Paytm several diversified businesses have either offered single-window experience or planning one. According to Indian Express, ‘real estate firms Majid Al Futtaim Group, Emaar, Chalhoub Group — having a large portfolio with presence in shopping malls, grocery and entertainment are building digital assets’. 

A diversified business group like Tatas has a vast user base to cater to across B2C and B2B. Moreover, the demographic and psychographic profiles vary. It remains to be seen if the plan is to appeal to the consumers of Titan, Westside, Croma, Tata Motors and Voltas among others on a single app or a differentiated strategy to cluster ‘similar’ audiences is adopted across the 10 verticals. 

Ultimately the basic tenets of success in the mobile app space will come into play: finding a need in the market and fulfilling it through a great customer experience, discoverability and giving consumers a reason to turn to the app as often as they can. 

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