Small business guide: How your company can carve out space on your customers’ phones

Whether they’re looking for a mechanic, new shoes or a restaurant for dinner tonight, consumers are increasingly searching for local businesses not on their desktop or laptop computers, but on their smartphones.

So the question becomes, are they finding yours?

“About a decade ago, every business figured out they had to be on the Internet,” said Kevin Surace, chief executive of Appvance, which helps developers test their mobile software. “Now, we’re moving in that same direction for mobile.”

But do you need an app, or just a mobile Web site? And where can you get started? Here are some tips from a few experts:

Apps aren’t for every company
Still, that’s a sizable investment for many cash-strapped small businesses, and every company doesn’t necessarily need an app. Some, he said, particularly enterprise or “business-to-business” companies can get by spending a little less to simply make their existing desktop Web site appear and function correctly on mobile devices.

Most Web hosting services can help you optimize your site for mobile phones and tablets. And most, Surace added, can now build mobile sites that come with a wrapper, which can be pinned to a phone’s home screen, just like an app. So iPhone and Android users can download a button onto their screens that simply opens your company’s Web site in their phone’s browser — kind of like a bookmark that lives on their homescreen.

So who needs an actual app?

Consumer-facing businesses, including retailers and restaurants, can be well-served by spending a bit more money to develop a separate mobile app.

“Consumers are going into the app store to try to solve a problem or fill a need,” Ray Sidney-Smith, owner of W3 Consulting, a marketing and technology management firm in Alexandria, said. “If they search and an app comes up, and it’s your small business, you can become their long-term solution every time they need one of your products.”

That’s especially important for e-commerce merchants, Surace said, noting that more digital sales are moving from computers to mobile devices. “Individuals are much more likely to purchase from you if your company is right there on their phone,” he said.

Companies such as Bizness­Apps, MassMobile, and Appmakr offer do-it-yourself app-building tools that generally offer a less expensive option than hiring a developer.

In addition, payment companies such as Square and PayPal have made it easier to build ready-made e-commerce platforms directly into a mobile app, taking the onus off small businesses to manually process credit cards that come in through their app.

And many developers will now help you set up a Facebook log-in system, so you can give your customers a secure in-app experience without having to manage your own set of usernames and passwords.

Give users something extra

If you’re going to spend the time and resources to build an app, make sure it’s an app your target audiences wants to open (and keep open), experts say.

Surace and other experts said they advise business owners to include some sort of engaging, interactive features in their applications, be it games, contests or social media elements. One of the most effective strategies, they say, is to give your customers a way to compete within the app to prove they’re your company’s biggest fan, racking up points either through games or check-ins at your stores.

“Consumers, especially the ones under about 35, expect to be engaged when they open an app,” Surace said. “And even the older generations are starting to expect that, too. They want something more.”

J.D. Harrison covers startups, small business and entrepreneurship, with a focus on public policy, and he runs the On Small Business blog.
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