Experts agree: we are at the beginning of a new wireless era. By 2013, according to a recent report by Gartner Inc, consumers will be accesing the internet less through PCs and more through smartphones, iPhones, BlackBerrys and others. Another research organisation, Neilsen, predicts that smartphones will overtake standard mobiles by the end of 2011.
Many charities are already anticipating this next wave of digital innovation. The past six months have seen a proliferation of applications, or apps, created by charities for use with smartphones, and one or two for Apple's iPad.
Clearly there is marketing potential here for charities. But apps are a crowded market. Apple says that more than five billion apps have been downloaded from its store worldwide. More than 200,000 are available to choose from in Apple's store alone. So what makes a great charity app and how valuable are they?
Charities report that apps can be useful for generating awareness of a cause. All agree, however, that they are of limited value for fundraising. Apple controls what apps can be released on the iPhone and iPad, and approves all content on a case-by-case basis. And fundraising apps are rejected, say charities.
Apple did not respond to requests from Third Sector to explain why. But John Carnell, chief executive of Bullying UK, which has just released its second app, says the most likely explanations are that the company wants to protect its internal payment systems and retain consumer trust. "We've had numerous blusters with Apple, and I know others have," he says. "I don't expect them to change their mind. For us, the advantage is being able to deliver our service directly into the palms of hands."
If your app gets people talking, it can pay for itself in unexpected ways. iHobo from homelessness charity Depaul UK is the most high-profile charity app to date, and has clocked up more than 400,000 downloads since it was launched in May. The free interactive game offers users the chance to make decisions on behalf of a young man facing homelessness. "We didn't spend a penny on marketing," says Paul Marriott, Depaul UK's chief executive. "The app's success was entirely viral, and generated by word-of-mouth and user reviews."
iHobo topped the iTunes app chart and attracted plenty of media interest, even securing a mention in the Los Angeles Times. The charity is still calculating the value of the coverage, but one estimate puts it at £1.6m.
By prompting players to visit the charity's website, iHobo has also raised £7,000 in small donations from 3,100 people. "We didn't really expect it to make money," Marriott says. "But the rate of return on investment has been higher than any direct mail or media campaign we've ever run."
WaterAid is another charity with a successful app. Its free app ToiletFinder UK was launched in November and uses location-finding technology to help people find the nearest public lavatory. It also encourages users to visit the charity's website to make donations. So far it has been downloaded nearly 8,000 times. "It's not really a fundraising tool, though," says a WaterAid spokeswoman. "It's for awareness-raising."
Many charities want to emulate the success of WaterAid and Depaul UK, but Jonathan Simmons, managing director of digital agency PublicZone, cautions against falling in love with app technology. "If a charity starts a conversation with 'we'd like an app', then it almost certainly doesn't need one," he says. "Don't get into it unless you know what you want to get out. Charity clients often have a checklist for digital communications, believing they must have an app - but an app is no different from a website. The same questions apply: ask who will use it, why, and what it's worth to the charity."
According to Simmons, these questions must be answered if a charity wants to know whether an app will be a valuable investment. "An app is an answer, not a question," he says. "It's a tougher environment than the web, because mobile campaigning can be annoying and intrusive."
Simmons points out that good quality apps can be expensive, costing thousands of pounds to develop, and there is no guarantee of success in a nascent market. "You can build a straightforward app for very little money if you can find a freelancer to do it for you," he says. "But more complex ideas run into tens of thousands of pounds, plus maintenance and content-upkeep costs."
Depaul's Marriott agrees. Creative agency Publicis created iHobo on a pro bono basis, making it a risk-free enterprise. If this had not been the case, such a controversial app would have been a big risk, he says.
The Scripture Union is among a small number of pioneering charities to venture beyond smartphones. It has developed WordLive for Apple's iPad, an app that aims to present the Bible in an accessible way.
Martin Campbell, managing director of WordLive developer Baigent Digital, points out that the Scripture Union is a print publisher, which meant adapting its content for the iPad made commercial sense. But it is also a forward-looking charity, he says - one that regards digital media as central to its communications strategy. "It's rare because it doesn't have a separate digital team," he says. "It has digital experts within its marketing and publications team, and that way it's avoided silos. It's very much like organisations in the US."
Charities say Apple's restrictions on fundraising apps remain a stumbling block. But Bullying UK's Carnell points out that other platforms exist for smartphones that sidestep those difficulties. "BlackBerry, Symbian and Google's Android are all restriction-free and open-source," he says. "And I predict Android will shoot past the others to be number one, perhaps even this year."
Android mobiles accounted for 28 per cent of all smartphones sold in the US during the first quarter of 2010, according to research carried out by consultancy firm NDP. "We're all running Android handsets at Bullying UK," says Carnell. "iPhones feel rough around the edges in comparison. Android is speedy and it gets rid of the lag."
The charity has not yet developed apps for platforms other than Apple's, but that will soon change. "Once it hits all handsets, I predict we will see a proliferation," Carnell says.
FACEBOOK APPS - A WAY TO BADGER THOSE IN POWER
Charity Facebook apps have been around for several years, but Jonathan Simmons, managing director of creative agency Public Zone, says persuading the site's members to broadcast charity messages is not always easy. "In many ways, Facebook apps are the opposite of smartphone apps," he says. "Facebook is bad for spreading deep and complex messages, but it's great for organising events. Even then, it's very hard. If an application helps disparate people to organise themselves, socialise with one another and converse, it's a good idea. Otherwise, you're just asking them to be your media. Why would they do that for you?"
One organisation that cracked the problem is the international aid charity Tearfund. Its Superbadger application introduces a competitive element to social media campaigning by encouraging Facebook users to send pre-written emails directly to politicians and others who make decisions that affect those living in poverty - or, to put it another way, 'badger' those in power. The more badgering they do, the more points users earn, and a league table of Tearfund's top badgerers is published. The very best badgerers get a free T-shirt.
The app has been around since 2007 and to date has signed up 22,631 users, who have taken part in more than 177,000 separate actions on behalf of the charity.
Rachel Collinson, managing director of Rechord, the company that developed the app for Tearfund, explains: "It works because it's within the spirit of Facebook's social competitiveness and game-like culture."