Tripware, an online travel management company, recently started the design phase for its new iPhone application. The company focuses on business travelers, and many business consumers rely on BlackBerry smartphones. But, says Dean Wright, vice president of marketing and brand, “All the buzz says iPhone.”

Debbie Robertson Bialick, founder of Sweet Dog Organics, an online organic dog treat store, thinks iPhone apps are “cool,” but she’s not investing in development. She doesn’t see an app driving business to her company.

A ubiquitous iPhone commercial rattles off a list of functions, repeatedly telling viewers, “There’s an app for that.’’  And indeed, there’s a tsunami of apps flooding the market, with the count in the Apple iPhone Apps store approaching the 100,000 mark. And just as small and mid-sized businesses have had to decide what their presence will look like in social networking media, many are evaluating the value of an iPhone app.

While it might infer a bit of status at the gym or among friends and family, an iPhone app needs to be about more than buzz or coolness to add value to your business.  Developers, advertising experts and small business owners who’ve gone through the process advise running through a checklist before you begin the process.

Know your customer

Wright, the Tripware vice president, lobbied for his company to develop a Research In Motion app first since so many businesspeople rely on Blackberrys. “I think people in Marketing are too iPhone happy,’’ he says. Understanding your customer’s online behavior is essential, says Dan Neumann, emerging platforms strategist at interactive advertising firm Organic. “How does your target use digital? Do they have iPhones or Blackberrys or a combination of the two? Do they spend their time on Facebook or in e-mail?’’

Define your goal

The vast majority of apps developed by businesses today are about marketing rather than function. Large companies might be able to afford to develop an app that is little more than a gimmicky marketing tool, but that’s a luxury ill-afforded smaller businesses. Your business will be better served if you develop a useful app, says Mohamed Alkady, CEO and founder of after10studios, an interactive media firm. “Please give a value to your user,’’ he says. “You’ll never see us doing an app for the sake of doing an app. Ask yourself ‘Is this an extension of your business to make your customer’s life easier?’”

While being able to order a dog treat with an iPhone might make life a bit more convenient for her customers, Bialick figured it’s not the sort of task people necessarily have to do on the go. “Once the novelty of a new app wears off, successful iPhone apps seem to be used regularly for recurring tasks, tasks that need immediate attention, tasks that you can’t do using the mobile function of the phone, or tasks that cannot wait until you get home or to your office,’’ observes Bialick. “Ordering dog treats does not fall into any of these categories.”

However, apps for both the iPhone and the Blackberry are absolute necessities for JumpForward, a company that assists college coaches and the athletes they recruit in managing the often byzantine recruiting rules of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Mobility is a way of life for coaches, so JumpForward needs to push its information from the web site to mobile solutions, says co-founder Adam McCombs.

Develop a budget

Demand for iPhone developers has sent costs skyrocketing. Big brands are spending as much as $100,000 to develop an app, says Chris De Vore, co-founder of AppStoreHQ, an app search/discovery site that also hosts a developer directory and a developer matching service. A custom app is likely to cost your business $20,000 to $30,000.

For a small business, it might make sense to take advantage of the burgeoning market of app templates. Services such as Sweb Apps allow you to build a basic application, even creating a virtual storefront that will accept PayPal transactions, with no technical expertise. Using what amounts to a cookie cutter app won’t generate buzz or excitement, but, says Alkady, the developer, “It’s a good way for a very small shop to test the water.”

Using a toolkit, you can likely get to market within 30 days, says De Vore. Plan on a three- to six-month timeframe if you’re developing a custom app.

Separate yourself from the crowd

If you’re using the app to generate new business, you face a big hurdle. “The phenomenon is huge, but how do you get eyes on your application?” asks De Vore. “With the flood of information, it’s very hard to make your information stand out. The biggest problem with the iPhone is discovery.”

That’s one reason Wright, the Tripware executive, thinks a presence in the BlackBerry App World would make sense for his company. With far fewer apps with which to compete, Tripware would stand out, he reasons. So, Tripware will likely develop a BlackBerry app next. Meanwhile, Wright will promote the upcoming iPhone app through Twitter, the company’s website, its listings on business directory websites and e-mails to existing users with a promotional offer for downloads and referrals.

At after10studios, Alkady says he’s a bit choosy when it comes to accepting clients.  He’s looking for customers who understand the need to come in with a well-developed concept that will have appeal for their customers. He’s looking to create buzz-worthy apps that attract attention, such as the after10studio-developed Viper SmartStart, which lets you open and start your car from your iPhone with the use of an in-car receiver.  “Everybody jumps on the wagon because they think they’ve got to have it,’’ he says. “An app has to be an extension of your business value.”

Published on: Nov 1, 2009