Wednesday, March 16, 2016

To App or Not To App: Is It Time For An App For Your Business?

Photo by Doug Belshaw/Creative Commons
It seems like everybody and their brother has a mobile app for their business.  As of July 2015, there were 1.6 MILLION apps on Google Play (the Android app store) and 1.5 million in the Apple store. In some cases, the same apps appear on both stores; Android is open source, which means anyone can write an app for Android, versus Apple, which is locked down pretty tightly.  With all those apps out there, you might think you need to get a piece of that pie for your business by hiring someone to build an app for you.  But do you really?

More and more people are shopping online and increasingly on their mobile devices.  Almost 80-percent of web searchers start with Google and end with one of the top five companies in the search results; very few go to the second page to see what companies are there.  So having a mobile app can set you apart, right?

Not in every case.  For instance, one cupcake company worked out of trailers spread across Austin, Texas.  They wanted a mobile app because everyone has a mobile app.  But when it came down to what they were going to put on their app, they couldn't come up with anything clear-cut that would bring them any benefit out of an app.  They were in fixed locations around town.  They had lines onto the street on most days.  They were consistently selling out of their cupcakes every day.  What would their app say or do?  They couldn't quantify it.

I spoke with Regina Imhoff, a web and app developer in Austin, about what businesses should consider before they jump into an app and ways they can get the same results without an app.  "The first place to start is with a company's website before they ever look at having an app.  What does their website say about their company?  Can customers order from their website?  Is their website regularly updated?  How responsive is their site?," she said.  "If a company hasn't done everything they can to maximize their online presence, having an app will be a waste of time and money."

Some companies are built around their mobile app, like productivity apps and game apps.  Those companies work only with their apps and not their websites, which are just doors to their apps.  In those cases, having the best app possible is critical.

For larger companies, apps can compliment their main mission; think Amazon with it's online and mobile presence.  But with Amazon, you don't NEED their app to order from them when you're out and about; you can access their website just as easily and order from there seamlessly, because their website is responsive.

Open your website on your desktop, then a smartphone and a tablet.  Does it work well on every platform?  When you turn your mobile device, does the page adapt and change to fit into the screen?  Are the forms on your site as easy to complete online as they are on a mobile device?  "That's what makes your site responsive," says Imhoff.  "Being able to interact with a website the same, regardless of where you're accessing it."

When a company has a responsive website, do they need an app?  Imhoff says, "Not necessarily."  How do you make that decision?  She says, "A company considering an app needs to look at the cost.  If they have a limited budget, the best way to spend their money is making their site as responsive as possible."  The starting cost for an average mobile app is $3,000 and it goes up from there.

How often do you update your website?  Do you give your visitors fresh content so they come back or is it the same no matter how many times they come into your site?  How are you doing with blogging?  If you're not doing it for your website, how often are you going to get to your app?  Your app needs as much or more new content than your website to keep people using it.

The next thing you need to look at is what people will do with your app.  Remember that most customers start with an internet search, so they're going to hit your website first.  If your website doesn't help them make a purchase decision, they're never going to see your app.  If it's a way for people to buy when they're out and about, having an app is a good idea, but only for your existing customers, unless you're specifically selling your app as your product.

The bottom line?  Imhoff says, "Start with making your website as robust and responsive as you can; it's the best way to spend your money."  Sit with the website for a while.  Let your customers get used to using it to interact with you and then revisit whether or not you need an app.