How Zipcar turned the ignition on its Android app

by Brad Spirrison

You might say Zipcar had a bit of publicity when it launched its first mobile application on the iPhone two years ago at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference.

Back then, the majority of “zipsters” who used smartphones did so via the iPhone. Today, however, approximately half of the 94 percent of smartphone-using zipsters do so from Android devices. Accordingly, the company debuted an Android app last month that “has everything you need to get the most out of your (pay-as-you-go rental service) membership,” says Appolicious Advisor Caitlin Foyt.

In this edition of Meet the Members, we check in with Zipcar’s Vice President of Member Experience Lesley Mottla to discuss how the company’s Android launch compares to previous iOS efforts, why “gee-whiz” technology is actually practical technology, and how mobile plays a part in the company’s overall marketing efforts.

Appolicious: How significant are Zipcar's mobile applications to the company's overall marketing efforts?

Lesley Mottla: We’re focused on delivering the best possible experience for our members who are making car sharing vs. car ownership a part of their lives. We conducted a member study in December 2010, and found that nearly 94 percent of Zipsters use smartphones, with an almost even split between iPhone and Android users. Our research shows that our members are heavily reliant on their smartphones, and it is important for us to strive for a seamless experience between our service and our members.

In terms of marketing, the convenience that our mobile applications provide to our members is a huge selling point, and gives us a great advantage over our competitors.  Technology has advanced to the point where users can do almost anything using smartphones, and now both iPhone and Android users can lock and unlock Zipcars using their smartphones, as well as honk the horn of a Zipcar.  They can also search for vehicles, make, change and cancel reservations, and so much more, all without having to make a phone call or sit down at a computer.

APPO: Zipcar recently launched an Android application after unveiling its iPhone app in 2009. What took so long to develop an app for the Android platform?

LM: Understanding customer behavior is critical to evolving the Zipcar experience, and our investment in the development of both the iPhone and Android applications were driven by understanding smartphone adoption and member behavior. As mentioned, we conducted a member study in December 2010, and found that nearly 94 percent of Zipsters use smartphones, with an almost even split between iPhone and Android users. We had conducted a similar study in 2008, and at that time only 55 percent of our members were using smartphones, and the majority of those were iPhone users. We have seen Android adoption among our members grow significantly in the past year, making the time right to introduce this application.

All of our efforts are focused on being purposeful and creating a simple, intuitive experience for our members, and we wanted to ensure the Android app experience would be as robust and seamless as possible before we publicly introduced it in the market.

APPO: What lessons did you learn from your iOS experience that can be incorporated into your Android efforts?

LM: The two efforts for launching the iPhone app and the Android app were quite different. Our research showed us early on that our members were early adopters of technology, and we saw rapid adoption of the iPhone among our Zipster base when it was first launched. We were in the process of creating the iPhone app for our members when we were invited to showcase the app at Apple’s WWDC, which also included being featured on the App Store. That aspect gave the entire launch external milestones and instant visibility outside of our membership community.

The development of the Android application was really a result of member demand and our research showing that more and more of our Zipsters were using Android devices this year, making the launch very meaningful for our existing members.

That said, many of the features that exist on both apps are the same. We’ve learned from our iPhone app users which features are most significant and important to them, and made sure those features are part of the Android experience as well.

APPO: Nearly 20 months after the iPhone app's release, how do you maintain momentum and continue to drive downloads?

LM: Zipcar’s iPhone app remains a huge member benefit to Zipsters with iPhones, and still gets a lot of buzz both in traditional media - recognized by Time Magazine as one of the “Best Travel Gadgets of 2009” and one of the “50 Best iPhone Apps in 2011” – as well as in social media.  We maintain momentum and continue to drive downloads by making ongoing enhancements based on member usability and feedback. We released version 2.0 in February 2011, and feedback as been great so far. The app is a great utility for both new and existing members to get the most from their car sharing experience. We have had over half a million users download the iPhone app since we first launched, and that number continues to grow.

APPO: Compare that to launching the new Android app, and the marketing opportunities (and challenges) of launching an app on that platform.

LM: On the one hand, there’s more complexity because you need to test for many different types of Android devices; a challenge we accommodated by introducing the Android app as a private beta. The launch of the public beta gives us the opportunity to learn from thousands of members on their user experiences on a variety of devices and operating systems as we engage with our members to gain their feedback.

On the other hand, it has been much easier to make enhancements to the Android application on the fly, since there isn’t a formal review process for Android like there is for iOS.

APPO: How important is it to provide "gee whiz" functionality (like the ability for users to turn on a car's headlights and open its doors from the app) in addition to the core utility of locating and reserving Zipcar vehicles?

LM: All of our functionality has a purpose to deliver an easy and seamless member experience. What some may consider a “gee whiz” function actually matches the needs and behaviors of our many of our urban dweller members.  Being able to honk the horn and flash the lights from your smartphone is cool and fun, but it also helps members find their car in the middle of a Ziptrip when they’ve forgotten where they parked, or if it’s dark out and they’re having trouble recognizing the car.

APPO: How large is the mobile media team at Zipcar and how much (if any) development is handled by third-party agencies?

LM: Zipcar has a talented group of product managers, engineers and designers who do end-to-end development across the member experience – web, mobile, phone, car, support. The Zipcar Android app was created entirely by our internal team, and the iPhone app was largely created in house, with some assistance from external partners

APPO: When looking at the mobile media space at large, what are the three biggest things that can you up at night?

LM: The only thing that keeps me up is the growth, excitement, and potential of mobile platforms, and making sure that what we deliver for our members is not the latest fad, but a purposeful experience or feature that aligns with how they interact, and wish to interact with, our service and our company.