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To build an app, or not...

Custom-developed mobile phone applications have incredible marketing potential. But they aren’t cheap, and sometimes they’re downright useless.

So when does a small business need its own smartphone app?

“Mobile apps are the next generation of marketing,” says Ryan Quintal, owner of Toronto-based Supreme Marketing Solutions. He says custom apps are the fastest growing side of his business.

An app, Quintal adds, can give businesses chances to interact with customers that mobile websites simply can’t.

Entrepreneurs aren’t blind to the opportunity. A survey of 2,246 small businesses in the U.S. by telecom giant AT&T last year found that 72 percent used mobile apps in their operations.

According to the study, 49 percent of businesses had some sort of GPS/Marketing app and 41 percent had a Facebook page for their business.

Keeping “in your customers peripheral” is vital says Quintal.

“Any time they turn on their phone they’re going to see you,” he says. “If somebody is walking by your store and they have your app on their phone, you can push them a notification about a sale.”

Sounds great. But this model doesn’t work equally for all businesses.

Quintal says it all depends on what users want.

“If you sell products, have weekly deals and know customers have smart phones it might make sense to go with a mobile app,” he adds.

But an app may not be the magical solution, says Jijesh Devan, the entrepreneur behind FreshGrownApps, a Toronto-based app development and marketing company.

“A small store on Bloor west doesn’t need a mobile app,” says Devan.

And, he adds, choosing to create an app is not a decision to be taken lightly.

“When I started FreshGrownApps I thought I was going to be building for small businesses and start ups,” says Devan. “I don’t see a lot of smaller businesses coming in and saying ‘I want an app’–when they realize the cost involved, they see there’s other ways to spend their resources.”

He says tech-focused or web-based companies often have apps at their business’s core.
But other companies, such as retail stores or restaurants, are often better off with a simple mobile-friendly website.

Still, when apps work, they often work well. Apps can be used to build a community through social media. Cross communication between an apps and Facebook, Foursquare or Twitter can allow users to check in at stores or restaurants, “like” products and services, and inspire conversations between customers.

“Because everything is in real time, your friends and family can comment at the same time,” adds Quintal.

Plus, apps with payment options or coupon deals can also track customer purchases and help gauge interest on certain campaigns, giving businesses an edge to fine-tune marketing strategies.

But, says Alexey Adamsky, owner of Three Red Cube, a web and application development and design company, these features are costly.

“There are so many operating systems,” says Adamsky, adding that creating versions for Blackberry, Android and Apple products, at $2000 a piece, quickly cost a company over $10,000.

“You want to bring an experience to an end user that they wouldn’t otherwise have,” he says. “But it’s a matter of investing money and time.”

Still, there are always shortcuts.

Entrepreneurs on a budget can use free online tools, such as Google’s App Inventor, or the iPhone-focused AppMakr, to build their own offerings. And the cross-platform BuildAnApp tool is available for prices ranging from $19-$500, depending on what features business owners want. But even with these tools, app development is time consuming, especially if entrepreneurs lack programming experience.

“In the old days it was T.V. and radio—(businesses) could figure out whether they were getting a good return on each,” says Matt Saunders, Business Development Manager for Ryerson’s Digital Media Zone, a tech-business incubator. “But today you (often) can’t track return on investment. It’s changing the way companies are thinking about marketing and where they’re putting those dollars.”

In other words, ratings are out and “likes” and downloads are in, meaning small businesses must now look to non traditional metrics for gauging consumer interest. That means some kind of mobile presence, whether through an app or not, is key.

“Certainly if you’re a business-to-consumer,” says Saunders, “you want to have a mobile connection point to your customer.”

Andrew Seale
Special to the Star

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