The need for a mobile presence is growing increasingly important for today's businesses.
Mobile applications are one option businesses have when trying to connect with customers and clients on their smartphones and tablets. Recent research revealed that the average time people spend using mobile apps has increased 21 percent in last year and that 85 percent of consumers prefer using mobile apps to mobile websites.
Andrew Gazdecki, CEO of Bizness Apps, a do-it-yourself (DIY) service that lets entrepreneurs build their own apps, said mobile apps are unique because the consumer chooses to download them. This is clear sign that the customers have an interest in your products or services, he said.
"Mobile apps are one of the best ways to increase customer loyalty, engagement, commerce, scheduling and communication," Gazdecki told Business News Daily.
Before jumping right into the process and building an app, the first question you need to answer is whether doing so will benefit your customers, said Michael LaVista, the founder and CEO of Caxy, a Web application development firm that specializes in mobile app development.
"If a business can make ordering easier with an app, or [allow] checking on status with an app, or deliver something customers want through an app, then it's worth investing in," LaVista said. "Having an app to have an app isn't worth it on its own."
Nicholas Acuña, co-founder of the mobile development firm Ebbex, agreed that you don't just build an app because you see everyone else doing it.
"That is the completely the wrong way of thinking about it," Acuña said. "If your business is going to create an app, it has to bring value for your customers."
If you do have an idea for a mobile app that your customers would find useful, you have two ways in which you can create it: use a DIY online service or hire a digital firm or consultant to develop it for you.
"It's not that one is better than the other," Acuña said. "It all depends on what you want to build."
Small businesses can use a variety of online services to create mobile apps on their own. These platforms provide entrepreneurs with the tools to create and publish mobile apps.
What's especially appealing about these types of services is that you don't need any tech or coding experience to use them. These services provide everything you need, including step-by-step instructions on how to design an app that best suits your needs. [How to Choose a DIY Mobile App Maker ]
While most DIY mobile app services allow you to build apps for both iOS and Android devices, many of the services also provide the tools to create apps for Windows phones and BlackBerrys.
Two other major benefits of using DIY services are how quickly apps can be built and how little they cost. It typically takes less than an hour to build an app with these services. Most of the services charge a monthly fees, which can range anywhere from $1 to a couple hundred dollars, depending on the type of app you build. The monthly charge includes the cost of hosting the app each month and of making sure it gets placed properly in the app stores of your choosing.
The major downside to these services is that you can't build a fully custom app for a unique purpose, Gazdecki said.
"For example, if your business is a social network or you're looking to create a game, you'd need to look into custom development," he said.
Magaly Chocano, founder of app creator SwebApps, said the creation process should begin with entrepreneurs defining their goals. Businesses need to ask themselves whether the app will be an extension of a product or a tool for their consumers to stay connected, she said.
"Once the business determines the level of complexity they are seeking, then you can decide whether a build-your-own platform suffices or if you need to have a custom app built," Chocano said.
But, in general, DIY services are a great way to enter the mobile space, Chocano said.
"It allows you to take a peek at what you can do without too much expense," she said.
Hire a developer
If you need a more sophisticated mobile app that offers users more functionality, you'll likely need to hire a development firm to do the bulk of the work.
Developers will work with you to determine what kind of app will best fit your needs, and then will do all of the work designing and building it.
Depending on the complexity of the app being built, it often makes more sense to hire an experienced development firm or consultant.
"Unless your company is a software company, you're probably much better at making widgets, delivering services or something else," LaVista said. "Working with a firm that understands software and understands mobile will get you to market faster and more successfully than trying to figure out a brand new business on your own."
Hiring a developer to do the work for you does come with a significant cost. Mobile-app firms and consultants can cost anywhere from a few thousand dollars to as much as hundreds of thousands of dollars.
"Custom apps are likely to cost $25,000 at the low end and go up quickly with more features," LaVista said.
The price really depends on how "luxurious" you want your app to be, Acuña said.
"We liken it to buying a car," Acuña said of the different price levels, noting that you can get, for example, a Toyota, Kia or Mercedes. "Not all apps are created equal."
When hiring a development firm, you also need to consider the length of time it takes to complete a project. These projects are not quickly turned around in a matter of weeks, and these types of firms or consultants can take anywhere from a couple months to longer than a year to finish a custom mobile app.
One real plus of having an expert build your mobile app is that such professionals typically work on the project long after the initial launch. The likelihood that a mobile app will be perfect once upon its initial release is slim. Mobile development firms typically work with clients, usually for an added cost, after an app is up and running to see what's working and what is not. Once that is determined, the firm will go back and make changes so you can release an updated version that better fits your customers' needs.
When hiring a developer, there are several things you should consider. First and foremost, check out the companies the developer has worked with in the past.
"A reference check really says it all," LaVista said. "It tells you what a company is like to work with."
You also want to look for a firm or consultant that is going to spend time up front learning about your business and customers. Acuña advised shying away from firms that quickly say they can do what you want, without first understanding what you really need.
"If they don't seek to understand what your objective is, then run away," Acuña said.
You also want to consider pricing when hiring a developer. While everyone aims to get the best price possible, sometimes being quoted a cost that is well below everyone else's offer can be a red flag.
"If it's really cheap, it's too good to be true," Acuña said.
You should also take into account what type of mobile apps the firm has created in the past, how those mobile apps look and operate, the type of payment plan the company requires, if the firm will work on updates after the launch, and whether they will provide you with the source code after finishing the project.
Types of applications
The apps most people are familiar with are business-to-customer applications. These include apps that are mobile versions of a company' website, apps that influence interaction between a business and customers, or fun apps that draw attention to a business's brand.
"A mobile application is not a scattered marketing ploy," Gazdecki said. "It's rather a platform that allows a business owner to cultivate existing relationships and turn regular customers into brand advocates."
In addition to business-to-consumer applications, some businesses create apps solely for internal use among their employees. These types of apps can be used to help boost productivity or increase communication.
Regardless of the way you choose to develop your app or what it's used for, it is important to remember that an app isn't just something you launch and then never touch again.
Acuña said that companies too often underestimate what owning an app takes beyond development.
"Do you have the staff, time and resources to see it through?" he asked. "It it's successful, it takes on a life of its own."
This story was originally published in 2010 and updated August 26, 2015. Additional reporting by Brian Anthony Hernandez.