Organizations large and small that want to survive and thrive in the coming years have a simple directive to follow, the experts agree: create a new or improved mobile app post-haste. Consumers will undoubtedly expect mobile apps that cater to their evolving needs, and if you’re behind the curve, your competition will likely leave you in the dust—especially now that COVID-19 has completely changed the rules of the game.
Consider the sheer numbers: More than one-third of the world population has a smartphone or other mobile device today. In the United States, there are close to 300 million smartphone users. In Europe, there are more than 450 million. In China, there are more than 900 million. In these regions, more than half of retail sales now occur via mobile apps.
Indeed, no company can afford to kick this can down the road any longer. Fortunately, development and rollout of mobile apps are more feasible and affordable, with platforms and available resources making it easier to implement one than ever before.
For Michel Wedel, marketing professor at the University of Maryland Robert H. Smith School of Business, the most compelling reason to fast-track a robust mobile app nowadays is obvious:
“Mobile apps allow companies to create a direct communication channel with customers, which, if done right, will engage them and create brand awareness and loyalty,” he says. “The app itself may act as a marketing and sales channel that fits into a well-crafted multichannel strategy.”
Tim Absalikov, cofounder and CEO of Lasting Trend, a digital marketing agency in New York, echoes those thoughts.
“Mobile apps can not only generate sales growth, but they can help with audience formation, as you can build relationships with your customers wherever they are and increase marketing and communication channels by generating brand awareness through a variety of marketing campaigns,” he says. “Also, the app can be a catalyst for collecting personal information from a consenting user and a channel for replenishment by members of your business’s loyalty program.”
Mike O’Shea, senior vice president of ecommerce for Parts Town, a logistics and supply chain company in Addison, Ill., believes that to meet the needs of mobile customers, companies need to continually challenge themselves to make interacting with them easier, faster, and more enjoyable. His company was the first in its industry to create a mobile app back in 2010.
“Mobile apps address the usability challenges presented by a mobile customer in their ability to retain context and by utilizing device features more readily than mobile-optimized websites. Whether your customer is a consumer or a business, the services offered by your business affect the ways that a mobile app can make the end users’ lives easier,” notes O’Shea.
THE PANDEMIC PUSH
Brian Levine, vice president of strategy and analytics at Mobiquity, a digital consulting firm, insists that COVID provides a direct and indirect reason that companies need not just a mobile app, but a mobile strategy and a multichannel approach that meets customers where they are now and where they might be going.
“Taking a look at the direct impact of COVID-19, we saw a sharp rise in the use of mobile apps across our clientele base. We saw spikes in online food ordering, mobile bank deposits, and photogrammetry for auto claims,” Levine says. “The companies that had the mobile tools already in place or could spin them up quickly were able to realize a short-term mitigation and long-term benefit.”
Some quick-service restaurants, for example, amped up their mobile apps from low levels of online ordering to a level that changed business mobile economics.
“The pandemic forced the late majority on the technology adoption curve to adopt these technologies earlier than they would have, and they haven’t switched back. The companies that embraced mobile won, with the rest playing catch-up,” he adds.
Andrew Steele, CEO of LighthousePE, a mobile engagement platform provider, can further testify that the coronavirus changed the paradigm.
“We’ve seen a 40 percent year-over-year increase in time spent in mobile apps, which accounts for over 90 percent of the total time spent on mobile devices,” Steele says. “This trend has been particularly pronounced in segments like restaurants, travel, and hospitality, where the mobile device became a critical connection for businesses to not just keep in touch with customers but also to do business with them. This new normal is here to stay; businesses that don’t embrace this are going to get left behind.”
Thankfully, mobile app development has become less challenging as more tools and resources are available today.
“The main drivers of the cost of the development of an app are its functionality and the number of features, as those translate directly into the number of man-hours required for development,” says Wedel, who notes that the average price tag of developing an app nowadays is around $150,000, although a basic app for a single platform could cost only around $50,000 to develop. “Development costs have not come down in a major way, but the time to develop an app can now be as little as three months.”
Steele agrees that mobile apps have become quicker and more affordable to craft.
“Continued development of mobile standards and cross-platform tools like React Native and Flutter allows developers to build a single app to deploy on both iOS and Android,” Steele says. “There are now also ways to integrate them with other technologies to expand their capabilities. For instance, apps are now increasingly being used as communication vehicles to prompt customers with relevant messages based on known information about them—information they’ve opted in to share, like purchase history, preferences, and location data.”
There’s also a range of solutions available, from white-labeled, out-of-the-box software-as-a-service (SaaS) solutions that take into account the mobile experiences to specific custom solutions developed for unique business models, according to Mike Martin, mobile solutions enterprise architect for consulting firm Capgemini.
Nevertheless, for companies looking to differentiate themselves and elevate their customer experiences beyond their competitors, significant investments can still be required from both a design and development standpoint. O’Shea cautions that integrating the latest capabilities—such as voice assistants, watches and wearables, cameras and video, and other newer mobile technologies—requires capable development teams and careful product planning to create something truly valuable to the customer.
“While barriers to entry are lower for everyone, you have to push the boundaries of your technology more than ever,” Levine suggests. “You can’t just launch an app and assume customers will find it. You need to optimize your presence in the app store, maximize your review volume and scores, leverage a marketing stack to target and acquire customers, and employ analytics to continuously improve your app for continued growth.”
AIM FOR THE RIGHT MOBILE APP CAPABILITIES
A recent survey from Moxtra, provider of a digital platform that powers private digital channels, found that 49 percent of consumers listed a mobile app as the most important feature when engaging with a service provider.
“To best determine mobile app offerings, companies should take into consideration their business goals and the needs of their clients,” recommends Leena Iyar, chief brand officer for Moxtra.
Marketing professor Jie Zhang, Wedel’s research colleague at the University of Maryland, advises that if your app’s goals are branding, communications, and customer relationship management, it’s imperative to make it user-interactive by, for example, allowing user-generated content like photos and videos.
“In addition, companies should build in social sharing capabilities in their apps, such as links to major social media platforms and allowing feeds from social media,” continues Zhang. “For e-commerce apps, incorporating [virtual and augmented reality] capabilities, such as a virtual dressing room if you’re a clothing retailer, is becoming ever more essential. It is also smart to incorporate AI chatbots to address questions and concerns in real time, geofencing capabilities to deliver location-based targeting, and personalized product recommendations.”
Above all, mobile apps should offer increasingly tangible value to customers.
“For example, one of our customers is a multilocation spa and beauty bar, and using their app with our proximity engagement technology, they send timely, highly personalized messages to customers who arrive home from a trip through the airport,” Steele says. “The message acknowledges that travel can be stressful and invites them in for a discounted massage upon their return to the spa. The conversion rates for those offers are incredibly high and much stronger than anything they get through email campaigns.”
Also, businesses should aim to communicate with patrons in relevant ways by integrating with other databases, such as point-of-sale or CRM systems.
To help choose the right app capabilities, companies need to ask how their users expect to interact with them.
“Define the opportunity in terms of the customer,” Levine says. “What problem are you trying to solve for them? What opportunity are you trying to create for them? And if you launch this app, what key metric will change because of this app? How will changes in this metric impact your business?”
The next logical question, of course, is whether you can truly afford it.
“Applications can be built very cost-effectively these days, but you need to be prepared for the cost and time required to grow and maintain your product after its initial release,” says Johnnie Munger, partner and chief technology officer of Wonderful Collective, a web/app development company. “A good product iterates often, immediately after launch.”
THE DOMINANT MOBILE APP PLATFORMS
The two major mobile app platforms remain Apple’s iOS App Store, where 2.2 million apps exist, and Google Play, which offers about 3.5 million Android apps. Many companies opt first for an Android app, as its operating system is open-source and more customizable than iOS.
“If you intend to use the latest functionality or need responsiveness at the extremes that the platform offers, then you likely need to code natively for Apple and Android,” Levine suggests. “The vast majority of apps also or alternatively can leverage hybrid software frameworks like Ionic and React Native. These allow developers to write once and publish to multiple platforms.”
Martin offers three major approaches to follow when considering a mobile platform strategy:
1. Responsive web. This approach allows end users to engage from a mobile web, tablet web, or desktop web application. “There is one code base to manage, so that any updates to the app could quickly be deployed to all surfaces,” Martin says. “The downsides are that you will not be taking advantage of the capabilities of the device, which optimizes the customer experience, and constant connectivity is critical.”
2. Cross-platform mobile. Here, the concept is that you write your application’s logic in one code base and present it in a mostly native format. “If your application needs to function equivalently for different systems, this solution may be an option. But cross-platform can be harder to debug, and it usually lags behind the operating system’s native capabilities because they have to have a translation layer/process in between its code and the deployed code to the devices,” Martin adds.
3. Native development. This offers the most flexible and organic approach to the device’s capabilities and can offer the richest experience to the user. “The challenge here is that the application logic needs to be defined well enough so that it can be translated into each platform’s native languages,” Martin says.
Whether you choose Android, iOS, or both, expect the platform to take a piece of your pie via commissions, although these costs have come down recently.
“Since the beginning of this year, Apple has lowered its commission to 15 percent, from 30 percent, for companies that generate less than $1 million in revenue through the platform. Google has followed suit by reducing its commission from 30 percent to 15 percent for the first $1 million of revenue for all apps on its platform, but its share will remain 30 percent on every dollar companies generate above the first $1 million per year,” says Zhang. “On both platforms, well over 90 percent of all apps will see a reduction of 50 percent in fees because of these policies.”
INTERNAL VS. EXTERNAL CREATION OF MOBILE APPS
“If you build it, they will come” is a motivational credo that mobile app aspirants can follow. But who exactly is going to build it?
“In-house development enables a company to have full control over the development and implementation processes. It also allows close monitoring and timely debugging and upgrading,” Zhang says. “Nonetheless, many companies cannot afford the costs of maintaining an in-house app development team. They have to resort to the service of outside agencies.”
Levine maintains that for businesses with regular interactions with customers, a brick-and-mortar presence, and physical processes and/or products, working with an external agency is best.
“They manage the digital manifestation of your core competency or a digital channel into your service. You should be doing what you do best and hiring the best to help,” he says.
If you’re creating a mobile app as your central product or service, “then you should really own the code and institutional knowledge around the technology yourself,” Steele advises. “But if you’re a business like a restaurant, day spa, or casino, then unless you’re a big regional or national chain with the budgets to maintain an in-house dev team, it’s generally going to be much quicker and cheaper to work with a development partner.”
A middle-road option is to use contractors via services like Upwork to outsource portions of the project while handling aspects like design, development, and quality assurance internally.
Whether you entrust in-house staff or outsourced experts to build your app, it’s important to involve key departments in the project.
“The company’s marketing team should understand the CRM strategy, the analytics strategy, and the intended user journey strategy. The creative team should be involved with the business team to define the vision and brand strategy that communicates through the mobile app the intended emotional impact and brand curation to the end users. And the IT team should be responsible for bringing the vision of the application to the solution stack of all of the IT components needed to deliver the transactional functionality of the solution,” Martin states.
STRATEGIES FOR MOBILE APP SUCCESS
Many crucial steps are involved in developing and finalizing an effective mobile app. To improve the odds of success, the pros recommend several best practices.
“Start as small as possible,” Munger advocates. “Take the time to truly understand the value proposition of your application, and start there. Any idea or concept is rarely perfect on the first try, so the idea is to mitigate the risks as much as possible by reducing the exposure of the initial investment.”
Additionally, give careful thought to launching the app as free, paid, or freemium.
“Apps have been trending toward the free version in the past decade, and over 95 percent of apps on the Google Play and App Store platforms are free. However, over 60 percent of the free apps have fewer than 1,000 downloads per month,” Wedel notes. “Apps should, therefore, more often consider launching the paid version first. Paid apps can generate download revenue from the first day of sales, while in-app revenue from either the free or paid versions rely on a sizable user base that takes time to build.”
Then it helps to work carefully to integrate the app into your overall strategy and operational processes.
“Mobile applications typically require ongoing monitoring and evolution to adapt to newly discovered value chains in an organization. Customers expect to be delighted, to see that you are constantly engaging them in the evolution and improvement of the applications,” Martin says. “So be prepared to define, design, develop, deploy, observe, and refine in a continuous cycle.”
Next, prioritize privacy and security, always remaining aware and respectful of the end user’s data, the experts advise.
“Be an advocate for the users and let them know how you are handling their data, whether that is on the device, in transit between the device and back-end systems, or somewhere else in the component stack of your overall IT solutions,” Martin adds.
Companies can also benefit by involving end users in app development, experts agree.
“The only way to ensure you build an app that will engage and retain users is to get their feedback early in the process,” Steele advises.
Experts also suggest establishing workflows that manage both the delivery of services to clients and an app that’s built to scale and evolve with changing technology and client preferences.
“These workflows will ultimately enable streamlined communication and collaboration with clients,” Iyar says.
Lastly, ask beta testers to rate your app before launch (with the goal of launching apps that are rated with four or five stars), Levine recommends. “And prompt successful users of your app to post their reviews in the app store.”
Erik J. Martin is a Chicago-area-based freelance writer and public relations expert whose articles have been featured in AARP The Magazine, Reader’s Digest, The Costco Connection, and other publications. He often writes on topics related to real estate, business, technology, healthcare, insurance, and entertainment. He also publishes several blogs, including martinspiration.com and cineversegroup.com.