Does Your Business Need a Mobile App?

Some small businesses might benefit from an app — but don't waste your time and money if yours won't.
Amidst the mobile-app craze, find out if a mobile app is right for your small business. (Photo: johavel/Shutterstock)

It’s easy to get the impression that the tech goalposts for your business are always moving. First you had to have a website. Later, you needed to be active on social media and Yelp. As smartphones ascended, “mobile friendly” became the new watchword.

Now some experts insist all businesses need a mobile app to increase customers engagement and boost business.

Apps, of course, are small programs, or applications, which run on phones and tablets. Many apps are an optimized version of a company’s website that make it easier for users to perform certain tasks on their phone. (An app usually doesn’t replicate everything on the website.)

The current app frenzy was fueled in part by a 2013 Nielsen study that revealed consumers spend 89 percent of their time in apps. But before you jump in, pause to consider if an app is really the right thing for your business.

App fatigue: one reason to say no


“Users need a very good reason to download your app, so between marketing, engaging and retaining them, apps are a serious ongoing investment for small businesses.” -Matt Lazarus (Photo: Matt Lazarus)

There are good reasons an app may be the wrong place to invest your time and money.

For starters, that 89 percent statistic from Nielsen is misleading. Users spend most of their time in just a few popular apps that have nothing to do with local businesses, according to a 2015 report from BusinessOfApps. Social apps like Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, for example, represent the lion’s share of time users spend on their phone.

And don’t count on getting customers to install your app. Matt Lazarus, cofounder and chief strategist of consultancy Mobilosophy, warned that consumers are suffering app fatigue. “The average user installs zero apps per month. Users need a very good reason to download your app, so between marketing, engaging and retaining them, apps are a serious ongoing investment for small businesses.”

Lazarus is hardly alone in his skepticism. Kim Stuart, chief operations officer at AtlasRewards, said, “For the average small business, creating, marketing and maintaining a standalone app is a losing proposition. They will never recover their initial development costs, basically no one will use the app, and the 1 percent of their customers that do actually use it are the most loyal client base already, so there’s zero reason to ‘re-acquire’ those customers.”

Apps need a strong business case


Restaurant customers love the convenience of apps that offer online reservations and a rewards program, says Monica Eaton-Cardone, co-founder of Chargebacks911. (Photo: Monica Eaton-Cardone)

That said, there are exceptions. Some businesses, particularly restaurants, can differentiate themselves with a branded app that helps customers do things like manage rewards, receive promotions, place online orders and make reservations.

Said Monica Eaton-Cardone, co-founder of chargeback management company Chargebacks911, “Quite a few restaurants are now following the example of early innovators like Starbucks and offering order for pickup via their own app. Customers love the convenience factor, and streamlining the process of ordering and paying can be a great way to attract customers.”

Ian Wright, founder of, said it’s essential to bake value into the app. “You need to offer people a reason to download and use your app. Common tactics include faster ordering, some sort of premium add-on or a loyalty program.”

Calculate your return on investment

Different businesses will benefit from apps in different ways — but some may not benefit enough to make the price of creating the app worthwhile.

For example, while real estate agents can treat an app as a lead generator, “retailers like clothing shops and restaurants need to see an increase in business. Having an app for vanity sake does not pay the bills,” said Brad Waller, vice president of business development at the online classified ad network EPage.

Ask yourself who would use your app, why, and how often. If you can’t imagine customers using it weekly, they’ll probably delete it soon after installing (or never install it to begin with).

Consider your customer base — and your website traffic

Reflect on whether you have the right kind of customers for an app.

“Apps work best for existing customers who can easily make the jump from your website to a mobile application,” said Victor Clarke, marketing quarterback at Clarke, Inc. “If a small business has a customer base that consistently interacts with your mobile website, they are likely good candidates for redirection to an app.”

Translation: If your business’s website is a ghost town, an app won’t magically attract users.

If the answer is “no”


If a mobile app isn’t a smart option for your small business, focus on enhancing your presence on consumer platforms, Helgi Hermannsson says. (Photo: Helgi Hermannsson)

If an app doesn’t make clear sense for your business, you can probably get more value from deploying or enhancing a mobile-friendly website and ensuring a meaningful presence on social media and in directory sites instead.

Helgi Hermannsson, founder of mobile software solutions company Gangverk and web scheduling service Sling, advised, “Even if your business is small it still has to maintain a quality presence on a number of popular consumer platforms such as Yelp, Google, Tripadvisor, OpenTable and more. Your business should focus on investing in great designs and quality content for these third party sites, and your own website.”

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