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MTM's Mobile Predictions for 2016 (Part Two)

By June 2015, downloads of mobile and tablet apps from Apple’s App Store had cumulatively surpassed the 100 billion mark, according to Tech Crunch. Add to that the contribution made by Android, Windows, Amazon Fire and even Blackberry (remember Blackberry?) and you have a figure estimated to be knocking on 180 billion app downloads in the 2015 up from less than 140 billion the year before.

And this trend is showing few signs of slowing; the app market is forecasted to grow by 26% in 2016 and be worth an incredible $143 billion. There is no denying therefore that apps are gaining momentum across the board. Businesses and app development houses are constantly redefining the opportunities apps present and the role apps can play. That isn’t to say making a successful app is an easy money-maker. An app cannot be produced on the cheap or off the cuff. With the high levels of competition, it is difficult to stand out and requires careful consideration regarding how the app will meet the user’s needs and objectives and how it will stand out from the crowd.

For understandable reasons, numbers of app purchases are heavily skewered towards the consumer market but businesses can also benefit from the development and integration of apps into their sales and marketing strategies. Apps aimed at business users may not be about generating revenue directly but could be focused on customer service or offer the user benefits which have a more indirect value to the brand. Equally, apps could represent an entirely new sales channel for your business, if you have the right idea.

For example, massive increases in connectivity and the availability of Internet-enabled devices means people and their teams work very differently today, compared to even ten years ago. In 2016 people work at all hours, from home, in the office, across multiple continents and multiple time zones but they still need to communicate and collaborate. In light of these rapid developments, several app developers have looked to monetise these changes in behaviour by creating apps that are focused on improving productivity and aiding internal communication. Slack, a multi-platform team-messaging app, has had widespread adoption and currently boasts more than 1.1 million active business users every day. And, to demonstrate the value potential apps can bring to your organisation, Slack was founded in 2009 but already has an estimated value in excess of $2 billion. Likewise, some apps have even managed to gain a foothold in both business and consumer markets. Periscope, a live-video streaming app from the makers of Twitter, has both personal and commercial uses and is slowly becoming a recognised platform for live sharing events.

Mobile Web or App?

A big consideration for businesses is whether a native app provides a real benefit over a mobile or responsive website. While mobile sites are websites that are made specifically for mobile or are responsive across all devices, native apps are essentially a more intuitive and arguably engaging version that is downloaded and installed occupying physical storage space on the user’s device. However, native apps not without their drawbacks, namely the requirement to find the app in the app store and make the conscious decision to download it. This is a significant barrier for some users compared to simply accessing a URL.

According to TechCrunch, consumers use an average of only five apps on a daily basis. Typically, these five fall under the social media and instant messaging apps category. Businesses, therefore, have the likes of Twitter, Whatsapp, and Facebook to contend with for their audience’s attention. For cautious marketers rising above this noise and piquing a customers’ interest may seem too much of a challenge, but there are opportunities to leverage the popularity of these apps and place ads within their networks, although the return on investment for B2B brands is less than proven.

The accessibility and functionality of mobile web means it has a much greater reach than apps, making it an ideal medium to reach the widest possible audience. However, search engine leader Google is catching up with ways to make apps a more attractive option for both developers and users. Google’s push to increase app visibility through indexing means content from within Android apps can be viewed within mobile search results, encouraging people to utilise existing apps on their devices or download apps to access content.

Although apps do not yet have the mass-market outreach that mobile sites do, it can help to build a stronger relationship and increase the bond between companies and those interacting with the app. There is also the added advantage that instead of actively typing in a URL or search enquiry, the user can instead just tap a screen to connect with the brand – making the process much easier and swifter. Apps also deliver additional opportunities to communicate with users on a regular basis. Brands can leverage the personal and portable nature of smartphones by encouraging interactivity with the brand through push notifications. Push notifications are messages which appear on the user’s lock screen if they have allowed them. A good example is announcing a special offer or the start of the sale.

While many start-ups are wholly app-based and have succeeded in gaining massive market share (think Uber), introducing an app as the sole part of your mobile offering runs the risk of confusing and isolating existing customers. Even with app-developments and the increase in smartphone usage, it is important to accommodate a mobile browser and instead consider an app as an additional, optional tool rather than an alternative to an on-brand responsive or dedicated mobile website.

What Does it Require in Terms of Investment?

Producing an app often requires a significant investment, both in terms of time and resources, and can particularly be a strain for businesses without huge financial assets. It is no coincidence that many of the most popular apps required massive amounts of investment before they ever made a penny. Benchmarking these costs against company objectives helps to give a clearer idea of whether an app is a feasible project or a needless folly.

Apps are usually developed in one of three categories; native apps, web-based apps, and hybrid apps, each requiring differing levels of investments and offering varying advantages. Native apps are typically developed for a particular platform/s or technology and are coded in a programming language dependent on the relevant operating system. These apps are installed physically on the device from an app store so have the capability to access the device’s hardware such as the camera or microphone, allowing for richer interactivity. Native apps are also in most cases able to run without an Internet connection but require the user to update the app to render any changes made by developers with constant automated updates. Since duplicate versions are required for different devices or operating systems native apps are expensive and time-consuming to develop.

Web apps are essentially shortcuts to a mobile webpage which users have installed onto their devices from the mobile website, they run on a browser and typically are written in HTML5. They are significantly cheaper to produce and have the advantage of not requiring user updates but have limitations in functionality with an inability to utilise smartphone specific features such as a camera or microphone and also require internet connection.

Hybrid apps are self-explanatory; they are a mix of native and web apps. They are downloadable from app stores, like native apps, but they also rely on HTML like web-based apps. Only one app is needed for all platforms, so does not reach costs that are associated with native apps.

Who is the Audience?

When planning an app knowing the desired audience is the most crucial part of the planning process. The app may not extend to your whole audience but may be targeted towards a certain segment. For companies who are looking to produce an app to aid in internal communications, it is likely that they will want there to be security features that prevent sensitive information being accessible from the public or even visibility of the app at all. Likewise, companies may want an app that also extends to its business customers as a point of contact.

Tech giant Apple has recognised the potential for the B2B market and has invested in increasing opportunities for businesses to utilise the seemingly consumer-focused environment. With dedicated channels for B2B users, such as the custom B2B app store for apps that are private for business members (including clients), developers have more control than ever to make apps exclusive for desired contacts.

It is evident that apps are playing a bigger role than ever before in the business context, ITProPortal reported that 59% of businesses are planning to utilise more than 10 employee-facing apps in the next couple of years. Tablets and smartphones are being increasingly adopted for work-related tasks, with specific devices even being introduced to the market such as the iPad Pro to appeal to professionals.

What the long-term future will bring is anyone’s guess but the next few years seem set; apps will continue to grow in number and will become more popular in the B2B environment. With so many potential opportunities, the question businesses must ask is ‘will an app help achieve your business objectives, would a web-based app be better or is investing in other social media and messaging channels going to deliver the best results?’