You can’t monetize utility the same way you do a game

by Rafael Vivas on May 30, 2017

People use utility apps in the moment so they can be distracted some other time.

If mobile game apps are to help us pass the time, then utility apps are to help us save time, or use it more efficiently. That dictates a different approach to monetization for brands and publishers.

Utility apps are a big part of our lives. We use calendars to plan, messaging to communicate, news readers to learn, maps to navigate, etc. The common thread with each of these apps is that they do something that makes it easier for us to live our lives everyday — they use technology as a tool, not just a distraction.

Because we use utilities so frequently and organically, they are an excellent place for publishers and advertisers to create native advertisements and calls to action. But finding moments of utility in “real life” is very different than identifying moments of engagement in Angry Birds or Candy Crush.

In-game objectives vs. Real life to-dos

When somebody’s playing a game, they want to score high and move forward in the loop. Offer them the opportunity to watch a short video and earn a reward that will help to get past the level they keep failing and the user will probably do it, because they’re getting something they really want, right when they want it. That’s a pretty easy moment for both app publishers and advertisers to identify. But with utility apps, it’s not as  clear.

Just because somebody walks past the same Chipotle a couple times a day on their way to and from work doesn’t mean they’re in the mood for a burrito. The fact that one has an appointment to see a podiatrist on their calendar doesn’t mean they’d appreciate an ad for antifungal foot cream. To make advertising work in utility apps, publishers need to identify those micro-moments when the user is truly receptive to messaging, and advertiser’s must create an engagement that make their life a little easier, right then and there.

The key to success is providing the utility app user with solutions that don’t distract from their agenda, but elegantly align with it. In other words, don’t attempt to set goals for the user; recognize their goals and make it easier for the user to accomplish them. A big part of this is understanding that, in the user’s eyes, completing a task is much more important than the tool used to do so.

Tools of utility vs. Moments of utility

When you do a little landscaping at home, it’s  to improve your property. You may pick up a shovel to do the job, but if somebody showed you an inexpensive tool that helps get the job done a little more easily, you’d probably use that instead. That’s because the important thing isn’t using the shovel, it’s improving your home.

In this case, the shovel is a tool of utility, whereas when you decide to do the work, set time aside for it, actually complete the task, and have friends over to enjoy your improved yard aftewards — these are the moments you really care about. A lot of publishers miss the idea that the moments directly after users complete an action of utility are some of the strongest opportunities to monetize. Why? Because the user just checked something off their to-do list and feel good about it — a great moment to engage with anyone.  

Another example: Let’s say you’re on your way home from work, driving and using a navigation app to find the ideal route. What you’re  thinking about in those moments, what’s important to you, is getting home in time to get the kids to soccer practice, then hit the store for kabobs and Chianti, or some such. That’s all you care about. Why, then, would a publisher or advertiser want to distract you with anything else? It would just be annoying and out of context.

Don’t assume because someone is driving by the outlet mall that they want to be troubled with a time-limited, in-app ad for 50% off new jeans. Do so, and they will get irritated with your brand and the app that delivered the experience, because you clearly do not care enough to understand what’s actually important to user in that moment. Even if the user gets that this is a tough thing for you to do, they certainly don’t care. If you distract them when they’re trying to get things done, you will probably never see them again.

The only way to keep users around is for publishers and advertisers alike to get good at monetizing moments of utility. To do that, they need to become dedicated artisans of native in-app engagements.

Gathering data vs. delivering experiences

Understanding the full context of a user’s life in a given moment requires connecting a lot of fragmented data and making sense of it in real-time. To do that, you want to focus on just those bits of information that provide a clear signal as to the user’s intent and desire.

Utility apps that tell us where somewhere is and what’s on their schedule are great sources of contextual info, but you also need to combine that with information from a user’s browser searches, social media interactions and such to understand the true nature of their intent. Device and connectivity data is important to consider as well — why would you want to engage a user on a throttled WiFi connection with a high-def video that will take forever to load and display poorly? It’s better to wait until they’re on a fast-flowing 4G connection and deliver an experience they’ll enjoy.

When somebody goes to the grocery store, they may have a smartphone in my hand, but they’re probably not playing Pet Rescue, so don’t try to message them on that app about your mayonnaise on Aisle 4. Much more likely they are messaging back and forth with a spouse, or friend,  about what needs to picked up at the store, or some plans they are making. So, if you want to reach the user meaningfully at this time, understand their real context and create an experience in Messenger that jibes with the utility of what they’re trying to accomplish.

The recurring theme in all of this is that people use non-gaming apps in ways that naturally service our daily life, and life is no game. App publishers and advertisers must recognize this and build experiences that cater to our utilitarian objectives, not distract us from them.

Rafael Vivas is President of Lion Studios.