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BusinessColumnistsJamie Herzlich

Small Business: Will an app fit your goals and budget?

App usage is growing, but only certain types

App usage is growing, but only certain types of businesses will see the most benefit, so small business owners should evaluate them carefully, experts advise. Credit: iStock

Nowadays, there's a mobile app for just about everything. But that doesn't necessarily mean you should run out and build one for your small business.

App usage is growing, but only certain types of businesses will see the most benefit, say experts. "There's definitely a big opportunity for small businesses on mobile, but maybe not as much when it comes to apps," says Adam Lella, a Chicago-based analyst for comScore and co-author of its U.S. Mobile App Report released last month.

While apps are driving mobile's growth, with app usage increasing 52 percent in the past year, it's typically the larger players reaping the greatest returns. The largest digital media brands, specifically Facebook, Google, Apple, Yahoo, Amazon and eBay, account for nine of the top 10 most-used apps, according to the comScore report.

"It becomes hard for smaller players and stand-alone apps to capture an audience," says Lella. The apps that users download are usually the ones "they use often," he explains.

Cheaper alternatives. Small businesses may do better to focus their resources on a mobile-optimized website or a responsive site -- one designed to respond to any screen or device size, says Matt Weitzman, CEO of MJW Media Inc., a Garden City Web and mobile development firm.

They're generally less expensive to build, costing $2,500 to $6,000 vs. $5,000 to $20,000 for a custom app, he says.

It all depends on the functionality you're looking for. There are less expensive do-it-yourself app development platforms, but they provide more generic templates.

"They're pulling content you already have into an app format," explains Nicole Larrauri, managing partner of EGC Group, a Melville marketing and digital services firm that recently released its own mobile report that discussed mobile strategies including apps.

For instance, a startup called DWNLD allows users to upload content from existing resources like blogs and social media channels to create an app for as little as $15 a month, she says. But again, you're limited in terms of customization.

Small businesses should weigh their budget and goals before deciding whether to pursue an app.

"The general rule of thumb is the app has to have a function that someone uses more than once," says Lindsey Myers, a partner at WordHampton Public Relations in East Hampton. It typically works better for businesses such as gyms, spas and hair salons, where customers might repeatedly use an app to access schedules or book appointments.

WordHampton, which runs Long Island Restaurant Week, had an app created for that promotion, during which participating restaurants offer prix fixe meals. Some 4,290 people have downloaded it, Myers says. Users can check participating restaurants, make a reservation and see menus.

When deciding on an app, think about how your customers engage with you now, suggests Larrauri. If it's mainly through in-person meetings or phone calls, then you probably don't need an app.

Will it help? Also consider how customers are finding you.

EGC Group launched an app four years ago, but it has since shifted its resources to building and enhancing its mobile and responsive websites. The firm found it was getting the most traffic to those sites from multiple platforms outside of the app and has since stopped offering it, says Larrauri.

And keep in mind that building an app is only the beginning. You must market it, Weitzman says. This might include launch parties, hiring a publicist to promote it, and purchasing pay-per-click ads. "You need to put some dollars behind the marketing," he says.

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