Three reasons why your union shouldn’t bother with an iPhone app

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I’ve seen loads of unions consider creating iPhone apps. An iPhone app is perceived in some circles as not only an essential element for engaging “young people”, but also as a status symbol. For example, a recent article over at “CyberUnions” advocated for unions to get into the app development business.

(I use iPhone apps interchangeably with apps for other smartphones, such as Android apps or Windows Mobile, Nokias, etc.)

However, do you really need a smart phone app? In my view, no, you probably don’t.

1.The mobile web is bigger, more accessible

State of (Mobile) Web Development 2011 Infographic from

While an increasing number of people have smart phones, consider your membership. Do most of them have smartphones? Chances are that most of your members will use a Nokia or other phone that is not considered a “smartphone”. However, most modern mobile phones can access the Internet – called the Mobile Web.

In fact, even smartphone users are more likely to fire up their iPhone version of Safari to check Google than fire up an app. This is especially the case for less tech-savvy users. More and more people are surfing the Internet from their mobile phones.

In Australia, more than four in ten people access the Mobile Web, and that is increasing. Accessing the Internet from your mobile phone is mostly considered “mainstream”.

Apps are just unnecessary unless it does something unusual or unique. The kinds of things suggested by Cyber Unions – who is my shop steward, information about collective agreements, union office locations, next branch-meeting details and so on – are all exactly the kinds of things you wouldn’t bother with an app.

If your app is just a revised version of your website, with contact details, an RSS feed, and videos or photos, then you’ve wasted your time and money. You should have spent those resources on developing a mobile version of your union’s website.

The Mobile Web is platform-neutral. That means you develop only one version of your mobile website, which will work on all smartphones. This saves you time and money – you don’t need to develop an iPhone app, an Android app, a Blackberry app, etc.

2. It costs a lot to build and more to keep developing

These days, apps are not just a “build and forget”. With iPhones, Android and Windows phones always getting upgrades and new features, app users expect additional features and functionality. Just building an app that is a glorified RSS feed will not only ensure that no one uses your app, but unless you continually add new, useful features or make it easier and easier to use, your members won’t re-use the app once they’ve downloaded it.

You will need to keep developing your app. Whether it’s adding new features, or improving issues like security, or fixing bugs that get found through constant use, there are ongoing costs to apps.

Then there’s developing apps for other platforms – once you’ve built an iPhone app, there is pressure to develop one for other platforms – Android, Windows, Blackberry, Palm, and so on. If you just leave it at one – iPhones – then you’re missing out on a growing audience for your app. All of this extra development costs money.

Perhaps you have a really good idea for an app. Perhaps you want to recreate Obama’s app. There’s a big price-tag associated with doing that. If you want a really good app, expect to pay for it. And expect to keep paying.

3. Almost none of your members will use it

Not only will very few of your members actually download your app – even fewer will use it regularly.

Consider the most popular apps. They are games (used every day while commuting or waiting to relieve boredom), are social media apps (like Facebook, which would be checked regularly at the office and can now be checked “on the go”), or are “productivity” apps (which integrate into regularly used desktop-programs like Evernote, Dropbox, Campfire or similar).

Is your app something like this? Do you currently think your members log into your union’s website on a daily basis (if you do think this, please let me suggest that they don’t)?

As I mentioned earlier, unless your app is something truly amazing – not just a glorified RSS reader or photo gallery – then it won’t be used regularly or even at all past the first time.

[box type=”tick” border=”full”]What do you think? Are there some awesome union iPhone apps out there that you want to share? [/box]

Also, check out the NTEU’s iphone app here.

Update: Don’t forget Mobile Email

Over at EchoDitto is an interesting article about the growth of mobile email – people checking their emails using their smartphone. With over 30% of mobile phone users checking their email on their mobile phone, they ask the question, are your emails optimised for mobile?

The bottom line is that a large number of people are reading emails on mobile devices. You do not want to miss out on a great opportunity to communicate with your supporters simply because you have not considered mobile optimization.

Email of course is the “killer app” for online campaigning, and should be an essential, unreplaceable, tool in your organising kit.

2 responses to “Three reasons why your union shouldn’t bother with an iPhone app”

  1. Walton Pantland Avatar

    I am still in two minds about this. I would really love to see an app that is not just for members, but for the general public too – for instance, around a specific campaign. In the UK, this would could be around mapping cuts and what they mean, possibly by using mashup software like Ushahidi.

    It’s not just a question of “do our members have smart phones” (and increasingly they do), but “do the people we want to communicate with have smart phones?”.

    I think a union smart phone app would be a great investment in the 21st century. But since unions are generally so far behind in using new technology, we should probably get the basic stuff right first.

    For instance:

    A decent website, easy to navigate, with up to date, relevant information
    A mobile version of the website

    For an app to be any good, it will need to connect to a database with relevant information – member details, rep contact and so on. I imagine creating the app would be fairly simple, but the data held by most unions is probably shockingly out of date.

    A good first step is probably to fix the databases, fill them with relevant information, and allow members to access them with a secure login (“My union”). Once we’ve achieved all of that, we can create an app.

    1. admin Avatar

      Hi Walton, if all the union app is doing is replicating information that could be on a mobile website, then its an unjustifiable waste of union resources.


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