Increasingly, small businesses are developing mobile apps to stay in front of customers. Here's what you need to know before jumping into the world of apps.

These days, anyone can be a mobile app publisher, thanks to affordable Web-based tools for developing and promoting mobile apps — a unique method to push new content to customers and engender loyalty, any time of day.

“The small-business market for apps is just exploding,” says Zach Cusimano, chief operating officer at Bizness Apps, a mobile app service for small businesses. “It’s a known fact that people are searching on mobile devices more than on PCs.”

For a local merchant, an app can be a slam-dunk to drive repeat business, says Dave Rangel, chief operating officer of Corona Labs, maker of a subscription-based app development platform. “The local merchant has an advantage because they can put up a sign in their window advertising the app, which means they’ve got built-in distribution to drive loyalty.” Marketers, meanwhile, can use an app to push out alerts reminding customers of special events, promotions or new offerings.

Cynthia Nevels, founder of a Dallas-based management and marketing consulting firm, is helping an education client launch an app to promote its workshops and classes. The app is an additional marketing channel and a perfect fit for the client’s tech-savvy customers, she says.

Before developing an app, though, it's critical to do some analysis by surveying customers, partners and colleagues. “Always ask customers what would help them solve a problem or learn more,” Nevels advises.

Also consider whether your business would truly benefit from a mobile app. The smallest of companies, such as a physical therapist, could easily have a mobile app for making appointments and sending out reminders or exercises. Yet if a product or service doesn’t have reusability in terms of repeat business, an app isn't worthwhile, says Cusimano.

Developing the app
Development choices depend largely on what exactly you want your app to do — and, of course, your budget. It's OK to push your website content to an app for mobile commerce purposes, but that may not be incentive enough for someone to download it.

Rangel asks: “What can you offer through the app that isn’t already on email or the Web? There’s a great Jiffy Lube app that gives you info on your car’s metrics and alerts as to when you should take it in for service. Reminders are one way to deliver value through an app.”

The good news: You don't have to hire a software developer at $100 or more per hour. There are several do-it-yourself tools that allow a small company with limited technical skills to create, host and maintain a basic mobile app for monthly service fees starting as low as $10 per month. A few tools for developing on major mobile phone and tablet platforms such as BlackBerry, Android, Windows and Apple include Sprint’s Magmito for BusinessAppguppy,AppStack and Bizness Apps.

Such DIY tools have templates for creating your app and may enable a range of features, including social network sharing, coupons, shopping carts, loyalty programs and analytics to measure downloads, page views and other metrics. “People can edit their app anytime without programming help,” adds Cusimano, in regard to Bizness Apps.

However, while DIY apps are cheap and quick to develop, Rangel warns that they can sometimes result in a cookie-cutter feel. “A lot of mobile users expect an app to be cool and nice-looking,” he says. A middle-ground solution, such as that offered by Corona Labs, is an option if your company wants to hire a developer. The Corona development platform costs $349 per year for one developer, and is designed to enable the creation of an app five or 10 times faster than full custom development, Rangel says. Ostensibly, this could save a bundle in software development fees, but it’s wise to first discuss your options with several app development firms that have experience in multiple platforms and tools.

Launching your app
Where and how you promote your app can mean the difference between lots of downloads or just a handful. Dave Struzzi, a PR consultant for high-tech startups in New York and author of “App Store Fame and Fortune With Public Relations,” recommends creating a launch timeline, factoring in two or three extra months if you want the app to get approved for consumer app stores such as Apple’s App Store or Google Play. Tie the launch of the app to a new product, service or company milestone, or if you’re in retail, time it with a major holiday or important selling season, he adds.

A small business can cheaply promote the app through its social media networks, the company website, email campaigns, in-store signs and even through direct mail by incorporating QR codes that redirect the user to the download page. "App release parties are becoming popular too," says Cusimano.

“To drive adoption, inform customers through your other advertising channels that your mobile app includes special offers available only through the app,” says Bob Herman, owner of app development firm AppTropolis.

How to make it last
Just as with your social media pages, you don’t want to simply create an app, launch it and then leave it alone. The app needs regular care and nurturing through the addition of new features and content. Beyond keeping the app fresh, small businesses should devise an overall strategy for making the app "sticky,” says Nevels. The app can replace a loyalty card, for instance, offering discounts and free stuff for repeat purchases or interactions.

A two-minute weekly video demo, shared through push notifications, could offer helpful tips for customers — how to prune your roses, frost a cake or tune your PC — and keep mobile users coming back.

“Your mobile app should include a content management system (CMS) that allows you to update content/catalog/discounts without going back to programmers,” Herman adds.

Finally, mobile apps should be fast to load and fun to use. Make sure to test the app thoroughly with employees and colleagues before launching it to the public — and the highly discerning world of mobile app users.

© Business on MainSign up for our Main Street Authority newsletter to get articles like this delivered monthly to your inbox.