Could Google give fintech apps a needed boost?

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Fintech companies that have developed products for the underserved have a big challenge — reaching their intended customers.

Google and the Center for Financial Services Innovation are hoping to change that. The tech giant and CFSI, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting financial health, have been collaborating on ways to help customers wade through financial apps in the Google Play store. They are also trying to guide developers on building better consumer tools.

“The big vision is to help bridge the gap in the underserved community and bring the best financial tools to help them manage their day-to-day" finances, said Ashraf Hassan, partner development manager at Google Play.

The partnership started with CFSI’s innovation lab, where startups focused on improving the financial health of their users come to grow. Although Google Play was there to provide technical support and mentorship, it and CFSI decided to work together on advice for developers.

The guide, which was published in a post on the Android Developers blog, is part practical, part philosophical. There is advice on using Android notifications to keep users engaged, but there are pointers like those that remind developers that English might not be the user’s first language. The guidelines also stress six principles: know your consumer; focus on access; establish and maintain trust; thoroughly test the app; drive positive user behavior; and recognize the value of mutual respect.

And for apps that already embody those principles, Google Play has launched a dedicated page in its store to help ease the discovery process for app shoppers.

For Google Play, the partnership with CFSI marks the tech company’s foray into financial health as the area heats up. Besides fintechs targeting personal financial management, banks have increasingly been touting such tools as a way to build engagement and remain competitive. For CFSI, the partnership helps spread its message to Android app developers, with the much bigger goal of helping to improve consumers’ financial health through a device that is used on the go.

And the market for such products is huge, specifically for those not in the financial mainstream because many of those same people are overly reliant on smartphones. Indeed, smartphones usage is disproportionately higher among low-income individuals, people of color and young people.

“Millions of people around the globe have limited or no access to basic financial services to enable them to manage their day-to-day finances or prepare for financial shocks,” Google Play and CFSI note in the guidelines. “Mobile technology can help bridge this gap by connecting historically underserved consumers with high quality tools that will best help them improve their financial health.”

But to realize the mobile opportunity, consumers need to know what apps exist. It’s easy to search for an app if you know the company’s name. But the task could easily become overwhelming if you’re searching for “finance” in an app store and getting hundreds and hundreds of options without much context.

“It becomes easier to find the product or service or platform you want based on the needs you have,” John Thompson, senior vice president at CFSI, said in an interview.

The categorization of apps is something Thompson would like to see more of from platforms in order to help tackle a thorny challenge: consumer awareness of unknown fintech brand names.

“There’s an opportunity to make discovery a little bit easier based on need,” Thompson said.

Currently, Google Play’s new app page labeled “improve your financial health” is designed to help do that. On the page, Google Play features roughly 40 financial-health apps, including Venmo and Digit, and the tech company arranges the niche apps in rows by consumer needs, such as “build your nest egg” and “track your credit score.”

Stessa Cohen, research director at Gartner, sees Google Play’s financial-health page as a consumer-friendly way to understand what apps would help them accomplish what goal. “It looks simple,” Cohen said. “You need some organization. It’s why libraries exist.”

To be sure, the Apple App Store has a similar finance page that can be accessed via its categories tab. It also has providers segmented by types. For instance, tax tools are currently displayed at the top.

Still, simplifying discovery isn’t a slam dunk for getting consumers to engage with their money on their smartphones.

Even if consumers find the financial-health page, they would still need to settle on an app among a shopping mall of options.

Even with categories, the amount of options is still "asking a lot for a consumer who is saying, Can you lead me out of the jungle of personal finance," said Mark Schwanhausser, director of omnichannel financial services at Javelin Strategy & Research.

It’s noteworthy that Google Play’s financial health page has almost no bank presence. The few exceptions are ancillary apps like Level One, a money-management app owned by Capital One, or the neobank Simple, which is owned by BBVA. Other apps featured, like Digit and Moven, require relationships with banks to use the digital service or product.

Joel Newman, partner development manager of Google Play, said the tech company is highlighting apps with a specific focus while most traditional bank apps are broader. Sure, traditional bank app may offer the same kind of feature as one of the highlighted financial health-related apps but that feature won’t be the core value proposition as the apps are multipurpose in nature. However, Newman says bank apps could get featured in the store’s financial health page so long as they are narrower in focus. Zelle, big banks' version of Venmo, for instance, could potentially fit into the remittance section, he said.

Google Play plans to add more apps into the page and is in talks with CFSI on how to expand their partnership and have more impact, including raising awareness of apps globally. According to a recent report from Strategy Analytics, 88% of all smartphones run Google’s operating system globally.

“We see CFSI as the first step in a broader focus on financial health,” Newman said.

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