Mobile apps have emerged as sizzling-hot retail and marketing tools. As apps for smartphones and tablets approach ubiquity – App Annie predicts that by 2021, the app economy worldwide will hit a stunning $6.3 trillion – apps are increasingly advantageous for small local businesses. Bars, restaurants, flower shops, hairdressers, medical professionals, and community-based goods and services of all types are using apps to improve the customer experience.
The primary reason is burgeoning device popularity and the amount of time people spend with mobile apps on their devices. According to the research firm eMarketer, mobile phones will rest in the hands of 67.3 percent of the population in 2017, totaling 219.8 million users. And those hands are busy tapping away at mobile apps, which account for 50 percent of time spent on digital media for U.S. residents over 18, according to comScore's 2017 U.S. Mobile App Report.
That's a lot of people. The question is not whether your company can benefit from having a native mobile app, but under what circumstances it is practical to develop and maintain an app, infusing it with fresh content and compelling features that keep customers coming back.
Here's what you need to consider as you make your decision to app or not to app.
What is your goal?
A dedicated mobile app serves multiple purposes in assisting current and future customers. It can introduce newcomers to your business and better serve existing customers in promoting new products and services, special offers, loyalty programs, and other perks for in-store or remote commerce. It's a connection to your customers in real time, allowing them to check your hours, directions, available merchandise or any other information you choose.
A well-designed app makes all relevant information and services available in a minimal number of taps. If your app doesn't make life easier and enhance value for your customers or clients, then you're doing it wrong.
Who are your customers?
Most businesses seek broad customer appeal, ranging in age from 18 to older than 65. Of those, the four youngest age groups prefer mobile apps to websites, according to comScore, which found that the best way to acquaint the 18- to 35-year-old crowd with your business is via an app.
Of the youngest group, some two-thirds of millennials say they are generally excited about new apps (65 percent), wish they could do more with the apps they have (66 percent), and are constantly on the lookout for new apps (70 percent). This coveted group is the most persistent downloader of new apps. Consumers aged 35 and older are much less interested in new apps, with levels roughly half that of millennials.
How mobile-oriented are your customers?
Unsurprisingly, the same group that loves its smartphone apps and looks forward to downloading new ones spends an astronomical amount of time playing around with them. comScore found that "the smartphone dominates for 18- to 24-year-olds, who spend an amazing two-thirds of their digital media time on smartphone apps alone." But they are hardly the only ones.
Older age groups display a similar disposition toward discrete mobile apps: In the 25- to 44-year-old age group, more than 50 percent of digital media use was dedicated to apps, with the 45- to 64-year-old age group following close behind. Only those older than 65 preferred the desktop over mobile apps, comScore found.
The comScore survey also reports that the youngest users spend slightly more than three hours per day on apps, while the 25- to 54-year-old age group spends roughly two hours, with time spent dropping to the one-hour range for users older than 55. Overall, comScore found that time spent on apps overwhelmingly dominated mobile websites by 87 percent.
What do your customers want?
If you're considering a dedicated app, keep in mind what customers seek. According to Clutch, a B2B research company, customers rely on apps to provide "high-tech, personalized experiences" with such features as discounts on products, in-app purchasing, discount push notifications, loyalty rewards, product recommendations, opt-in for personalized experiences, social media integration, location alerts and augmented reality. In a recent survey, Clutch found that nearly 60 percent of consumers want e-commerce apps to personalize in-store shopping, while more than half expressed interest in augmented reality on e-commerce apps.
The same young people who enthuse over new apps are also more likely to make purchases using them, according to comScore. Nearly half of millennials made five or more in-app purchases each year, as opposed to older customers, who use it much less for transactions.
How does an app improve on your current website?
A dedicated app can leverage your current online presence, even if it was designed as a mobile-friendly, responsive site that easily transitions from desktop to mobile browsers and back. A website offering general information about your company is a necessity, like having a telephone. And like the telephone, your customers must expend effort to use it by searching out your homepage, bookmarking your site and navigating specific information. Even the friendliest of mobile websites are more complex and time-consuming than a mobile app.
Apps are natively mobile, and by not having to adapt to a different format, they can concentrate on more immediate, customer-centric concerns. According to Nikunj Sanghvi, who leads U.S. sales and business development at Robosoft Technologies, "Users prefer native mobile apps over mobile sites because of the user experience, the loading speed, as well as the fact that apps offer frictionless shopping by remembering passwords and storing payment options."
What is your strategy for building an app?
Once you decide to build an app, the next step is to strategize the approach. Can you produce an app using an off-the-shelf app builder, or should you hire a professional developer to create one for you from scratch? App builders such as AppMachine, BuildFire, GoodBarber and ShoutEm are excellent resources for those who can spend the time to learn and use them. While not especially difficult, designing an app with this software will take time, which may be something you don't have, especially if you also have a business to run. In that case, consider pulling in additional expertise to lend a hand.
How much can you spend to build and maintain an app?
Depending on whether you go for a mobile design and experience company to custom-design your app or a do-it-yourself app maker, expect to plunk down some cash. It's tough to generalize across a vast range of businesses and app requirements, but here are some hints.
DIY services are inherently less expensive and can offer exciting, professional-looking results. Most services charge monthly fees, which can range from $20 and up, depending on your app, devices and marketplaces. Charges can also include hosting fees and app store placement. Just make sure the company you choose is prepared to deal with regularly changing app store requirements from the likes of Google and Apple.
You can also economize and enhance your professional results with a hybrid approach. Start with a DIY app maker, but use one whose company also offers in-house services. This way, you can devise the basic wireframe of your app first and then hand it off to the pros for advanced, specialized features. While that approach costs more than doing everything yourself, it's cheaper than having an app firm design it from scratch.
While prices vary widely, app development in the U.S. can range from $50 to $250 per hour. Ken Yarmosh, CEO of Savvy Apps, says simple apps for a single platform can cost up to $25,000, while more complex apps can push into six figures. Companies need to consider budgeting for updates and marketing, while apps requiring a back-end server or integrated APIs will cost even more, and building for both iOS and Android will add to the cost. The more features, complexity and platforms you build into your app, the higher the price.
Building a dedicated smartphone app is sure to benefit your small business. Vast majorities of users already enjoy shopping with mobile apps and use them regularly because they make shopping easier – even easier than using a website. That means plenty of customers eagerly await your app, and it's up to you to provide the services and user experiences they crave.