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How to market your own business with an iPhone App - Smart Company insights

07 March 2011

Given the extraordinary success of Apple's App Store, it's no wonder that corporations and businesses all over the world want a piece of the action.

In the past 12 months, Australian companies such as CommSec, Qantas, Pizza Hut and Officeworks have all released their own applications, while smaller web-based businesses such as Lasoo.com and Catch of the Day have also developed their own apps.

While many of these applications have generated revenue, the apps are seen mainly as a marketing tool - a brilliant way to connect with a rapidly-growing, tech-savvy group of customers.

And while getting a corporate app-custom built can be an expensive process, there are ways to cut costs, providing you've got the right tools (starting with a Mac) and a good idea.

Connecting with new customers

Lasoo.com chief executive Paul Marshall, whose company's app aggregates content from paper catalogues to find products on sale, says companies with a chance to make an app should do so to take their brand to a new group of customers.

\"This is obviously our first venture into apps, so it's difficult to understand what the success rate will be. But we didn't build this just to be a flash in the pan. We want to have a long life on the app store, and not have a limited usability.\"

\"Putting our offering in your hand, we thought that was a powerful proposition. We saw the market share accessing our site from the iPhone, and we thought we could take advantage of that.\"

Marc Edwards, chief executive of development studio Bjango, says if companies have the opportunity to develop an iPhone app that is an extension of their core business, then they should absolutely jump on the trend.

\"There are obviously a lot of benefits in making an app from a marketing point of view, as you can get your message across to an extremely large audience.\"

Catch of the Day founder and chief executive Gabby Leibovich says many businesses will have a model that is perfectly tailored for the iPhone. His site, which sells one product per day until sold, was \"perfect for a mobile offering\".

\"The main reason that drew me into developing an app was our model, and the iPhone's new features. I can now send a message that pops up on a user's screen every day telling them what the new product is. So about 7,000 people now receive a message, and I'm guessing that has only increased our sales.\"

Keith Ahern, chief executive of development studio MoGeneration, says businesses are recognising how important the App Store has become when it comes to developing a marketing strategy.

\"I've been quite surprised with some conservative large Australian companies, the kind of companies that two years ago would not have been interested, are now coming to us for us to do iPhone apps.\"

\"These are offline companies moving full ahead with iPhone apps and are even pretty opinionated about them. I'm seeing a lot of slow planning being fast-tracked, with pretty surprising deadlines.\"

How can you get in on the App action?

It's one thing for an experienced software developer to make an app, but most entrepreneurs don't have the first clue about programming. So if you're a business owner with a good idea, where do you go?

Shayne Tilley, marketing manager for Sitepoint.com, says there are a number of developers, both overseas and in Australia, available to create corporate apps.

\"The alternative is to contact a specialised iPhone application development organisation to have your app created for you. This should speed up your speed to market, and depending on your in-house technical capability, result in a much more polished product, but will likely come at a higher premium.\"

Ahern says development studios are gaining scores of new work because of this very reason, and MoGeneration regularly develops apps for other businesses.

\"You've got two extremes, with the one being companies who have all the ideas and say they can make it all. The other extreme is people who have just the outline of an idea, and most businesses fall somewhere in the middle.\"

\"We talk about what they want and experiment to see what works. We look at similar competitors based on what they are doing, and look at the objective - is it brand extension, or a revenue advantage?\"

Having someone else develop your app is hassle free, and will certainly guarantee you a product you're happy with. But there's just one problem - it's expensive, with developers charging up to $50,000 for a single job.

But Leibovich says there isn't any reason why businesses can't investigate developing an app by themselves.

\"I called around about an app and heard quotes up to $40,000 and thought it was way too much. So I got my IT people to do a little assignment, I bought them a Mac, and within three weeks the app was designed.\"

\"They had to learn a programming language, but it was done in three weeks. I was prepared to spend $20,000 and ended up saving that much and only spending my developers' time.\"

Tilley says developing an app yourself will definitely save a business thousands of dollars, but creating a decent piece of software will require time and effort.

\"There are a growing number of resources for DIY iPhone app development, and if businesses are looking at that option, they'll need to set aside both funds and time to learn the language and dynamics that iPhone applications use. They'll also need a Mac, as the development environment only works on Mac.\"

\"First thing I'd do is jump on Apples Dev Centre. There are plenty of solid tutorials, case studies, reference material and framework information to help get you started.

From there your best bet is to join the iPhone Developer Program which will facilitate the path from development, testing, then App Store deployment.\"

What sort of App should I build?

Most companies develop iPhone apps for either a pure marketing push, or to raise revenue. Whether or not your iPhone app can make your business some extra money, Marshall says it's important to develop something useful to give the customer.

\"You need to build something long lasting that is synonymous with your brand. So we help you decide what to buy, which is key for someone holding a phone in a shopping centre. Keep in mind the computer won't be the only space you could be buying things from soon, it will be on phones in the future, so think ahead long-term.\"

Ahern says that along with practicality comes design, as no one will use your app if it isn't nice to look at. Crafting a sleek design will pay off in the long run.

\"Users want apps to look good and it doesn't matter how clever your service is. You see a lot of companies just naively stick a website into an app, but it doesn't work like that. The good ones spend a lot of time coming up with unique designs that work and are user-friendly.\"

Leibovich recommends learning from the experts. Spend awhile looking through the App Store, find examples of corporate apps and examine which ones are most popular and why.

\"Do your research. I found very few people that could give me good advice on this sort of thing, and in 12 months there will be lots of companies doing it. So get in first and learn from people who have actually done it and been successful.\"

What should I avoid?

Over 100,000 apps are now available in the App Store, and for every success story there are a dozen failures. There are plenty of traps to avoid when developing an app, as a failure could likely cost your business its reputation on the internet.

Marshall says a corporate app needs to offer the user something they cannot get on a website, whether that is the ability to purchase products, or a feature that takes advantage of iPhone technology.

\"From a marketing point of view you need to give the user something useful, and if you look at the apps that don't do that then none of them work and they aren't popular. I think we got a good reception because we put something on the phone that actually helps and assists them day-to-day.\"

Edwards says while the App Store is a useful tool for gaining market share and expanding your brand, he recommends holding back when first developing an app in order to save your business wasted effort.

\"Businesses can overextend themselves, spend too much on an app and then realise there is a boundary on success. If 10,000 or 100,000 downloads sounds good then you might be fine, but obviously you're limited by the market and it might not be as successful as you think. Don't depend on it.\"

Edwards also says too many businesses fall into the trap of using the App Store as an advertisement board, rather than treating it as a social marketplace.

\"Companies try to over brand their apps. This will fail, and people will not download it unless what you're giving them is personal and communicative.\"

And whether you're developing an app by yourself or hiring another company, Ahern warns that treating the app with a lazy attitude will only earn you bad reviews. Invest time and effort in your app, he says, and the customers will eventually come around.

\"Go out there, deliver a great app and you will become known on the web. Don't skimp, as we've seen a lot of companies go in there and not do it well. Spend time developing your app and make it the best it can be.\"

Companies should also beware of public backlash if they get the content of their app wrong.

American beverage company PepsiCo this year released an iPhone app of its own titled \"AMP UP Before You Score\", referencing its AMP UP energy drink.

The app is specifically designed for men, offering a type of guide that assists them in seducing women during a night out on the town. But iPhone users were not amused, saying it was in bad taste, and Pepsi has been forced to release an apology. While a major corporation might get away with such a hit to its reputation, it's unlikely a smaller company could emerge so unscathed for a similar situation.

Expanding your brand

Once your application passes through Apple's inspection and testing period, all you have to do is market your launch and wait for the downloads to commence. But while many entrepreneurs may have read stories of developers becoming rich from the store's success, Edwards recommends letting the app speak for itself without charging users.

\"There are obviously a lot of benefits in making an app for free, especially from a marketing point of view. You can get your app to a very large audience.\"

But Edwards says even if an app doesn't gain a company any new revenue, it's worth being in the application marketplace purely for the brand exposure. Your business may even gain more downloads than an individual developer purely because of your company name.

\"The App Store is pretty democratic, and it's a really level playing field... but if you have spent money and time in your app and your brand you could be getting even more business than you thought.\"

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