Does your small business need a mobile app to stay competitive?

If you listen to the growing chorus of small-business owners, going mobile is becoming a necessity

With more than 750,000 apps in the iOS App Store and 700,000 available in Google Play, it can seem at times that absolutely everyone has an appexcept you.

As a small-business owner, choosing whether to join the app-development club can be a difficult decision. You may feel like you have to build an app and go mobile to stay competitive, but youve probably heard that apps are expensive and time-consuming to develop. More and more users are dumping desktops and laptops for tablets and cell phones, so it makes sense to optimize the online experience for them. But is it really worth the effort? Cant they just use their smartphones to access the website you already have?

Its a tricky problem with no single cut-and-dried solution, but increasingly even the smallest businesses are saying yes to the mobile question. Ill take you through the challengesand the potential payoffsin a moment.

For those who do go forward with a mobile strategy, two approaches are commonplace: You can build a mobile-optimized website, or develop a full-blown, stand-alone app.

Is a mobile website better for your business?

Building a mobile-friendly website isnt complex, so typically you can commission one fairly cheap. In todays world, most Web developers can build a mobile-optimized version of your site without much trouble, presuming that you already use a modern, CSS-based design. If your site was built on older protocols, well, you have bigger challenges than whether to develop an app. (And you can expect to pay more for a mobile website in that scenario, accordingly.)

Some Web hosts even offer free or low-cost mobile websites if you're maintaining a full-blown website with the host. GoDaddy, for example, utilizes an automatic website-conversion tool from DudaMobile to transform the websites it hosts into basic mobile sites when they're visited on a tablet or smartphone, free of charge. Alternatively, if your website runs on the popular WordPress platform, several plug-ins, such as WPTouch, can likewise create a mobile version of your existing website. Automatically generated mobile websites sometimes run into conversion problems, however, and rarely look as polished as a developer-honed creation.

Another thing to consider: Mobile websites work universally, while apps do not. One phone's Internet browser opens a Web page as reliably as another's, but an Android app simply won't work on an iPhone or a BlackBerry. You'll need to create separate apps for each specific platform, or pick and choose your platform support.

Boldly going forward

That said, the argument for building an app is compelling. Mainly it relates to the way todays phones are designed. An app gives you much more presence on the phone than a bookmark on that phones browser does. Rather than forcing the user to launch the browser and find your URL, an app is always there, front and center on the mobile desktop. Your business is constantly in mind, whether the person is using the app or not. The goal, of course, is that eventually that user will hit your icon (even if by accident). That kind of thing just doesnt happen with mobile websites. A ComScore study recently confirmed that 82 percent of mobile media minutes are spent with apps instead of with the browser.

The other key advantage of mobile apps: Your mobile-friendly website cant really do anything extra that your regular website cant also do. Mobile sites are generally streamlined versions of the site you already have; the functionality is the same. But apps can be designed to do anything. Want to turn your businesss products into a video game or push notifications to customers? Build an app, not a mobile website.

Sarah Hudson of invention-development company Little Idea puts it simply, saying, As for whether or not SMBs should develop their own apps, we think they should, but only if there's a true use for the appsomething that goes beyond the information you can find on their website. If it's purely informational, it might be better to focus on a mobile website instead.

Of course, many companies hedge their bets and do both, if budgets allow. One common strategy is to use analytics tools to measure how many users are accessing the website via mobile OSs: When a critical mass of Apple or Android users begins arriving, start working on an app for that OS.

Does an app really make sense?

Although claiming that apps are great for everyone isnt prudent, more and more small businesses are deciding that apps make sense. Their reasons are varied and compelling. They want to be able to reach customers 24/7, instead of just when customers are at a computer or in the store. They want to keep up with the competition, or they want to tap into new sales channels. Or perhaps they want to streamline the way an internal process worksremember, not every app has to be customer-facing. (More on that topic later.)

Before you spend the time and resources to build an app, however, consider what value a dedicated app can bring to your business. If your app doesnt tap into the extra benefits the format provides to deliver a particularly unique or helpful experience to your customers, you might be better off devoting your resources to a top-notch mobile website, whichas I outlined abovewould be both universal and (likely) cheaper.

That said, while theres no doubt that you can find horror stories in the app-building world, no one we spoke to said they regretted building a mobile app, even if they didnt quite get the results they wanted.

Anybody can build an app

This may sound like a cliché, but any business can build an app. It doesnt matter how visible you are to consumers. All you need is a thoughtful approach toward adding some value for your customers.

For example, you wouldnt expect a small vitamin manufacturer to have much reason to create a mobile app, but Nordic Naturals did. Project manager Cecile LaRiviere says Nordics app lets you find stores that sell its products, order vitamins online, anda crucial addition that helps it remain top of mind"set reminders to prompt users to take their vitamins and to reorder pills. Plus, the app is stuffed with literature about the value of omega-3s, helping to enhance the awareness of and interest in its primary product line. On top of that, app users get notifications about new product launches.

Next page: What does it cost to build an app?

What does it cost to build an app?

Sooner or later, discussions of mobile apps come down to money. You'll find no easy shortcut to this one. Among the businesses we interviewed, development costs varied dramatically, ranging from virtually nothing (with some businesspeople learning how to code by reading off-the shelf reference books and building the app in their spare time) to hundreds of thousands of dollars. It all depends on how ambitious and complex your app is, and how you go about building it. Apps tend to cost more to develop than mobile websites, however.

Little Idea, mentioned previously, spent $4000 to create its app, using an independent developer. (The first person we talked to, who was on point in every way, says Hudson.) Work took two months to complete.

Or consider the app developed by MyMovingReviews, a website that rates and reviews moving companies. The companys My Move app, which helps consumers plan and execute a move, took $24,000 and five months of hard work, says manager Martin Panayotov. The company used an eastern European software outfit to build an iOS-only app, which the company initially sold for $2 a pop. Now the app is free, and last year My Move was ported to Android, a much cheaper prospect since the legwork had already been done. Still, for My Move, its an iOS world: The iPhone app greatly outperforms the Android one, no matter that Apple holds about 20 percent of the smartphone market, says Panayotov.

At the far end of the spectrum youll find Brightleaf, which spent an estimated $300,000 to build a mobile app and a back-end system for its customers (attorneys) to use when drafting forms and documents for their clients. Its a complex system, but Brightleaf offers it to customers for free. We give the mobile stuff away & but we make our money when lawyers want to use the full, paid version of Brightleaf to modify, customize, and publish their own forms, says Luke OBrien, the companys VP of strategy.

If your mobile ambitions are a bit more basic, several DIY app-building services are available, such as JamPots TheAppBuilder. These services take much of the hassle out of app development by letting business owners create apps through a variety of what-you-see-is-what-you-get templates, and the results can be surprisingly slick. Cost varies depending on the service; most charge one-time creation fees, and many impose monthly maintenance fees. Youll also be on the hook for the developer-registration fees for whatever platforms your app resides on. Google charges a one-time $25 fee, whereas Apple and Microsoft require a yearly $99 developer subscription.

Such services arent cheap, but theyre often less expensive than hiring a dedicated developer. Just pay attention to the recurring monthly fees and determine whether it might make more fiscal sense to pay the up-front premium for a developer, to avoid being bled by repeat charges over the long haul. If you have a truly unique app in mind, you'll almost certainly have to hire a professional.

Whats the payoff?

Small-business owners have never been much for analyzing return on investment, and the world of mobile apps is no different. It should come as no surprise that unless youre selling goods or trying to make money by selling the app directly, measuring ROI is difficult.

Competition is fierce in the app arena, and the businesses we spoke to reminded us that success is determined by how you market and promote your app. You cant rely on being featured by Apple (though its awfully nice if you are). You must constantly promote your app on your website, on social accounts, and probably through advertising, too.

MyMovingReviews is one of the few companies we talked to that said it could quantify the apps value. Panayotov estimates that the companys app paid for itself within a year. He gushes about its success: Creating the mobile app was one of the best decisions we made. Because of the exposure, we were able to increase brand awareness and help our website get more popular over time. Having a mobile-app link on the homepage immediately makes you trusted in the visitors eye.

Another company, MyCorporation, which offers business incorporation and startup services, says it used internal resources to build an app, which has since garnered just 500 downloads. But those downloads, says social media manager Heather Taylor, have generated $50,000 in extra business. Was it worth the effort? Most definitely, she says. It doesnt always take millions of downloads to make significant money.

Apps dont always work out

Of course, an app isnt a sure thing. One small business we spoke to, Bella Reina Spa, had trouble from the start. CEO Nancy Reagan says, It was a very tedious process deciding who could build it. She finally hired a small company to do the work for $299 plus monthly upkeep charges of $29. We had tons of downloads and people used it for information, but in the end it was not as powerful as a mobile website. Eventually the app was scrapped.

I can't stress this enough: Doing your homework before building an app is crucial. Even the best-laid plans often go awry, as the saying goes, but it is important to pin down what you expect from your appor whether you even need onebefore committing your SMB's resources. Can you justify the extra expense of an app, or could a mobile website accomplish the same goals?

Internal-facing apps

As a final note, remember that you dont have to share your app with the general public for it to be useful. The ROI of internal apps can be even harder to calculate, but their value can be immense if they save you time and headache. Generally such apps are more popular with larger businessesor at least those with larger clients.

One example is Bell Nursery, which supplies plants to 150-plus Home Depot garden centers and is responsible for 1700 people stocking those plants at each store. Bell Nursery developed a mobile app to let employees track inventory at each store without having to physically go inside, saving countless hours of employee time.

And although SWAT teams and fire crews arent really a small business, developer VeriPic created a mobile app that lets such groups access secure photos of public buildings and intersections during emergency calls, showing them where gas valves and exits are located so that they don't have to consult old-school maps.

The takeaway: Apps dont have to bring in revenue to be indispensable. A small mom-and-pop garage, say, might not see much return on a customer-facing app, but it could find an inventory-management app to be worth its weight in gold.

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