I talk a lot about social media in my columns, but there is another leg on the stool that is becoming just as important: mobile technologies. The social part means that you can have conversations with customers online. The mobile means that these conversations can happen wherever those customers are and whenever they want to engage with you.
I’m sure you already know about smartphones and tablets like the iPad, and if you’re reading columns like this one, I’m reasonably certain you already use the hardware.
But the revolution is not just in the hardware, but in how you can use it. Mobile apps—those pieces of software represented by the little fun icons that you can download in a few seconds from “app stores”—are part of a recent phenomenon that started, more or less, with the iPhone.
If you are old enough to recall huge boxes of software, packaged with manuals of several hundred pages that used to cost up to $1,000, these inexpensive, or free, downloadable mobile apps are an amazing improvement. It usually takes less than a minute to download them and about that long to learn how to use them.
But there’s money involved for those who offer them and new ways of doing business for those of you who examine new options. According to Gartner, Inc, end users will download 17.7 billion apps this year from the largest providers who will enjoy $15 billion in revenue. That number is expected to grow to $58 billion in 2014.
More important than what developers and platform providers are producing and making, is the fact that people are spending more and more of their time on mobile apps. Some of them are your customers and prospects.
In the last year, mobile searches have skyrocketed by 400 percent. In the US, 71 percent of people with smartphones are conducting mobile searches. Depending on age, people in the U.S. use between 12 and 25 of them on a regular basis.
So far, the U.S. has been the fastest to adopt mobile apps, but in Asia, where the adoption of mobile devices per person is higher and access to computers is lower, mobile apps are being rapidly adopted. If you are a small business, located in Dayton, Ohio, whose product or service can be used anywhere then these apps offer a great—if unfulfilled promise—that you might start considering. I’m betting that mobile apps will soon give you access to customers in Tokyo, Seoul, Shanghai or Bangalore.
My client, Brian Magierski believes that these apps are creating a new global mobile economy, which he calls “the apps Economy.” To me, the mobile trend now unfolding is as significant as in the 1960s when computing migrated from the mainframe in the belly of the enterprise onto the knowledge worker’s desktop. In 40 years, we have moved access to data from MIS-protected punchcards to cute little gizmos that are with us wherever we go.
But as is often the case, most small businesses are not on the leading edge of a new computing age.
Chuck Martin, author of The Third Screen:Marketing to Your Customers in a World Gone Mobile and CEO of The Mobile Future Institute observes that small businesses “generally are not aggressive in mobile apps, due to the expense and resource.” He advises small companies to start by creating a mobile website, and to use the site to get customer permission to text them with offers or special information.
Martin was among several people I spoke with who saw location-based services such as Foursquare as one part of mobile that “hundreds of thousands” of small businesses are embracing.
Aaron Strout, head of location-based marketing for WCG World, an Austin-based digital communications company, sees enormous opportunities. “Whether you are a restaurant, printing shop or sell services, if someone checks into your business using a service like Foursquare or Facebook Places, chances are people are looking to be engaged or perhaps looking for an offer.”
“What many small businesses don’t know is that an offer can be something as simple as putting the ‘mayor’s’ picture on the wall (in FourSquare you become mayor by checking in to a place more than anyone else). Or maybe doing a coffee tasting. Even better, what about the opportunity to do a guest blog post or receive a free white paper?”
One form of LBS that has gained wild popularity are those that specialize in special discounts for limited periods of time. Groupon is the best known, but there are several others that focus on the special needs of local merchants. One is Yoohoot, recently acquired by Appconomy, that helps local merchants connect with nearby customers and prospects with last-minute or daily deals, loyalty programs and coupons.
The mobile app economy is still in its infancy, even though its collective market value will very soon exceed the GNPs of many countries. For a small business, these apps provide a huge opportunity because getting in is currently easy and inexpensive.
If I were a local merchant, I would enter the market slowly. As your understanding grows, you may even want to contract a developer to create your own mobile app, something special for your customers.
You want to ride the wave rather than be left to chase a cresting one.
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