To App Or Not to App? Six Questions to Ask First

Feb 25, 2013

Apps are everywhere. CNN regularly reports on the “hottest” ones; Super Bowl ads promoted company’s new “it” apps, and heck, your mom is even asking you to challenge her in Words with Friends. With so many people routinely downloading them onto their phones, it seems like an obvious place for business owners to market their businesses.

After all, you built a website a few years ago and people have looked at it. So, why not go ahead and create a mobile presence for your business, right?
Not so fast. Here are six great questions you should think through (and be able to explain to others) before you decide to build an app for your business:

1. Why do you want to build an app?
This might be the best and most important question to ask yourself – why do you need an app? If you don’t have a pretty clear answer or purpose, then I’d seriously reconsider until you have a clear way answer (and saying, “because I just want to show off that I have an app on my phone when talking to people” seems like a pretty shotty answer if you ask me). Think through questions like “will my customers really use this;” “how will I market our app;” “what return do I expect from the investment;” and “will this drive more revenue to our business.”

2. What would your app do?
Apps, or applications, are software programs designed to run on mobile devices. Email, text messaging, calculators, Google Maps, Angry Birds and calorie trackers are all examples of apps on your phone.

What do all of the above have in common? They “do” something. They let you accomplish a task, project, or a goal. They are focused on providing some level of utility. And the expectation of consumers when they download an app is exactly that: it will help you add two numbers, take a photograph, or waste 10 minutes playing poker.

So let’s start there -- what would your app do, besides advertise your business? What utility do you plan to provide consumers? Are you a painting company and want to provide a color palate? Are you a furniture company and want to provide assistance with room layout? Or are you a restaurant and want to provide a food delivery service?

If you can’t answer this very basic question, you have to wonder if you really need an app.

3. Can you accomplish the same thing with a mobile-optimized website?
Today’s mobile-optimized websites offer a pretty compelling alternative to apps – and at a much cheaper price. So ask yourself if you can do the same thing with a mobile website (did you know you can even get people to “download” a bookmark to their smartphone home screen that links directly to your mobile website?) Could you get by with a mobile-optimized site that does many of the same things an app would and if you find lots of users that love your mobile site, then consider an app?

4. Can you do something that another app isn’t already doing?
Once you have figured out a sensible tie-in for your business, you are closer than many small businesses get. But you aren’t done yet. Now you have to see if there is an opportunity for your app to stand out in the crowd.

Let’s use the house-painting business example. You want to provide an app that helps a consumer pick the right color to paint his or her house. So let’s go to the iTunes App Store to see what is already out there. Search “Paint” and see what comes up: hundreds and hundreds of options, many with a high rating and significant amount of downloads, making it difficult to stand out. How about “Color Wheel?” Just under 50 competitors. This means creating an app to advertise your business is going to be tough in these categories. Maybe it’s time to go review question 3 again to figure out if a mobile site helps solve this dilemma.

5. Is it worth the money?
Assume you find your niche and perhaps something more unique for your potential customers. The next question to answer: “Is it worth the money spent on development?”

Depending on what you are looking to build and the number of platforms you wish to incorporate (like iOS, Android, Blackberry and Windows Mobile, for example), you could be looking at some serious expenses. You can create a very simple app with bare minimum functionality for a single platform (for example, it would only be available on Android phones) for as little as a couple hundred dollars.

However, if you intend to add anything custom or unique, plan to budget between $10,000 and $20,000 per platform – and if you are willing to commit that amount of money to build an app, you’d better make sure to drive real return on that investment and make something cool enough that your customers show your app to their friends and family.

6. Are you willing to make the ongoing time/financial investment?
You’ve made it this far: You’ve found your application and your niche, and have decided to make the financial investment up front.
Building the product is just the start. While you’ll need to be sure to keep your app updated, including both technology and content, you should also be prepared to market your application. That’s one of the most common problems developers note: the discovery conundrum. How can you get people to find your app without paying for advertising?

The reason certain apps appear before others in the iTunes App Store is due to their popularity; the more times an app is downloaded, the higher on the list it appears. So, be sure to allocate ongoing time and money to future content development, technology enhancements and marketing efforts.

Conclusion
It seems obvious, but you probably wouldn’t launch a new television station just to market your brand, would you (Oprah not included)?

No, you would research different networks and target programs that reach your demographic or other relevant consumers. Not to mention that just because you launched a new station, that doesn’t mean that people are going to tune in and watch.

It’s the same way with your app. Don’t waste time and money creating an app that no one will download or use. (And if you decide to forgo the app, don’t forget about mobile all together – you may want to read my article on how small businesses can ‘go mobile’ without breaking the bank here.)

Eric Koester is a serial entrepreneur and most recently founded Zaarly.com, a peer-to-peer marketplace to discover hand-curated local service providers. You can read more at www.ekoester.com.

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