Photo by Robert Cardin

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

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 app—except 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 you’ve 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? Can’t they just use their smartphones to access the website you already have?

It’s a tricky problem with no single cut-and-dried solution, but increasingly even the smallest businesses are saying yes to the mobile question. I’ll take you through the challenges—and the potential payoffs—in 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?

PCWorld's mobile website.

Building a mobile-friendly website isn’t complex, so typically you can commission one fairly cheap. In today’s 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

The Google Play Store is the go-to market for Android apps.

That said, the argument for building an app is compelling. Mainly it relates to the way today’s phones are designed. An app gives you much more presence on the phone than a bookmark on that phone’s 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 doesn’t 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 can’t really do anything extra that your regular website can’t 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 business’s products into a video game or push notifications to customers? Build an app, not a mobile website.

Chris Null
Little Idea's iOS app.

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 app—something 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 isn’t 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 works—remember, 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 doesn’t 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, which—as I outlined above—would be both universal and (likely) cheaper.

That said, while there’s 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 didn’t quite get the results they wanted.

Anybody can build an app

Chris Null
Nordic Naturals' app.

This may sound like a cliché, but any business can build an app. It doesn’t matter how visible you are to consumers. All you need is a thoughtful approach toward adding some value for your customers.

For example, you wouldn’t expect a small vitamin manufacturer to have much reason to create a mobile app, but Nordic Naturals did. Project manager Cecile LaRiviere says Nordic’s app lets you find stores that sell its products, order vitamins online, and—a 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?

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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