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Finding Your Place in the Mobile Space

Author: Cheryl Sarfaty
August, 2013 Issue


What’s the difference between a mobile app and a mobile website—and why should you care?

 
 
Once upon a time, in a century not so far away, a business was considered cutting-edge if it invested in word processors, fax machines and clunky car phones.
 
Today, technology has advanced to the degree that it’s commonplace to see seniors (as in citizens, not students) tapping their iPhones to find a good place to eat. They’re using Yelp, not the Yellow Pages.
 
Technology continues to move at such an astonishing pace, that to fall behind makes it even harder to leap forward. And quite frankly, no one on this planet foresees that changing anytime soon. OK, ever. The fact is, most industries need to have a mobile presence to stay relevant.
 

Let the professionals steer the way

Web developers work a lot of behind-the-scenes magic in the mobile space and, while it’s not critical to comprehend the full extent of their technological brilliance, it is important to distinguish if a mobile app or a mobile website is best suited to a particular business.
 
“For most businesses, we’re more enthusiastic about a mobile website than a mobile app,” says Michael Slater, co-founder, president and CEO of Webvanta Inc., a Sebastopol-based provider of website and mobile app development services. “Most people don’t understand the distinction. They think they need a mobile app when, in fact, all they may need is a mobile website.”
 
A mobile website is optimized for viewing on a mobile phone or tablet. It can be found by people searching the Web and do everything that a conventional website does. That’s not the case with mobile apps, which serve a specific function and, once downloaded, hold permanent real estate on the mobile device.
 
“Mobile applications are useful, but I can think of some industries that would have no use for them,” says Kerry Rego, a social media consultant who runs her own Santa Rosa-based business, Kerry Rego Consulting. She notes that a mobile website is ideal for businesses such as restaurants and hotels, which profit from consumers who are on the go and looking for a nearby place to eat or spend the night.
 
Mobile websites are also optimal for retailers that sell products online, or for getting the word out if someone impulsively wants to “like” your brand on Facebook or Twitter. They’re also just plain convenient to check in remotely to an event or conference. In a nutshell, a mobile website is an ideal solution for businesses that can capitalize on action-oriented consumers.
 
“If somebody finds you while searching the Web from their mobile phone, they’re much more likely to take action than somebody who’s searching on their computer,” says Slater.
 
“Even better than mobile websites, which are complete separate sites that need separate maintenance,” adds Rego, “are ‘responsive websites,’ which can tell what type of device a viewer is using and can flex and change to suit the viewing dimensions.”
 

Dissecting mobile apps

Investing in a mobile app can be an attractive solution for companies that want to add another layer of interaction with their customer base; or for businesses that need to protect content (such as Netflix). One of the inherent advantages for businesses that have mobile apps is that, once they’re installed, the business’ icon takes a permanent place on the user’s mobile device. That alone can be a marketing slam dunk. And let’s face it: Mobile devices are basically appendages on the oft-coveted 25- to 40-year-old demographic, so it’s a pretty fair assumption the icon is one step away from becoming a tattoo.
 
In addition, once an app is downloaded, there’s no need for panic if connectivity is lost. The app is perpetually good to go.
 
However, unlike mobile websites, mobile apps can be hard to find on a Google search. They also aren’t designed to help companies generate on-the-fly business, and they certainly can’t provide the analytics needed to gauge where mobile traffic is coming from.
 
“For most businesses, an app is an added cost with very little benefit,” notes Slater. “That said, apps can be really cool—and as long as you actually have something cool to offer, that’s great.”
 

The importance of being relevant

In November 2012, after exhaustive research and preparation, Kendall-Jackson introduced its “K-J Recommends” mobile app, a distinct component of a larger marketing campaign, called “Goes Well With Friends.” The long-respected, family-owned winery launched its mobile app, which is free (and compatible with both iOS and Android devices), with a clear purpose: to further engage its existing customer base and expand its outreach to the 25- to 40-year-old demographic. The result is an innovative, interactive platform that delivers a rich experience and education for wine enthusiasts to learn more about how to integrate wine into their lifestyle.
 
“As we work to diversify the audience for Kendall-Jackson and continue to engage audiences in new ways, [the mobile app] was really part of a broader strategy to have some additional tools in our toolkit,” says Jason J. Hunke, vice president, communications at Jackson Family Wines. “There are plenty of wine apps out there that are more utility-focused—taking pictures or keeping track of scores—regardless of brand.”
 
For Kendall-Jackson, it was important to develop a branded wine app that offers new ways of engaging with the winery that remain authentic and true to its roots. Focused around its portfolio of wines, Kendall-Jackson’s mobile app lets users pair wine selections by color, mood or experience, such as getting together with friends or family, or sharing a private dinner for two.
 
“It’s about giving people multiple ways to learn about and enjoy Kendall-Jackson, whether they’re a total wine geek with all the knowledge in the world or somebody who’s maybe just discovering wine,” says Hunke.
 
Being privately held, the winery doesn’t share its financials, so Hunke declined to discuss how much Kendall-Jackson invested in the app. It’s safe to say, however, that there’s been a return on investment. Kendall-Jackson is already working on the next version of the app (which will launch later this year) and is also in early conversations about ways to further its mobile presence.
 
“You have to go where the people are, and I think that’s part of that broader toolkit conversation,” he says. “You need to engage with people on their terms.”
 

Manufactured for internal use

Consumers didn’t factor into the equation when MI Windows and Doors (MIWD) sought out Slater’s team at Webvanta a few years back to build an iPad app to coincide with its MI Energy Core product launch.
 
The manufacturer purchased more than 50 iPads and distributed them among its salespeople, leaving behind the bulky literature and sales packages in favor of a polished approach to show and sell its wares, says Patrick Schutte, director of marketing at MIWD, a national supplier of vinyl and aluminum windows and doors. The Pennsylvania-based manufacturer has plants in three states and a local presence in Novato.
 
Although he declined to release the exact cost of the app, Schutte says it was in the ballpark of $10,000. The investment quickly revealed a cost savings, though. “I know for a fact that when we launched this product, we spent at least $50,000 less in printed literature than we have in the past with other products,” he says.
 
MIWD’s mobile app mimics the company’s website content, which includes PDF files of spec sheets, instruction manuals, narrated “how-to” and “how it’s made” videos and more. “So, instead of doing a 12-page brochure, we can do a 2-minute video that tells a much better story,” Schutte says.
 
The app also presented MIWD with an unexpected side benefit to its product launch.
 
“It’s differentiated our company, not only by us having a high-tech, brand new product, but also using high-tech tools to sell them,” Schutte says. “We were one of the only window manufacturers with an app, so it let us step out in front of the crowd a little bit.”
 
MIWD has a second app in the works, Schutte says, and expects the cost to be at least triple the amount of the first one.
 

A newer approach to building a mobile website

One of the newer methods Web developers are employing to build a mobile website is called Responsive Web Design (RWD). The technique involves restyling a company’s website for a mobile device rather than building a separate mobile website, says Timothy O’Connor Fraser, senior developer and owner of Dewdrop Media, a Web development company located in Napa and St. Helena.
 
“In some cases, we’re repositioning content. In [others], we’re hiding content you don’t need to see on a mobile device, or we’re bringing forward a specific functionality that’s more helpful for mobile,” explains O’Connor Fraser.
 
There are many variables with RWD, so Dewdrop Media prices its work on a case-by-case basis.
 
Another developer that builds mobile websites using RWD (or custom mobile design, depending on the client’s needs) is Zenergy Works, a full-scale Internet marketing company out of Santa Rosa. Bryan Fikes, chief strategist and founder, calls the technique “best in class.” He notes that, by and large, there aren’t too many developers that know how to build a mobile website using RWD.
 
“It can be expensive,” Fikes says, “so it’s not necessarily something that every small- to medium-size business owner is currently using.”
 
Of course, Fikes notes, there are exceptions. Case in point: Key Auto Body in Sebastopol.
 

Cutting to the chase

When Justin Key contracted with Zenergy Works last summer, he knew exactly what he wanted for his auto repair shop: a mobilized online-estimating system. Key, vice president and part owner of the family business that was launched by his father, David, in 1982, grew up with technology and had a hunch that the shop could benefit from going mobile.
 
In the auto repair industry, it’s pretty much known by all parties that the process doesn’t move along swiftly. For the customer, the road to repair can turn the headache of a banged-up car into a full-blown migraine: choosing the best estimate and the right body shop, deciding if it’s worth involving the insurance company or just paying out of pocket, and securing a rental car.
 
The auto shop’s mobile-optimized website lets customers take pictures of their damaged vehicle, upload them directly through their smartphone or tablet and fire them off to Key. He shoots back an estimate. Boom. The preliminary work is done. “It just saves people so much time and hassle,” Key says. “It gives them the information they need so they can move forward in a more informed way.”
 
The mobile site is also helping the body shop drum up more business. “We have a higher closing ratio than we do when someone walks in to get an estimate.”
 
Key says the mobile website has not only streamlined and accelerated the process, it’s proven to be a valuable tool for generating accurate analytics. And he says the investment, which he didn’t disclose, paid for itself with the first customer who used the system, the San Francisco-based daughter of one of his local customers. She pulled out her iPhone to get an estimate, Key quickly responded, and he got the job.
 
As a side note, Key unwittingly upped his street cred when he instituted a mobile presence, because, like the manufacturing industry, it isn’t every day you run across an auto repair shop that uses mobile technology to attract customers and boost its bottom line.
 

The cost of investing

Because of the high cost variability involved in adopting a mobile app, making the decision can be a daunting task. That’s because you can spend as little as $59 per month to do it yourself  with a simple self-service tool or upward of six figures if you hire a developer. Talk about extremes.
 
Sites such as BiznessApps.com, where you can build your own app for $59 per month, don’t require any programming knowledge. Of course, it’s not going to look super professional, but it’s always an option.
 
“Somebody might be able to build a simple app for next to nothing if they’re willing to do a little bit of the work themselves,” Slater says. “But keep in mind that just having an app doesn’t necessarily do anything for you unless you also have a marketing plan that’s getting people to download it.”
 
Another alternative, albeit a risky one, is to go with a third-party option, where a business leases somebody else’s technology. Fikes cautions that this choice carries with it the danger of unknowingly hiring a shady outfit that could abruptly shut down or go bankrupt. When a dishonest vendor disappears, so does the business’ mobile presence.
 
“I think the key issue is making sure business owners invest in the long term, and don’t look at the short-term gains of using a third-party product,” says Fikes.
 
Businesses that can afford to hire a professional developer have much to think about, too. Slater says a fairly simple, customized app can run between $10,000 and $20,000. “It’s not at all uncommon to spend between $50,000 and $100,000 for a sophisticated app,” he says, “and certainly there are many apps that hundreds of thousands of dollars have been invested in.”
 
For growing businesses that really should have a mobile presence but can’t yet justify the cost, the most important thing to do is keep researching, stay current with the technological times and, when the time is right, shop around for the right developer.
 
“Have that dialogue with somebody who’s looking at it from your perspective and not just their perspective,” O’Connor Fraser says, “and has your best interest at heart.”
 
 

Selecting a First-Rate Developer

Like any major purchase, it’s important to shop around before choosing a Web or app developer. Whether it’s a mobile app, mobile website or a main website for your company, the following tips and guidelines can help you sort through the decision-making process and choose the developer best suited for your needs.
 

Signs of a professional and ethical developer:

 
• Shows you examples of his or her work;
 
• Freely provides client references;
 
• Helps you create a complete specification, if needed;
 
• Provides ongoing management after the site is built; and
 
• Is clear about ownership of the completed site (the developer typically retains ownership unless the agreement states otherwise).
 

“Red flag” statements:

 
“I can do all aspects of the project.” In most cases, it takes a team to do a great job.
 
• “I'm not sure how to do that.” The developer should have experience with the features and capabilities that are important to you.
 
• “We do development, not ongoing support.” Hire someone who will partner with you for the long term. Creating a great site is an ongoing process, not a single event.
 
• “We haven't done mobile sites yet.” Steer clear of a developer who’s learning how to provide good mobile support while working on your project.
 

Fee structures:

 
Fixed-price quotes: Going this route provides the assurance of knowing your costs, but it’s less flexible; each significant change may require a change order and agreement on the additional cost.
 
Hourly agreements: It’s common to require some up-front payment, which is credited toward the final invoice. Typically, one-third to one-half is paid up front, with the balance due either when specific milestones are reached (for a larger project) or at the completion of the project.
 

Questions to ask past clients (as references):

 
• Was the project completed to your satisfaction?
 
• Was it on budget and on schedule?
 
• Do you get quick responses to questions and requests for changes?
 
• Has your site ever been down? If so, for how long?
 
 
 
Source: Michael Slater, co-founder, president and CEO of Webvanta, Inc.


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