Mobile App Marketing For Small Business

For many businesses, it's a great time to start using mobile apps for your marketing. The costs to get started have come down tremendously. But you must be smart about every part of the initiative - else you will waste time and money at best, or damage your company's brand at worst.

You see, mobile is such a rich topic is that it's not "one thing". Rather, it has different facets, and it helps to understand where apps fit in this context. The three main pillars of mobile are:

  1. Mobile apps
  2. Mobile websites
  3. Text messaging

The last two can amplify the success of a campaign based on mobile apps. Let me explain.

The Game Plan

Whether you are the business owner yourself, or a marketer or consultant advising a company's management, you will want to consider two main questions:

  1. How will I convince well-qualified prospects to find, install and use my app?
  2. How will the app ultimately enhance the bottom line - whether that is directly promoting sales, or more indirectly through marketing?

These two separate things must be done well for the initiative to be a success. It's important that you, as the business owner, think through and create a plan before moving forward. Let's look at both.

The app can't do your business any good if no one installs or uses it. Not too long ago, you could just build and publish an app, and people would seem to magically find and install it. No longer: There are already hundreds of thousands of apps for Android phones, and even more for the iPhone.

So your first priority must be finding a repeatable, reliable method to promote actual usage among your company's best prospects. And further, that method must be cost effective: your investment in capital, time and other resources must be Fortunately, there are many low-cost ways to do this. Two worth mentioning are QR codes and text messaging. The essence behind both is the same: make it easy and simple for people to find and install your app.

For example, suppose a restaurateur creates a mobile app. For businesses like this, a great way to increase sales is to encourage existing guests to come more often; so it makes sense to invite current guests to install the app on their phone.

One way to do this: put a placard on each table, or print a promotional box on each menu. The box can contain a QR code linking to their iPhone app, and sales copy selling how they'll benefit by installing.

An alternative: instead of a QR code, design a call to action for the user to send a text message. On the placard, you would write something like this: "Text BOBSBURGERS to 12345 to get the Bob's Burgers App! Get special coupons, bonuses and more EXCLUSIVELY for our mobile app users." When they do this, they immediately receive a text message with a direct link to download and install the free app (via an SMS autoresponder).

Notice in both cases, the business owner has made it EASY and SIMPLE for people to find and install the app. Very important! The biggest challenge you will face is making your app stand out from the crowd. Just getting them to install the app on their phone is an important step.

Is it better to use a QR code to encourage people to install your apps, or an SMS autoresponder? There are a couple of tradeoffs to consider.

The big advantage of a QR code is the easy set-up. You can create a QR code for just the cost of quality printing, and putting some thought and effort into choosing a good destination, and probably some form of tracking.

However, using SMS isn't much harder or more expensive, and brings some powerful advantages. Setting up a opt-in, text message subscription service, with the proper auto-response promoting your app, typically costs $50 or more per month. (I recommend using Textmarks, only because I've been a happy customer of theirs for years.)

Why is this better than a QR code? Mainly because more people right now are comfortable with texting than QR codes. About 76% of US mobile subscribers regularly compose and send a text message The available usage data for QR codes show that 14 million Americans, or about 6% of all mobile subscribers, scan QR codes at least monthly. That number is from June of 2011, so it's a bit dated, and actual usage rates are almost certainly higher now. But there is a vast gulf from 6% to 76%.

For SMS, you must configure the autoresponder, meaning the first message that is automatically sent to the user's phone when they opt-in. This message text will include links to the app - one for each app platform you support.

For example, the manager of Bob's Burgers will set up the SMS campaign to respond with something like this: "Get the free Bob's Burgers App, click here for iPhone: , or here for Android:". Of course, replace those links to the actual apps. The guest can then touch to select the appropriate app and install it.

Depending on the business, its marketing channels, and the nature of its customer relationships, there may be other great ways to drive app installations. But it all comes down to one idea: give people a reason to install your app, and make it easy for them to do so.

Creating A Compelling, Valuable App

The options for apps are nearly limitless. Larger brands like Macey's, Target and Starbucks literally spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to create unique, custom apps to engage their customers. Smaller boutique agencies will create apps with a budget of a few ten thousand.

For most small businesses, this is of course unrealistic and out of reach. Fortunately, there are now services that can create quality native apps for iPhone, Android and more at very low cost, starting at a few hundred dollars. One I can recommend is Conduit. (Note: I have no affiliation with them. There are many alternatives that will do the job well, too.)

These and other, similar services all rely on "appifying" RSS feeds, blogs, and social media. For this reason, effective use requires the small business be able to set up and regularly update these channels, if they are not doing so already.

It's important to define your goals. What do you hope to accomplish through your mobile app initiative, and how will you know if it's successful? Is your goal to increase sales? Sales of what, exactly? You must find a way to encourage and measure sales created via the app, clearly distinguishing sales from other sources.

Or is your goal more for lead generation? If so, what kind? How will you measure the number of leads gained per dollar invested in your mobile app initiative?

These are of course all related; the point is that you pick your metric for evaluation. The principles of direct response marketing are very applicable here. And while these questions are hard to answer, it's critical to get this kind of clarity early on.

Sometimes even relatively sophisticated entrepreneurs feel they "must" have an app, but are not clear on exactly why. But it is very important to not be influenced by the popular press without a clear understanding of the reasons to use an app... and why your focus might be better served with other ventures.

For example, think of the restaurateur example above. Rather than creating and promoting an app, promoting the restaurant's social media presence might better serve the bottom line. The QR code on the table or menu would link directly to their presence on, for example, which could encourage people to post comments about the restaurant in the moment. (Bonus: the Facebook team will make it nicely mobile friendly for you.)

How do you know which is better? You don't until you test it. Entrepreneurs like you are resourceful by definition, so brainstorm on the different ways your company has to advertise your app. Start with lower-cost options, and move forward from there. Plenty of great ideas for how to promote your app are out there, if you look.

Which Platform?

One key difference between mobile websites and apps is multiplatform support. A native iPhone app cannot be installed on an Android phone; and Android app cannot be installed on a Blackberry, etc. If you make an app, you'll need to decide whether to support one platform or several - and which ones.

For the approach outlined here, though, the answer is pretty simple. If you're making an app in 2013, you'll want to support both iPhone and Android. Most app builders can deploy the same app to both platforms.

Why is this important? You want as many people as possible to be able to install your mobile app. As of May 2013, about 30% of all US mobile subscribers have an Android phone; while 23% own an iPhone. (See latest numbers)

Blackberry and Windows Phone combined hold less than 5%. The extra cost to support these platforms just isn't going to be worth it for almost any small business. (This isn't universal. For certain Fortune 500 brands, creating a Blackberry app certainly makes sense, for example.)