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Using An App for Marketing: Appland Thinking Harnessed By RedOakSnap

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Using An App for Marketing: Appland Thinking Harnessed By RedOakSnap

Mobile technology presents a whole new range of possibilities for building a business by digital means.  Yet it’s hard to make money directly out of apps, because users are resistant to paying for them.  Let’s call that Appland thinking! The Oatmeal has a great comic strip on this very topic.

In this interview with John O’Connor, founder of Red Oak Tax Refunds, Appland is revealed as we check out what it takes to build an app to build a business.

Business Models for Apps

There are three principal business models for apps:

  1. Free – a customer service tool, generating sales, sales leads or revenue from advertising
  2. Freemium – free, but a small number pay to upgrade for extra functionality
  3. Paid – a more traditional business model. You pay a fee to buy the app.

The App – Red Oak Snap

Red Oak Snap, developed by Red Oak Tax Refunds, is an app for iPhone that can be used to record landlord and / or medical expenses using a mobile phone. Year end summaries can then be used for a tax refund claim, and photos of all the invoices are stored on the web as back-up to the claim. The app is free to download and free and easy to use, and users derive real benefit from it. The app is designed to generate sales leads for Red Oak, and fits into business model #1 above.


Tell me a bit about Red Oak Tax Refunds

We launched  Red Oak Tax Refunds in the month preceding the emergency budget in April 2009.  Seems like a lifetime ago, doesn’t it!  We established in Carlow in the Carlow County Enterprise Board offices.  We have grown in staff numbers over that period to our current staffing of ten.

We started by offering a tax refund service on a commission basis, effectively a finder’s fee as we do not get paid on that business if we do not get our customers a refund.  We have extended that into other personal tax services, such as PAYE landlord accounts.  We do not deal with self-employed individuals or do company accounts.

We are fully self-financed and the company is 100% owned by myself and my wife Frances.

At that time, early 2009, there was a renewed appreciation of the amount of money that was going to waste in overpaid tax, so our Budget and Tax Refund calculators proved to be good tools in creating awareness of our tax refund service.

So using Tools & Technology has always been important to the business?

It has really.  Prior to starting in the tax refunds business, I worked as a Business Analyst in large systems implementations in Investment Banking.

I have certainly traded off that experience in setting up Red Oak.  From the start we have focused, not just on the customer facing tech tools, but making sure we have good systems in the back end to ensure we could efficiently deal with a volume of traffic while retaining high levels of customer service.

And why did you decide to build Red Oak Snap, your new iPhone app?

Good question!

I suppose firstly, why build an app?  I’m going to have to ask you to set aside your preconceptions of mobile phone apps here as being music, games and social media.  These are really soft entrance options for people in to the whole world of mobile technology.  Now many people are ready to broaden their usage.

The buzz word for me around mobile technology, (read this as mobile phones), is ‘utility’.

By utility, I’m talking about stuff that’s useful: saves us time, saves us effort, and allows us to do things on our terms.    These are things that a mobile phone allows beyond what a computer allows, and for the one critical reason – portability.  It’s a mini computer that’s on your person.

Where’s the utility in Red Oak Snap?

Red Oak Snap allows you to record, for example, a medical expense that you can claim against your tax bill.  You simply need to record:  a copy of the receipt, the amount, date and type of expense.  With Red Oak Snap you can take a photo of the receipt for your electronic copy and simply record against it the other information needed.

Two critical points of utility here:

  1. You don’t have to worry about losing your receipts, or filing them, or going through them at the end of the year to total them up.  It’s all stored within the app and backed up to the server.
  2. You can complete the task there and then.  You don’t have to put the receipt in your wallet and hope you remember it later and file it correctly.   We have removed the likelihood of  error.

Our research shows that over 50% of PAYE Taxpayers lose medical receipts which costs them in overpaid tax. With increased use of mobile phone technology, we’re going to see a significant reduction in this, with no extra effort, with increased accuracy.

So why did you make it a free app?

We see Red Oak Snap as a lead generation tool and something that can increase the profitability of our clients.

In terms of profitability, one of the main frustrations of our business that both prevents client acquisition and reduces the refund we can get for our clients is the lack of documentation. We believe the app will help greatly to alleviate that.

Red Oak Snap has also helped us increase our profile and brand awareness. Then, particularly on the PAYE Landlord side, we see significant lead generation benefits.

Will you make the app available on Android?

We will do that in the future, yes.

Do you have to pay anything to Apple even though the app is free?

We just had to pay Apple for a developer license, about $99.

How have you marketed the app?

We have marketed the app through:

  1. Our existing customers.  We contacted them through email, Facebook.  One trick we did was look up that “Sent from iPhone” phrase in our CRM to identify particular customers who used their iPhones a lot and we in particular targeted those.
  2. Social Media. Our Facebook following is largely comprised of our own customers anyway, so I’m really talking about Twitter here.  Twitter has a large portion of influencers and good communicators and is a particularly good way to access journalists.
  3. Traditional PR.   In the first four weeks after launch alone, we featured in the Sunday Times, Irish Times and all the local newspapers and radio stations.
  4. Advertising.  We have advertised the product online. We have also had an advert on TV promoting the app as part of our tax services.  We have used the app there to hopefully generate business in tandem with downloads.

How are you measuring success?

While the app is free, we are really looking for it to generate new business.  In many cases we will be able to monitor the actual business created and tie it back to the app as source.

But due to the nature of our offering, we will have to track carefully how app users convert over time.

The cycle from awareness to conversion to actual business could be a long one,  as in our business the product being sold can only be sold to you once a year!  So if a client likes our service and would like to use it, it will be up to 12 months before they are ready to consume it again.

John, thanks for sharing your “Appland” experiences with us, and may Red Oak Snap be a “win win” both for taxpayers and Red Oak Tax Refunds alike.

Have you any experiences of building an app to build your business? Please let us know in the comments below!

Helen Cousins, a chartered accountant by profession, is a business mentor, trainer and consultant for a wide range of Irish SMEs, often working under the auspices of state agencies via her company Xcel Business Solutions. In a successful career spanning more than 25 years, Helen worked in accountancy practice for PricewaterhouseCoopers, and worked in Financial Controller and senior management positions in manufacturing industry, before starting her own consultancy for small businesses. Helen is also a self catering entrepreneur, operating her own self catering holiday home business in Wexford. She is a director and former Chair of the Irish Self Catering Federation, and she works closely with the tourist industry in Ireland.

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  • Hi Helen, Accountants are sometimes given a bad press over their use of new media so this is an important example and demonstrates how apps can be utilised for B2B. I love the way John segmented and effectively targeted his customer base through identifying customers who has “Sent from iPhone” via their CRM, what a really smart move. In fact, he sounds like a really smart operator, full stop! Another great interview, well done 🙂

  • Hi Niall,
    John is an accountant who uses the smart thinking that he applies to his clients’ businesses to his own business too – a cobbler who looks after his shoes! When I was presenting on building digital business at an accountancy conference, he rocked up to watch the reaction of other accountants to the app, because other accountants could be an important source of referral business for him, another smart move.
    Thanks Niall, the interview practically wrote itself 🙂

  • THanks F

  • Thanks Niall, Helen brough 

  • Thanks John, credit must also go to your tech team as It looks fab and is easy to use. Well done all! 

  • A great interview Helen and John. A vital resource for a specific target market. I just love WIN-WIN situations and this is a perfect example John.

    Well done and wishing you every success at Appland 🙂

  • Paula Ronan

    Thanks Helen – an interview with utility! I will download the app immediately 🙂

  • Anonymous

    Really fascinating Helen and it will be so interesting to see what happens over the first year of offering his App for free. I can see John’s thinking about why he is making it free – wider reach and (as long as it’s used) a constant potential source of leads back to his business. 

    I wonder if it would be worthwhile creating some tests of free and not free offers to different but comparable segments? Could it be that the conversion rate for those who place even a small value on an App would be higher, even if the take up levels for the App may be smaller?  

  • Hi John
    It was a surprise! But a nice one and great to meet you at last :)~ Helen

  • Thanks Elaine. Win | Win it is 🙂
    ~ Helen

  • All tax deductible expenses in one place, not quite living the dream, but certainly avoiding the nightmare!
    Thanks Paula 🙂
    ~ Helen

  • Now there’s an idea… Thanks Lorna 🙂

  • Hi Eamonn
    Freemium (some free, some paid), certainly works for some Apps as a business model. In this case, I think that the customer segment at which this App is aimed, (employeees who may be due a tax refund), might not value extra functionality.
    It would be good to look back at the end of 2012 and see what value the App brought to Red Oak Tax Refunds in marketing terms – great idea Eamonn & I’ll try to facilitate that!
    ~ Helen

  • I think that is great idea. Applications might get better support your marketing campaign as well as your it may help to increase your sales leads. As far as technology sales leads is concern, this kind of application could play very important role.

  • Welcome to Tweak Your Biz Chuck. And what a great first post. Definitely making the customer feel special will reap rewards and you’ve provided some good examples too. Looking forward to your next post.

  • Welcome to TYB biz Chuck. Just a thought for a follow-up post: how about doing one the personalization of marketing and comms activity for businesses. Even though many companies offer customization it’s sometimes lost in translation when marketing to consumers. Great post.

  • Elish Bul-Godley

    Greetings Bamidele & Welcome to the blog group. That was a very useful post which touched on issues and the ” type of post” we have all been observing and discussing for some time here. I especially like the point you made distinguishing resource posts from tips and the whole tips list thing has been an over-saturated part of the business blog sphere and it is becoming apparent the content is getting more pithy and dilute.

  • Nice list. I definitely think the speed issue is important. I will click away if I stumble on a site and it loads really slowly.

  • Bamidele Onibalusi: Your post made me realize once again that I have to present my services in a more “packaged” way, in order to generate the right leads. But on the other hand… 😉 This is a topic that I will write a post on, drawing my 11 years of blogging and how it have resulted in business according to the referral process (know, like, trust, ref., profit). Dr. Ivan Misner created the V.C.P (visibility, credibility and profitability) process that is taught at BNI.

  • Bamidele Onibalusi

    I’m glad you enjoyed the post 🙂

  • Bamidele Onibalusi

    I’m glad you agreed on the speed issue; sometimes, “little” changes like that could have a lot of impact.

  • Bamidele Onibalusi

    You’re welcome, Elish!

    You’re right, it’s easier to confuse list posts with resources posts but there’s a huge difference between them. Every resource post I’ve ever published on any of my blogs have resulted in significantly more traffic than other posts, especially on the long-term.

  • Bamidele Onibalusi

    Thanks for hosting me, Niall! It’s a pleasure contributing to Tweak Your Biz 🙂

    I’m also glad that you agree with my points based on your own experience. Proof that this actually works. Thanks!

  • Bamidele, I really enjoyed this post, a lot of takeaways here.

    A lot of businesses, especially small businesses find this “blogging” and “content marketing” thing a bit difficult to get their head around and generally aren’t easily sold on the benefits.

    The proof is in the pudding as they say because when my agency launched a new service (new brand and new website too) .. our first paying client came off the bat of a single article that I wrote on the blog of our new site – just so happens that we’ve got a great relationship with this client now that’s been very mutually beneficial and they’re still a paying customer now.

    The key is getting your content in front of the right people and the resource posts that you mentioned are an amazing way of doing that.

    Especially when you reach out to the people/companies that you have mentioned via email or social media and ask them to share.

    Thanks for a great read!

  • I always preach – rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. If you have rehearsed enough if technology fails you will know the material backwards and forwards and can go on without it.

  • Hi Joseph,
    Interesting post and thanks to Sian Phillips for sharing it with the BizSugar community. Too often Web publishers think of their sites only as tools for their business, but not enough as a business that can be sold. I’m wondering what you feel are the most important qualities a website should have to make it more saleable. I would love if you could post your answer over in the BizSugar community for the benefit of all our members.

  • Kim Huang

    Bamidele, I recently came across a free tool called meetleads, which generates leads from your blog. Just wanted to share with you.

  • Welcome to Tweak Your Biz Tarun. Preferring online shopping myself I’d welcome any improvements in actual stores to entice me to use them. You’ve made some great points and I look forward to your next post

  • Welcome to Tweak Your Biz Frank. I work from home half the week and must say that I much prefer it. I have to be focussed as the job has to be done – and mainly only I can do it – and I live alone so I don’t get the distractions that some people may with a family. I think it’s certainly something that many should consider as an option though. I look forward to your next post

  • I have studied the concept, The Third Place, for some time and it is interesting to see how we are able to work in different settings nowadays. I have heard some IT companies (e.g., IBM) that don’t have stationary workspaces for every employee, instead they have to use mobile desks depending who is in and who is on the road.

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