Mobile Strategies: Does your company need an app?

With the growing popularity of mobile tablets and smart phones, more businesses must recalibrate how they interact with customers and prospective customers. The mobile devices are changing the way business is conducted.

Nearly 50 percent of all web traffic will come through mobile devices by 2013, according to Sara Santiago, president of Milwaukee-based Roll Mobile, a mobile marketing agency.

“Mobile devices are going to continue to become more sophisticated and will be the definitive connection between our offline and online lives,” Santiago said. “Mobile is not just

changing how we connect online; it also changes how we work, how we shop, how we connect with other people and how we share experiences.”

The devices are changing when, where and how consumers interact with businesses.

Companies that are not thinking about developing a mobile strategy should be, Santiago said.

Still, many business owners are uncertain about how to move forward. They are struggling with some basic questions:

  • Does our company need a mobile app?
  • If so, how should it be designed?
  • Who could design it for me?

First steps

Matt Friedel, president and chief executive officer at Milwaukee-based, which specializes in application development on multiple platforms, suggests developing a complete mobile strategy before proceeding.

Native applications are designed for specific phones. They require separate programming for iOS (Apple), Android, Windows mobile and Blackberry phones.

Website analytics on a company’s current website can play a crucial role in developing a mobile strategy.

“It goes back to knowing your customers and knowing how users are already looking at your existing website,” said Joe Regan, principal at Milwaukee-based ModMobile LLC. “Your existing analytics will give you information about what devices are being used to access your website as well as information about mobile usage and what needs are being addressed or not.”

Every company with any significant web presence should start looking seriously at optimizing their mobile presence, Regan said.

“Particularly as we move forward,” Regan said. “Mobile traffic on Black Friday alone was up nearly 10 percent over 2010. If you don’t have a good mobile website you need to start thinking about whether or not your company can afford to lose 10 percent of your sales in goods and services. And that’s just one day.”

Most mobile web traffic originates from a search engine, and 71 percent of smartphone users who see or hear a television, radio or print advertisement will do a mobile search to find your business, Santiago said.

“The first step in any solid mobile strategy is to make sure your website is optimized for all types of mobile devices,” she said. “If I’m searching the web for your products and services but you have no mobile web presence, you’re likely going to lose me to a competitor that makes my mobile experience fast, intuitive and guides me to conversion.”

Regan, a mobile app developer, agreed that a strong mobile web presence must come first.

“Mobile users, more often then not, are not going to find your company through an app store,” Regan said. “People communicating through mobile devices still send links around. As a mobile user you click on a URL. It’s going to take you to a website, not an application. That’s something to think about.”

A native application built for use on an iPhone an Android phone or another platform may play an important role in a company’s larger, focused and comprehensive online marketing strategy, but it’s only a piece of it, Santiago said.

“As the mobile space matures, website design and development is maturing too,” she said. “We are now considering multiple devices in the early web design phases using responsive design techniques and the latest design standards to achieve true media detection.”

Responsive design is the future of web development, Santiago said.

“U.S. consumers prefer mobile web over native apps for comparing products and prices, in-store information, product reviews and videos and for finding location and contact information,” she said. “Consider the fact that mobile search has quadrupled since 2010 and then justify a native application over a mobile web and mobile commerce experience.”

Mike Massie, a mobile technologist and Milwaukee-area mobile product developer agreed that most companies do not necessarily need a dedicated mobile application, but a good mobile strategy is imperative, he said.

“A lot of companies gravitate towards developing native applications,” Massie said. “But an app that isn’t useful will just fall by the wayside, and then it becomes a misappropriation of company funds,” he said.

There are instances where a native application or a cross platform web application is useful, Massie said.

“In general, when a company is looking at a deeper set of needs or deeper integration with the devices’ camera, accelerometer or other system hardware or something that’s a little more process intensive, a native application is a better option,” Massie said.

Google 101

The Google Search application is a good example of an application addressing a deeper need, Massie said.

“With the application, users can use the same browser-based Google search tools, but the mobile app will tap directly into the smartphone’s hardware to pull local results to the top of the list,” he said.

The Google Voice Search application also can work with the phone’s voice commands.

“Native applications tend to attack a solution from more then one end. When there is more data intensive content involved it’s probably a good idea to lean more towards a native application,” Massie said.

According to Friedel, there are cross-platform techniques developers can take to cut down on some of the costs, but some of the usability and features might be lost during the conversion.

“Currently, iPhone and Android devices make up approximately 70 percent of the mobile device market share,” Friedel said. “In addition to optimizing a company’s mobile web presence, they might choose to sacrifice some functionality in order to create an application that runs on both platforms.”

Baird jumps in

Milwaukee-based Robert W. Baird & Co. Inc. devised its mobile strategy and released a native application with cross platform capabilities in August.

“Given the growing popularity of the mobile space, we knew we wanted to jump into the mobile world to see just how mobile was received from our clients and consumers,” said Eric Rehl, e-business manager at Baird. “We worked closely with Matt (Friedel) and ultimately decided on native applications mostly because we figured this was really going to be phase one of our mobile strategy.”

Friedel helped update the firm’s mobile web capabilities and also created a cross platform application for Baird’s Wise Investor Group. The group was looking for a way to more effectively distribute downloads of its podcast discussions.

“We could have achieved our goal with a mobile website,” Rehl said. “But this initial phase was really meant to be a pilot program for mobile here at Baird. We wanted to see if it would work for us and saw this project as a foundation for the functionality that we could build upon going forward.”

According to Rehl, the company looked internally at which mobile operating systems were being used and decided ultimately it would be best to try to capture both the iPhone and the Android markets.

“Of course, budget was definitely a concern,” Rehl said. “We decided that rather than developing two separate native apps, we’d have a simple implementation that could be shared across the two platforms with a few minor changes to accommodate the different operating systems.”

The investment firm received mixed feedback about the application and has made several changes to accommodate the different operating systems, Rehl said.

“The cross-platform technique has introduced some limitations that we as a firm weren’t really prepared for,” he said.

The costs

If Baird were to do it over again, Rehl indicated he would probably use the budget to develop one native app and then follow up the next year and do a second app on a different platform.

“It would probably save a lot of the back and forth and modifications we had to do this time around,” Rehl said. “But overall, from an experimentation-pilot standpoint everyone is pretty excited about the prospect of being able to leverage these types of mobile tools and capabilities with clients.”

Kirk Strong, president of Smart Interactive Media (SIM) in Cedarburg, says a company would be wise to first assess whether it needs to develop an optimized mobile web site, a mobile app or both.

“I think the main decision is whether or not the people using it, the users, need to be online in order to use the app. Can the tool be used offline? And can it be used using some of the tools native to the phone, like the GPS? If the answer is yes, then you need an app designed for the phone. Otherwise, most people don’t even know if they are using a mobile web site or an app in many cases. In those cases, all you would need is a mobile web site. The 4G (technology) pretty much changes everything,” Strong said. “There’s a lot more interest in apps and mobile web sites. For the most part, people have talked about it for a while but haven’t jumped in yet. I think 2012 is going to change that.”

Because the mobile web and smartphone app development industry is an emerging, changing realm, the costs for a company to obtain its own app are all over the board. There are no established norms in the market yet. Local developers said they have quoted projects ranging in costs from $5,000 to $45,000, depending upon the functionalities that are needed.

“Development costs can range from really inexpensive template-based pages all the way to multiple native applications across several platforms with real time exchange with the company’s online applications or e-commerce engine,” Santiago said.

Budget will play a determining role in where a business starts with its mobile strategy and where it can grow, she said.

Sign up for BizTimes Daily Alerts

Stay up-to-date on the people, companies and issues that impact business in Milwaukee and Southeast Wisconsin

No posts to display