Apps are increasingly important for all organisations, but until recently small to medium-sized businesses and charities have had a hard time keeping up. Step forward a raft of new mobile app creation platforms that allow businesses to create their own apps quickly and easily. Is this the way forward?
Does your company need an app?
For mobile-first companies like Citymapper or Uber – both startups at one point – the app is critical, but that's not the case for all businesses. "SMEs should consider if they actually need to create an app or whether they would be better off getting listed on well-established applications that cater for their industry," says John Davis, MD of London-based cloud solutions company BCSG, citing the popular Just Eat app, a clearing house for owners of takeaway restaurants.
Apps can keep customers focused so they spend more. "One of the largest hurdles businesses face is the ability to stay connected to their customer because so many other marketing channels have become bombarded," says Ian Blair, CEO of California-based app builder platform BuildFire. "Mobile apps give businesses a unique way to communicate with their audience, and features such as mobile shopping, Selective Push Notifications, rich multimedia and interactive groups engage users to keep them coming back for more."
One of BuildFire's customers has created an app focused on giving people information about the Ebola crisis.
"Apps have a specific use case and are really only relevant to organisations with a strong brand-loyal customer base," says Jim Rudall, Sales Director at London-based mobile commerce specialist MoPowered. "Before deciding on whether to invest in an app an organisation must always look to its data to understand whether there is a use case and a return on the investment." If your business has repeat customers and an app could be central to sales or encouraging more loyalty, an app could be just what it needs.
How should SMEs create an app?
Once a company has decided that it needs an app there are myriad options. Traditionally it's been down to agencies and freelancers to create bespoke apps for all kinds of budgets, but now app builders like BuildFire, Mobile Roadie, Bizness Apps and AppInstitute are trying to make it a DIY process.
"These platforms make it possible for anyone to create and deploy an app with no technical skills," says Davis, though he adds that the choice between DIY and contracting out app development depends on the level of functionality you need. "There are some things that App Builders won't be able to do."
App developers are obviously sceptical of the claims of app creation platforms. "I have yet to encounter a generic platform that can, without human ingenuity, create a truly unique service," says Kevin McDonagh at Android software developer Novoda. "Creating something truly unique requires innovation, passion and talent." McDonagh thinks that app creation is all about the aims of the company and the combined level of experience of its developers. In short, you get what you pay for.
How easy is it to create an app?
The race is on to create a widely recognised 'WordPress for mobile apps'.
"Anyone who is familiar with using the web should be able to start building an app in a matter of minutes," says Blair at BuildFire. "We have a bunch of easy-to-follow tutorials that hold the users' hands throughout the entire building process … many other app building platforms are too complex for users to just pick up and get started on building an app."
Such platforms are aimed at all kinds of companies, from restaurants wanting to create a unique takeaway app to businesses looking to reward customers every time they buy an item via their phone. All kinds of features are included in these platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter integration, geo-location map listings, custom form builders, image galleries, and video directories.
"With little or no prior technical knowledge users can create apps for both Apple and Android devices," says Nabeena Mali at cloud-based app creation platform AppInstitute. "The drag and drop interface on AppInstitute means that no prior technical knowledge is required and users can either tailor one of the readymade templates or choose from up to 20 customisable modules to create their app from scratch."
Don't presume that your company's tech department can handle the creation of an app; even website developers struggle with apps. "Many desktop web development shops still feel they lack the expertise and resources to develop enhanced native apps," thinks Rudall, "and therefore will often refer to a third party with specific app experience."
How much should it cost?
Native-built apps can be an expensive way to produce and maintain your service. Some incidental costs are fixed – Apple charges £30 per submission of an app to its AppStore while the Android self-publish option on the Google Play Store is free. However, actually creating the app costs as much as you want to pay.
"By using an app building platform you can have an app live in the App Store or Google Play market in less than two weeks for a small monthly fee," says Blair. "If someone wanted to have their app custom developed it would cost around US$10,000 [around £6,400, or AU$12,000] for a rather basic app. Even at that, a business wouldn't be able to update their app on the fly like they could with an app building platform."
As an example, the AppInstitute platform has a basic Self-Build plan for free, a Premium Build Service with a setup cost of £497 (around $780, AU$940), and a Premium Plan that, for £25 per month, gives customers perks like full customisation of business app modules, consultation with an app specialist, full technical support, and Apple AppStore and Google Play Store submissions.
"A lot of App Builders have free trials available with prices then starting at approximately £20 per month," says Davis. "Getting an agency or freelancer to develop a bespoke solution will depend on the complexity, but will tend to start at £1,000 (around $1,560, AU$1,880) for the most basic and go upwards from there."
Paul Swaddle, CEO of app developer Pocket App, goes even further, stating that: "The creation of a bespoke app can cost you anything from £5,000 (around $7,800, AU$9,400) upwards, but a more comprehensive app is more likely to be £20,000 (around $31,300, AU$37,700) and up." Pocket App's most recent app is My Poppy.
What about running costs?
It is of equal importance to possess the budget to maintain the app as it is to build it. "It's important to realise that just like all areas of a business strategy, after its initial creation ongoing development and support is required," says McDonagh.
"Many apps fall down in the period after their initial success, during which a failure to improve over time by adding new features and eliminating bugs ultimately leads to wasted time and money," says Adam Croxen, MD of London-based digital innovation agency, Future Platforms. "With iOS, Android and Windows, plus a range of device sizes, SMEs need to also establish their platform strategy. Many build a name on iOS before branching out."
What's better: an app or a mobile website?
There is, of course, a third option – forget trying to create an app and instead go for an HTML5 mobile website using a platform like Squarespace, which is very popular with SMEs. It can be a cheaper option that's just as effective as an app.
"Mobile websites are often cheaper to maintain and will support a greater number of devices, but they are unable to take advantage of the native features of the device," says Davis. "It can also be very valuable to have your app icon on your customer's phone to ensure that your brand remains front of mind."
Research appears to back up the claim that people prefer to use mobile apps far more than mobile websites. "The power of a native app is so much greater than a mobile website," says Blair. "The most powerful feature that native apps have over mobile websites is the ability to message your customers directly with Push Notifications, which have some of the highest engagement rates around."
There's also the smaller matter of getting online. "A mobile website can be highly flexible, but does not have the same phone presence as an app, and requires an internet connection to work," says Swaddle. "Apps get better access to phone features such as accelerometers, GPS and cameras – mobile websites can access these too, but typically in a more limited way. I think a key consideration here is your audience – what are they going to be using the mobile product for, and how and where are they going to be accessing?"
How long will apps remain relevant?
"Smartphones and the mobile way of life are forecast to see increasing levels of growth for a good time to come," says Davis, "so now could be as good a time as any to get your business listed in the app stores."
Swaddle uses the analogy of radio; it's hardly a 'now' technology but no-one should ever underestimate its popularity and power. "Apps will be relevant for some time," he says. "The only certainty of mobile is change – apps will be an important part of an organisation's overall strategic toolkit for many years. Mobility is already a big part of corporate and everyday consumer life, and this will continue."
"Apps will not be going away any time soon, and over the course of the next few years will evolve into more immersive experiences," says Jay Karsandas, Digital Manager at Mobiles.co.uk, who thinks apps allow engagement between company and consumer without the 'background noise' on a web browser. "Users make a clear choice in downloading an app, and SMEs and non-profit organisations can create experiences based solely on their message and brand, which is a wonderful opportunity to embrace."