Is your small business among the many that still haven’t gotten around to establishing a website? Here’s advice you might not have heard before: forget about it. With consumers increasingly using mobile devices to find businesses and shop online, a mobile app could be a better way to bring in customers than a traditional website.
Paul Choi, CEO of the design and development firm Worry Free Labs, which has created apps for well-known brands including Disney, says, “Everything is moving to mobile. The trends are enormous, especially for the 18-40 year old market.” Choi sees Mom & Pop shops using mobile apps to engage customers outside of purchasing goods. And smart retailers use apps to create loyalty programs that get customers in the door, but also let the business track users' behaviors, such as how often they’re purchasing which goods, he says.
Starbucks’s app is one stellar example: “Their loyalty points program gives you a free cup of coffee on your birthday and lets customers store money on the app rather than paying with cash or credit cards,” Choi says. The user-friendly app also gives Starbucks access to valuable customer information.
Li-at Karpel is mobile marketing director at Conduit, a company that provides "tools and customization options that allow anyone to create their own mobile presence" including mobile apps for iPhones and Androids. She says small businesses are the hosts of more than 90 percent of the 150,000 mobile apps created with Conduit tools since the company launched its cloud-based app platform in 2011. With a favorite store or service provider’s app, a customer can shop, place orders, get driving directions, make reservations, book appointments, receive and read content, grab coupons, find out about special deals, and give feedback from a smartphone.
Karpel cites a New Hampshire gym that used Conduit to create an app to let members sign up for fitness classes and check class schedules. An Ontario veterinary clinic has reeled in new customers by advertising an app that contains a coupon for a free first exam. And people in the market for a new home in Las Vegas can use a local real estate firm’s app to search listings by neighborhood, use mortgage calculators, and even submit a loan application, she says.
Karpel says most small businesses are “in the same boat” when it comes to tapping their customers’ mobile devices: “Everyone is walking around with them and using them all the time. For companies without resources, it’s a big challenge trying to catch up. They either need to pour in a lot of resources or learn how to do it themselves.”
Business owners who don’t jump on the mobile bandwagon could be missing out on opportunities. But those with limited budgets might balk at the cost to establish a mobile presence. Ballpark price tag for professional development of a “bare bones marketing app” is around $10,000, and a fully customized app that makes the most of the features of a mobile device would cost north of $35,000, Choi estimates.
The decision to take that step, he says, depends on whether “a company is OK with slowly declining sales from a traditional retail perspective” or wants to take advantage of technologies that can help them compete with disruptive newcomers. It’s a long-term investment, but, Choi says, “an app can help you compete with Amazon.”
Conduit’s DIY customers use its tools platform to design their own apps for free, and then pay on a plan according to the app’s usage. But there can be a downside to amateur design. As the Worry Free Labs website tells prospective customers: “Mobile users are quick to take action—buy, call, register, respond—but they're just as quick to run away from ugly, unusable interfaces.”
Whether you go with a pro or try to design your own app, Choi says it’s important to remember that an app isn’t something you can just throw out there and hope it gets adopted. “Let customers know the benefits of the app, offer discount programs through it. There are lots of ways to integrate it with your business,” he says.
For a business with no more than a $1,500 annual marketing budget? Choi says "they should spend it on a mobile website" instead of an app. For that kind of money, he says, at least you can create “a way for people to check out your services and find out where you’re located from a smartphone.”