Zerve Takes Alternative Route on Mobile Journey

Today’s consumers have a hearty “app”etite. Last year, there were more than 1.43 million apps on Google Play, 1.21 million on the iOS App Store, and 293,000 on the Amazon Appstore, according to January 2015 statistics by app tracking platform appfigures. In fact, research suggests consumers prefer apps to mobile websites and actually spend more time on apps. But given the crowded marketplace, it can be difficult for brands’ apps to standout—let alone land on consumers’ home screen. That’s why activity-finding platform Zerve entered the mobile scene by focusing on its mobile Web experience instead of creating an app.

Growing up mobile

Zerve is a platform that aims to answer an age-old question: What do you want to do? Launched in 2003, Zerve started off strictly targeting merchants that offer local activities, like food tours or harbor cruises. Using the technology, businesses could provide an online place for locals or tourists to read reviews, check availability via its calendar feature, and book tickets. But around 2011 and 2012, Zerve noticed that more consumers were turning to mobile searches to figure out what to do in their spare time. Knowing that the company had to adjust to consumers’ evolving behaviors Zerve set out to develop a mobile experience. Rather than immediately launching another app into the marketplace, Zerve decided to focus on creating an optimal mobile Web experience.

“There’s almost a religion that if you’re going to be in mobile the way to be on mobile is to have an app,” says Scott Newman, Zerve’s founder and executive chairman. “To many people, they equate app with mobile, and that’s actually not at all accurate.”

Big plans for the tiny screen

It wasn’t the technical difficulty that deterred Zerve from creating an app, Newman says, but rather it was the reality that consumers only have so much real estate on their mobile home screens, which they generally reserve for email, social, and their favorite gaming apps. 

“Certainly there are some apps that have been successful,” he says, “But there’s roadkill around those success stories.”

To avoid becoming an app that consumers visit once and then banish to the second or third screen, Zerve decided to take advantage of the apps consumers already have on their phones—their browsers. Plus, creating a mobile-optimized Web experience, versus an app, enabled Zerve to keep all of the content featured on its desktop experience—the company just had to optimize for mobile and people on the go.

Take user-generated content, for instance. According to Newman, Zerve has more customer reviews for its local businesses than Google, Trip Advisor, and Yelp combined. If a consumer were to search “Classic Harbor Line NYC”, for example, she would see that there are 10 Google reviews, 97 Yelp reviews, 654 Trip Advisor reviews, and 9,576 Zerve reviews. Plus, consumers can filter reviews to see ratings and comments about specific activities the excursion provides—such as how its sunset jazz cruise differs from its architecture tour—and see basic information about the person who wrote the review, including his or her gender; age range; whether he or she was a local or a tourist; and whether the reviewer did the activity with family, friends, or on a date.

“We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel….What we did want to do is figure out how do we carry that forward to a different use case—to someone who is looking at a much smaller screen who has different issues in mind, which could be…running around, on a bus, [or] it could be last minute,” Newman says.

Rising successes and challenges

This past November Zerve expanded its platform to be more consumer-facing. Instead of having to go through Google or the merchant to find Zerve, consumers can now visit Zerve.com and input a location, when they’ll be there, and during what time of day they’ll be there to find available local activities. And in the past six months, the number of mobile transactions (as a percentage of overall transactions) has increased 70%. Newman attributes his company’s success to both the rising reliance on mobile and the decision to allocate resources towards building a mobile-optimized Web experience versus an app. As for successes on the merchant side, Newman says that Zerve has experienced a 90 to 98% retention rate for merchants every year since the company’s debut.

In addition to these measurable outcomes, Zerve has been able to learn some valuable insights. For instance, Newman says that the company has noticed an increase in the number of calls to its call center, which he attributes to people’s resistance to enter sensitive transactional information on their mobile device.

“Internally, we’ve noticed a trend towards more people wanting to get back on the phone to complete the transaction even though they found it online,” he explains.

However, there are still a few obstacles that remain perpetual challenges for the team at Zerve. Not only does the company constantly have to design with a smaller screen in mind, but it also has to consider the notion that the experience has to speak to consumers who are surfing the mobile Web on their couch—not always on the go. Also, Newman says that’s there’s nothing preventing people from researching on Zerve and then completing the transaction somewhere else. Zerve makes money when tickets are purchased through its platform, so this could potentially pose a problem.

Newman, however, says he’s not concerned.

“We’re not in this to nickel-and-dime anybody, and we don’t look at this in a short-term way of we have to capture every transaction,” Newman says. “We look at this as our job is to help the merchants grow their businesses and to help consumers better spend their free time. If that means sometimes we’re helping people and they wind up booking not through Zerve, that’s fine.”

Future innovations

As for future developments, Newman says that the company is looking to develop an app. Actually, he says that the company has been working on an app for the past few years and that it has always been part of the company’s long-term strategy; it just wanted to wait until Zerve was the place for figuring out what to do.

So although his mobile journey may seem a bit backwards for some, it appears to have been the right path for Newman and his team.

“Don’t get caught up in listening to what everybody else on the outside tells you [that] you have to do,” he says. “Of course listen, read, pay attention, look at data, pay attention to trends, and all of that. But at the end of the day, it’s your business, and [they’re] your customers; and sometimes what the gospel is on the outside world just isn’t right for your customers.”

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