The Ins and Outs of Mobile Application Development
The smartphone explosion has many businesses asking if app development makes sense for them.
“Is there an app for my business?”
With the explosion of smartphones and mobile devices, this may be a question you’re asking yourself. After all, apps are fast becoming one of the latest marketing trends, offering significant branding and revenue opportunities for a company. Unfortunately, they can also prove to be a huge boondoggle. So how does a company decide whether and how to jump on the app-development bandwagon?
The term “app,” of course, is shorthand for a mobile application—a software program that enables a user to perform specific functions with a mobile phone, tablet or related device. Early apps were associated more with productivity (think e-mail), but today’s apps are increasingly about on-the-go utility, entertainment and branding. In fact, according to some marketing experts, apps can be divided into four main categories:
• Content: Apps that aggregate and supply news, statistics and other information, such as a weather app.
• Transactional: Branded mobile software that delivers a business service like ordering or purchasing, such as a mobile banking app.
• Entertainment: Games and other amusements, such as the popular Angry Birds game.
• Utility: Basic productivity tools like a calculator, calendar or scheduling app.
Of these categories, research shows that entertainment apps rank number one in downloads, while utility apps rank the highest in “stickiness,” or longevity among consumers.
It’s easy to see why so many businesses are going app crazy. According to the information technology research firm Gartner, worldwide sales of mobile devices hit more than 440 million units in the third quarter of 2011 alone—a 5.6% increase over the same period in 2010. That rise is expected to continue through 2012, with more tablets coming to market alongside iPads and smartphones. There are currently more than 140,000 mobile applications for the sales-leading iPhone, and more than 200,000 apps in Google’s Android Market. Even eReaders such as Amazon’s Kindle Fire now run apps.
“There isn’t really any mystery about developing mobile apps,” said Luanne Brown, principal at eTool Developers. “The underlying rationale is the same as most marketing campaigns: getting your stuff in the face of your customers. Now that we have cool smart phones, the need to develop apps is more relevant.”
This year tablets are expected to boom alongside smartphones, further extending the reach of apps.
Companies are leveraging this phenomenon in various ways. For example, they may build a game app around their particular field of business as an exercise in branding. Or they may develop a branded content app that supplies customers with useful information related to their area of expertise. Creating a utility or transaction app that directly links their customers to products and services is another option. Plus, with total app development costs running about $3,000 on the low end, even small businesses are finding that they may be able to afford some sort of basic mobile app offering a reasonable return on investment.
Still, Brown emphasized caution. Companies shouldn’t latch onto apps simply because they are cool or trendy.
“If you’re going online with mobile, it better be because you know that’s where your customers are hanging out,” she said. “Marketing 101 still applies to mobile apps. Integrating all your efforts is the way to go.”
The Right App
“Candidly, this is all in its infancy,” agreed Brian Offenberger, president of the AfterMarketer Club, another agency specializing in digital marketing for the automotive aftermarket. “We believe a mobile app only makes sense if it’s going to do one of two things for your business—either help your revenue or help you build involvement with your audience through user engagement. If it’s not going to do one of those two things, you probably shouldn’t consider it any further.”
Brown added that many times a business may not need an app at all but rather a tweaking of its current web assets for easier mobile access. In fact, eTool Developers has helped several clients realign their company and product websites to make them more searchable on mobile devices.
“I think one of the hugest benefits in our industry for mobile applications is search,” Brown said. “Users on the road want to search for where to find parts so they can go buy them right now. While someone could use a mobile app to offer shopping online for aftermarket parts, I think most today want to find out where to buy things while out on the road.”
The point is, companies should ask themselves why they want an app in the first place, then determine which type of app makes the most sense for their business.
|Mobile apps can be powerful brand-promotion tools. SEMA’s Automotive Restoration Market Organization recently created
an app to help promote its Take a Kid to a Car Show awareness campaign. The“coloring book” app allows users to “customize” a collection of cool show cars on their iPhones or iPads. Download the app.
For example, many installation and repair operations on the retail side are currently finding value in utility apps that allow customers to schedule appointments through their mobile devices. Such apps encourage customer retention, especially when shops can text regular service reminders or special offers straight to customer smartphones.
In the performance arena, companies such as GoPoint Technology now offer branded apps that can read OBD-II codes, assess fuel economy, check emissions and “test” car operating systems (including anti-lock brakes and airbags) and then deliver that information to an iPhone or other mobile device.
After settling on the type of app, a company must next decide whether to build a “native app” confined to a specific operating system (i.e., Blackberry, iPhone or Android) or a “web-based” app that works on wide range of mobile devices. More often than not, companies will opt for web-based applications, but it again depends on overall marketing and intended audience goals.
Having taken these initial steps, it’s time to outline the proposed project in writing. Experts say that this is where companies frequently fall short. The documentation should specify as many details as possible, including the goals, “wish list” and scope of the proposed project, the dollar amount the company is willing to invest, a development deadline and who the project’s point people or decision-makers will be. A good digital marketing consultant can help with this document. After it’s done, the company can move on to a careful search for the right mobile application developer.
Above all, resist the temptation to turn to Internet dabblers or the 16-year-old down the street. There’s a big difference between technical competency and marketing competency—both of which are required for good application development.
“One develops differently for mobile apps than for other digital mediums because you have to consider things like the size of the monitor and use of icons, pictures and video rather than words,” Brown said. “You also have to consider various phone company softwares, how the different web browsers display on said phone company software, etc. There are more variables for the developers to consider.”
Moreover, because this is a relatively new field, best practices and industry standards are still emerging. A good mobile app developer should be able to understand your company’s business, your app’s intended audience and the processes they will go through when using the application. Look for vendors who belong to professional associations or trade organizations. These include the Mobile Marketing Association, the Search Engine Marketing Professional Association and various mobile application development forums.
As far as production costs, expect to encounter two tiers between North American and offshore developers. Here in the United States, development can start as low as $100 an hour, but total pricing can run from $3,000 to well over $100,000, depending on the project’s scope and complexity. Overseas developers can drastically cut those costs but may lack the cultural and marketing understanding essential to the success of your app. Like anything else, you’ll want project numbers fully estimated before committing to an outside vendor.
Finally, if these costs sound prohibitive for your business, there are still ways you can join the app revolution, observed Tom Myroniak, SEMA vice president of marketing and market research. “For many companies, developing custom or standalone apps just won’t make good business sense. However, they could benefit from tapping into existing tools such as maps and navigation apps by claiming online listings, ensuring that they are complete and accurate.”
The Cloud’s the Limit
Companies unable to create their own app can always tap into existing tools such as map and nav apps.
Myroniak also pointed out that companies creating their own branded apps are only part of a wider mobile connectivity trend beginning to sweep the automotive aftermarket.
“A lot of businesses are developing products and services around the iPad and iPhone,” he explained. “Many of them are also offering Android applications. Those devices have become personal electronics that people like to take with them to enjoy wherever they are, whatever they’re doing. The ability to connect to them in the car is still rather restrictive. People are looking for ways to enhance their driving experience, particularly younger people and people who are tech-centered. Right now, the wide range of infrastructure that’s offered by the OEs sometimes [limits] their abilities to do that.”
According to Myoniak, the real opportunities for app-developing aftermarketers will be found in creating solutions that address the challenges of this fast-growing phenomenon. One major hurdle for application developers is the current climate in which OEs offer mobile connectivity through largely proprietary, closed-system platforms, such as Ford/Microsoft Synch or Chrysler’s Uconnect.
“That’s a challenge, but it’s also an opportunity for the aftermarket to create systems that have greater ability to integrate third-party applications with vehicles, particularly for mobile-electronics companies,” said Myroniak. “A lot of companies have already figured out ways to tap into the vehicle systems and are writing applications to do that.”
For example, Directed Electronics’ Viper division has offered car alarm systems featuring SmartStart for several years now. Through a module that plugs into a vehicle’s onboard systems, users can arm vehicle alarms and locate, lock, unlock or start their cars with their smartphones, iPads or iPod Touches. More recently, an upgraded SmartStart 2.2 version added the ability to share activity on Facebook, set speed and other safety notifications and control home security systems. However, a brand-new 3.0 version unveiled at the recent Consumer Electronics Show goes much further, allowing users to feed in information about their daily routines and receive weather and other pertinent notifications as they go about their scheduled activities. SmartStart 3.0 also receives vehicle diagnostics.
In announcing the product release, Directed Electronics President Mike Simmons said Viper’s goal was to “change the way people start their day [and] introduce the promise of the Cloud-connected car, providing a robust, real-time, two-way link between cars and smartphones.”
Although aftermarket companies large and small are learning to harness the power of mobile applications, there is a broad perception that the specialty-equipment industry still lags behind other sectors.
“Many of our guys are not living a mobile lifestyle, and that’s the challenge of our industry,” observed Brown. “Sometimes I think we’re bowling over the industry veterans with the new, trendy marketing opportunities, and they’re thinking, ‘oh, that’s a job for the young guys.’”
To address this gap, Myroniak said that SEMA is currently developing a number of educational outreaches designed to bring member companies and app developers together. The hope is that such programs will provide networking opportunities, create an information exchange and ultimately spur innovation.
“If somebody has a piece of hardware they’re already using, perhaps they can enhance that piece of hardware by piggybacking different applications on top of it,” he said. “I think there’s also an opportunity for application developers to meet other performance brands in our industry to create performance-type applications that are branded through particular companies.”
Who knows? With a little imagination and thoughtful development, your company’s marketing may soon include the message, “Yes, we’ve got an app for that.”