You don't even necessarily have to hire someone, thanks to a growing crowd of do-it-yourself app platforms. Some of them appeal directly to small and midsize businesses (SMBs) with limited--or non-existent--development resources. But here's what those platforms don't usually mention in their marketing materials: No one is waiting with bated breath for your company's app. There are thousands upon thousands of them--"there's an app for that," as the Apple ad campaign goes--and that can cause app fatigue.
"Just like you can experience [overload] with email, the same phenomenon can happen with apps," said George Adams, CEO of ViziApps, in an interview. So what can you do to ensure your target audience will not just download your SMB's app but actually use it? Adams offered six approaches to improve your odds.
[ Learn how to address negative customer feedback on social platforms without becoming overwhelmed. See 5 Tips For Handling Complaints On Social Media. ]
1. Embrace geo-location.
"Many SMBs deal very much at a local level, or might be a chain of locations that are dealing with local customers," Adams said. "The ability to have a mobile app using GPS to push coupons or [promotions] to people that are nearby gets people using it and coming back for more."
2. Accept branded in-app payments.
Mobile payments have been a hot trend for a while, with a variety of vendors enabling even the smallest business to process physical credit card payments from phones or tablets. The same idea holds true for apps--the ability to purchase or pay a bill from within an app, especially if it's branded, gives consumers a reason to open your app--and open it again, provided they're happy. "It allows you to close the deal right on the spot, get the cash flow from the credit card purchase, and [for] the customer have an easier and better user experience," Adams said.
Adams points to a customer that uses its app to complete point-of-sale transactions at trade shows as an example. An even timelier case: Another client uses in-app payment processing to accept political donations at fundraising events, rendering the "I forgot my checkbook" excuse obsolete.
3. Social media, duh.
It would be conspicuous in its absence, right? Integrated social media links are a must for many consumer-facing apps these days. The ability to share information, photos, reviews, and so forth on Facebook, Twitter, and the other ubiquitous platforms should be enabled within the app, rather than requiring the user to leave and post directly to their beloved social sites. "[Social integration] is very key because people are using those [sites] so routinely now," Adams said. "This gives them a seamless way to carry this in their pocket and keep it with them at all times." Bottom line: If you want people talking about your business in the social realm, make it easy for them to do so with their mobile devices.
4. Help people rid themselves--and you--of paperwork.
iPad and other tablet-friendly apps, in particular, present an opportunity to reduce or even eliminate paperwork in many scenarios. That can simplify your operations; more importantly, it gives customers a compelling reason to use your app--few are the folks who love filling out old-school paperwork. Adams mentioned a financial planner that used to carry five or six pounds of paper to every client meeting for regulatory and other reasons; it developed an iPad app to lighten its load. Bonus: People go ga-ga for iPads, so the SMB bumped up its cool quotient in the process.
"It gives them a little bit more of an engagement factor, where they can sit side-by-side with a customer and take a look at things together rather than passing papers across the desk," Adams said. "[It's] a cool, new technology way to engage the customers [and] differentiate them from their competition."
Any customer-facing forms or other paperwork an SMB uses regularly merits consideration here. An insurance company could use its app to enable customers and field reps to complete document captures for claims, example.
5. Help people help themselves.
Another one that could both save a few trees and likewise give customers a reason to open and re-open your app: Consider publishing any user manuals, product guides, troubleshooting tips, or related documentation within your app. That keeps the information within a user's reach at all times; no more hunting through stacks of dated manuals to reset the home-security system or hook up your new speakers to an old DVD player.
For SMBs playing catch-up with their consumer-facing mobile strategy, Adams advises focusing on Apple's iOS and Google's Android platforms if you're going to build native apps, in that order. Doing so will knock out the lion's share of smartphone and tablet users. He'd prioritize iPhone and iPad because of their popularity, but adds a caveat: If you're in a rush, start with Android. Adams notes that Apple's app approval process will add a week to 10 days--and possibly longer--to your deployment time.
No matter your strategy or your business, one fundamental holds constant: Your app needs to make an instant impression on its users, or it will get lost in the fray. "You need to have an immediate value or hook to the app," Adams said. In other words, what's going to make this app stand out from the dozens or even hundreds of others I've downloaded? "Show a compelling reason to have that other app."
SMBs have saved big buying software on a subscription model. The new, all-digital Cloud Beyond SaaS issue of InformationWeek SMB shows how to determine if infrastructure services can pay off, too. Also in this issue: One startup's experience with infrastructure-as-a-service shows how the numbers stack up for IaaS vs. internal IT. (Free registration required.)