Money Can’t Buy You Love: Why Some Apps Work, Some Don’t

Sitting on the very bumpy flight back from New York to San Francisco, I finally had a chance to catch up on all the hullaballoo around the newly launched Color app. With the stunning amount of cash the company raised from white-shoe venture firm Sequoia Capital and the big-name founding team, not to mention the help of a VP of communications and marketing amongst its ranks, team Color got everybody’s attention.

But it was for all the wrong reasons. I say that because the only attention any app needs is from the end users. After reading Jason Kincaid’s write-up, I downloaded the location- and socially-aware photo-sharing app, but found it as barren as the endless sands of the Sahara. Some say that will change in time as more people show up on the service.

But lost in this back and forth is a bigger problem encompassing the entire web and mobile ecosystem. The Color app faces the same challenge as many of today’s mobile apps: How can it earn a user’s attention in a world that is increasingly crowded with options? In fact, you can extend that argument to any consumer service: new appliances, new devices and media entities new and old.

These services are like the flickering, flashing and constantly changing billboards that plaster the buildings around Times Square: It’s almost impossible to focus on any one of them. Some are bigger, some are brighter, but most are completely forgettable. That, unfortunately, holds true for today’s web and mobile services.

Many entrepreneurs and their backers don’t quite give the proper weight to “attention.” If a new startup can carve out time in our Facebook- and Twitter-dominated, CityVille-playing, Lady Gaga-listening, Rebecca-Black-video-sharing day, then it should really be the one to watch. is one of those apps that managed to figure out a way to squeeze itself into our busy lives. It has several million users now, and only a few thousand of them are what would be described as technology insiders. Similarly, Beluga (acquired by Facebook), Spotify, Evernote and Instapaper have found a way to draw attention (and thus usage) from its users.

Do they need to displace something from our daily web/mobile app die? I don’t know. I do know that I have not opened PicPlz for nearly a month, despite the service sending me repeated email notifications. Compared to Skype, Nimbuzz gets more of my attention because it allows me to send instant messages to my colleagues via Google Talk. As a result, I end up using its call-out service more often than Skype to place long-distance calls.

Looking at all of these examples, I see two clear reasons why these services have my attention:

  • Happiness (alternately, enchantment)
  • Utility (alternately, solving a problem)

I am currently reading two books that address these issues. Typically, these aren’t the kind of business books I read; I like books that are about explicit learning. Nevertheless, these books were from two guys who are extraordinarily nice and thus worth a read.

Guy Kawasaki, a former Apple evangelist turned self-evangelist has a new book out, Enchantment. When you take away the marketing babble, what Kawasaki is saying is that as long as you delight your customers, they are going to reward you with their attention, and hence their dollars.

Guy learned that lesson from Apple. Most of us think Apple is in the business of making hardware. Nope; Kia and Dodge are in the business of hardware. Apple is in the business of happiness. It’s the first and foremost emotion associated with an Apple product. The rest of the business is just the formality of handing over your credit card to the annoyingly smug guy at the Apple store.

This also applies to Bose audio systems. As an audiophile, I cringe at the very idea of Bose speakers. My brother-in-law hears a simple way to find audio bliss. The world, fortunately for Bose, is full of people like my brother-in-law.

One of the reasons works is because it has that “happiness” attached to it. When I see my friend’s baby boy, it brings me joy. I see Mathew Ingram at an ice hockey game, and it warms my heart to see him enjoying time with his family. I reward with my attention because it makes me happy. That is its utility.

This is the emotion at the heart of Gary Vaynerchuck’s idea of The Thank You Economy, in which the companies that provide the most value to their customers win. It’s a quaint notion, as old as the first bazaar, but somehow it got lost in postindustrial over-commercialization.

When I use Marco Arment‘s Instapaper, I quietly thank him, pretty much every single time. Why? Because he solved a problem for me and made my life more manageable. As a result, I gladly upgraded to the paid version of the app. And when I’m not saving or reading articles using Instapaper, I’m telling everyone I can tell: Try it. That’s what the “thank you economy” really is: me doing marketing for a product I have only an emotional or utilitarian connection to.

I look at all these great tablets coming to market. They are feature-laden, power-packed, and have bundles of computing oomph. And yet, they will all struggle because the makers are all looking through the wrong end of the telescope. My friend Pip Coburn emailed me, pointing out that people with iPads are the ultimate commercial for the device. The more people who have them, the more people want them. “People will trust other people who do not carry an agenda to build revenues and manipulate you,” Pip wrote. Bing!

Don’t believe me? Put all the things that are part of your daily routine into these two buckets — happiness and utility — and you will see it for yourself that in the end those two are the driving forces behind a successful app, service, device or media property.

So when it comes to services like Path, PicPlz and now Color, I’m not a hater. It’s actually worse. I don’t really care. Why? Because these apps lack the empathy that drives constant interaction. You can’t buy empathy with a $100 million valuation or $41 million in the bank. And you certainly can’t ensure happiness with a resume and an executive team.

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