SessionM Enters the In-App Rewards Battle

Today mobile marketing startup SessionM came out of stealth mode, revealing its plan to help drive engagement within apps through a points system that users can redeem for real-world rewards. SessionM isn’t the first company to try something like this, but it is one with a pretty substantial pedigree: it’s co-founded by Lars Albright, who previously founded Quattro Wireless which Apple later acquired and used to launch its iAd platform.

SessionM plans to try to to pair engagement and discovery by allowing its rewards to be collected across apps and redeemed independent of any one offering. It’s an approach that makes a certain degree of sense: what developer wouldn’t want to have a chance not only to boost their visibility, but also encourage people to play? But Albright’s model also could be a case of a company trying to do it all, when a more focused approach actually has a better chance of striking a chord with developers.

In an interview with Kiip, the startup that made a name for itself offering gamers real-world rewards in exchange for in-game play, founder and CEO Brian Wong told BetaKit that SessionM’s plan risks sending users out from an app, rather than actually encouraging them to be more engaged. “I think they’re taking the wrong angle,” Wong said. “I don’t think app developers like people stealing their users.” He argues that by directing users out to their centralized mPOINTS platform, SessionM is taking away a lot of the potential value for individual app developers and publishers.

“I really admire what Lars is doing, because he’s trying to do everything, but when you look at the engagement plan, there’s really only one thing users can engage with and that’s your brand,” Wong said. “And I think what [SessionM] had decided to do was ‘let’s have them engage with our points as well.’ But when you have two systems to engage with, what is it users are actually engaging with? Is it the points that they want, or the brand that they want?” Wong contends that there’s a long history of systems that have tried this kind of approach and failed.

By contrast Kiip lets developers reward users directly, without worrying about any external points platform. In theory, a single developer could potentially game SessionM’s system by making it incredibly easy to score mPOINTS; if the points are what players are after, they’ll jump ship to the easiest possible option. Kiip’s method is arguably more immune to that kind of manipulation. On the other hand, SessionM’s offer of a built-in discovery avenue could be appealing, especially to new developers finding it hard to reach an audience in mobile marketplaces. Both Kiip and SessionM offer their platform free to developers, and make money through partnerships with brands providing rewards.

Another new startup in private beta called Tapfame is also trying to both drive engagement and discovery using in-app contests. Developers can use the company’s API to create their own in-app contests based on whatever goals they choose to set. So, for instance, app developers could provide an Amazon gift card to whoever achieves the highest score in a game during a given week. Internal contests help drive engagement, but company co-founder Satjot Sawhney says the company’s larger goal is to help with discovery.

“We immediately help with engagement, but our core value proposition is delivering downloads,” Sawhney explaned. “As users participate in Tapfame contests they become part of the Tapfame network. When a new developer launches a contest we notify our network (via email and/or push) and drive thousands of downloads to the app running the contest.” Tapfame then charges a cost-per-install fee to its app partners to monetize the service.

Apple recently acquired Chomp, likely in an effort to kickstart App Store discovery as the size of its mobile software marketplace grows even bigger. But the next big battle around mobile marketing won’t be about discovery, it’ll be about retaining users and converting them into long-term, loyal customers. Loyal users provide a constant revenue source through the purchase of in-app upgrades and unlocks, which are less time-intensive from a development perspective than creating a brand new title from scratch.

We probably also haven’t seen the last of Apple’s acquisitions aimed at boosting the value proposition of the App Store for developers, so it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that Albright could become a two-time winner if SessionM’s approach works out.

Update: SessionM CEO Lars Albright responded to our request for an interview after the original time of publication. He emphasized that SessionM’s goal is indeed to drive engagement and try to delivery additional in-app value.

“We believe that the foundation for success starts with an engaged and active user. For this reason, we’ve created a platform that allows developers, brands, and advertisers to make their mobile content and advertising more fun and rewarding for consumers,” Albright said. “The content and advertisements that we deliver to consumers are relevant and engaging, and add value to mobile users’ in-app experiences. Additionally, our HTML 5 layer allows us to deliver a rich experience all while keeping the user right in the app.”

When asked about what advantages his platform provides over competitors like Kiip, Albright stressed the flexible nature of the platform. “We offer an achievement, points, and rewards platform as well as scalable video and rich media ads as opposed to focusing on promotional giveaways and leaderboard contests,” Albright said. “Because we enable brands to access a broader network that goes beyond games to reach their audiences in more contextually relevant environments, we are confident that we’ll attract more dollars from a broader spectrum of advertisers.”

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