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Rethinking the Association App

April 30, 2014

The Apps Members Really Want and How Associations Can Get Mobile 

A smartphone app giving busy members association information at their fingertips seemed like a great idea two years ago to Joe Kras, the Michigan Association of REALTORS® communications director. And it was, for a while. 

“But now we’re in the process of abandoning our app and moving into a responsive website,” Kras says. “The new website will be compatible on all mobile phones and tablets, making the app obsolete.”

MAR’s IT manager, Andrew Francoeur, says problems arose with the association app when Apple declined to approve it after it was upgraded for the iPad and iPhone 5. 

“With all the different operating systems, screen sizes for phones and tablets that are constantly evolving, and Apple’s delay to approve apps, we decided to start looking at redesigning our website instead of trying to keep up with apps for every individual device,” he says.

It’s a similar tale at the New Jersey Association of REALTORS®. Although members can still download the association’s app, Allison Rosen, director of communications, says it’s not used much anymore. “It’s essentially a mobile version of the website, so it’s really obsolete since our site is already mobile-friendly.”

The Chicago Association of REALTORS® used to have an app that featured neighborhood descriptions, upcoming classes, event information, and member benefits details. CAR got rid of it about a year ago after realizing that members simply preferred using association tools online rather than from an app, says Barbara Matthopoulos, the association’s senior director of communications and media relations.

Whether your association app sinks into obsolescence depends entirely on how you use it, says Clint Skutchan, CEO of the Fort Collins Board of REALTORS® in Colorado.

“The best feature of our app is the ability to push information out to members’ smartphones and mobile devices,” he said.
“When we had a sudden change of venue for an event, we pushed out the new location to attendees via our app and not one person showed up at the old location,” Skutchan says.

Push notifications—having messages pop up on members’ smartphones or devices just like a text message—is a strong benefit of Fort Collins’ app. About 20 percent of members use the app, Skutchan estimates.

Fort Collins’ app is also a bit different from most. When members open the app on their phone, they choose tabs that redirect them to the association’s website, its YouTube channel, and other resources in the device’s browser. Although this limits the use of the app to only when connected to the Internet, it’s a far less expensive app to build and maintain, at about $1,000 a year developed by Power Apps That Work. The portal app is becoming the main way members access association information, Skutchan says, adding, “We’re conscious of not pushing too much stuff to members. We don’t want to duplicate our e-mail stream. We push out the market stats and calls to action, not this week’s class or events.”

Rethinking the Association Website

The popularity of apps in general and their streamlined, user-friendly delivery of information is driving associations to rethink their website design. Rosen says the New Jersey association’s rebranding campaign in the works now includes a new responsive design association site with features that make it feel and act like an app, but without having gone through development on all app platforms. “The goal for the site is to be streamlined—both in appearance and functionality—and make it quick and easy to find relevant information, sign up for classes, pay dues, etc.,” she says.

A responsive website makes a ton of sense today, says Nobu Hata, director of digital engagement, National Association of REALTORS®, but the value of a site that can be seamlessly viewed on mobile devices hinges on how content-driven and social it is. “Because all associations have a trove of MLS, economic, and market data of value to members, making sure users can ‘like’ or share the content to their own social media is key to a responsive site.”

Members Love Apps

According to the NAR’s 2013 Member Profile, 86 percent of REALTORS® use a smartphone with Internet capabilities on a daily basis, and 20 percent of realtor.org visitors get there via a mobile device.

RAE found plenty of very popular apps from REALTOR® associations and MLSs. The key, however, was content. Apps that provide home search functions and market statistics thrive, while those that just offer class schedules and member directories stagnate.

“The most heavily used apps by REALTORS® are those that are purpose-driven—neighborhood information, transaction workflow, CRM, contract signatures, reviews, marketing, video, social media,” says Hata. “These apps have become part of everyday workflow in a REALTOR®’s business, hence the reasons why association apps aren’t used.  Home search functionality within association apps is the closest I’ve ever seen to them being useful in the day-to-day workflow.”

In El Paso, the REALTOR® association’s MLS app for members and home search app for consumers have about a 50 percent member adoption and good public use as well, says Jason Sanchez, director of MLS and technology. “The two apps are both real estate-centric; we do not push association information (events, dues bills, etc.) through them,” he notes.

Andrew Sims, communications director at the Birmingham Association of REALTORS® in Alabama, knows how important it is to measure what members want from an app (or if they want an app at all) before building one.

Sims is a former senior mobile strategist at the app development company Appsolute Genius, where he learned planning and the right content are vital to an app’s success.

“As we’ve been rethinking mobile, we’ve been spending time on member surveys geared toward exploring how our members use existing apps on their phones, and how they use our website to determine if there is a way to either provide blog content or news updates via push,” he said.

Even though a responsive website should be a “no-brainer” for associations today, Sims says, mobile apps provide a unique secondary platform for information sharing, and the costs can be reduced with advertising. 

Home search or community-focused apps are a better investment for associations, says Sims, noting the success of the Houston Association of REALTORS®’ Houston Living app launched in October. “This is a perfect example of investing in community building and area exploration, which is ultimately a hot place to be in mobile,” he says.

The Houston Living App is a partnership between the city of Houston and Houston Association of REALTORS® to better help residents connect to a variety of public services, such as bus routes, libraries, parks, and police stations, as well as find restaurants, events, local deals, and even elected officials. 

HAR built the app working with the city and is also working on a neighborhood explorer app.

Few associations have the technological resources of the Houston association. Apps can be expensive to build—and maintaining them is work and the cost is often overlooked.

Although more associations are finding that responsive Web design is their mobile answer, there are other ways to get on the mobile bandwagon.

“Leveraging existing mobile social media like Facebook is a great solution for associations that have an audience there; however, all platforms require content to drive use,” says Hata. “Ensure that content is short, sweet, succinct, visual, and shareable. Use video and infographics and make sure content answers the question: ‘Does it make or save money?’”


AE’s Favorite Apps

We asked AEs and association staff what their favorite apps are right now.

EntraPass: “An app that allows me to check whether doors in our building are locked or not and lock or unlock them, too.”

CamScanner and CamCard: “I use the first for scanning and e-mailing copies of recipes to my bookkeeper so I am not walking around with tons of loose scraps of paper at meetings. I use CamCard to scan business cards right into my contact list.”

Evernote: “I can keep track of everything from meeting notes to brainstorming ideas, to interesting articles, photos, even my workouts and diet. The Web clipper is a great tool that allows me to grab anything that piques my interest online and tag it for future searches.”

Dropbox: “We’ve been using Dropbox to manage packets for our directors’ meetings. Directors can always find the most current agendas, minutes, and financials without having to search through their e-mail.” 

Numbers: “Great for touch spreadsheets on the iPad, where Excel is a bit clunky.”

LinkedIn Pulse: “The easiest-to-use app that gathers news from the feeds I select in one place. I have one for real estate.”

Wunderlist: “Great collaboration app that we use to share specific to-do lists with staff and leadership.”

Eventjoy: “Event app that not only lists sessions and speakers, but we can push announcements to attendees’ smartphones.”

BombBomb: “We use this for sending video e-mails to members or quick video messages to staff and volunteers. We really can convey more with images.”

Facebook: “I can keep current with my members on Facebook, so when I see them in person I can engage them in conversation because I know a little about what’s going on in their lives.”

GQueues: “Task manager that integrates with our office Google apps and lets me assign tasks to others. It has changed the way our staff collaborates with volunteers.”