Smartphone apps offer tool for businesses, organizations to reach customers

Monday, October 17, 2011
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With about 82 million smartphone users in the U.S., more and more companies are using mobile phone apps to increase awareness of their products and services.

Earlier this year, electronics companies' shipments for smartphones surpassed personal computers for the first time.

Steve Halter, president of the Greater Poplar Bluff Area Chamber of Commerce, said his organization developed its "My Chamber App" as a way to increase visibility for the businesses it represents.

"We realize some of our small businesses can't afford to have an app, so by being a chamber member, they can essentially be 'found' on people's smartphones," Halter said.

The Poplar Bluff chamber's app provides business and tourist attraction locations, contact information and links to their websites. There is also a Hot Deals section and an area calendar of events.

"We realize that everyone is going to have smartphones and utilize apps for everything. We have to stay ahead of the times," Halter said.

Cape Girardeau app developer Eddie Lowrey of Slam Technology LLC suggests businesses don't create apps that simply mirror their website.

"The app needs to bring something different to the table," Lowery said. "For a service industry, I think their app needs to be free and help their customers easily browse their goods and allow them to order it."

The majority of apps currently available are gaming, entertainment and social networking-based.

Dr. Edward Bender, a cardiothoracic surgeon at Saint Francis Medical Center in Cape Girardeau who has developed more than 20 apps available on the Apple App Store, suggests businesses "gamify" their apps to make them more appealing to potential customers.

"Gamification is taking something not normally a game and making it fun and competitive," Bender said.

For example, a furniture store could have a game where smartphone users decorate a room with pieces of furniture, or a chiropractor could have a "Where Does It Hurt?" game where users tap parts of the body.

Bender began designing websites as a hobby on his home computer, and his interest in computer programming led to his passion for developing apps.

"When the iPhone came out it really changed everything. You had a marketplace. You could develop something and then develop a network of users who are interested in what you do. You sort of develop a following," Bender said.

In the past two years, Bender's apps -- used predominately by medical professionals -- have been downloaded by about 65,000 people. Of his 20 apps, only two are paid.

He recently created a "Find a Doctor" app for Saint Francis Medical Partners to help patients select and locate physicians.

Bender said it's important for businesses considering an app to research what is already available in their field.

"The hardest thing about an app is the concept and the idea. There's a lot of people doing apps. If you've thought about it somebody else has probably thought about it. Doing something that's been done better would be a waste of time," he said.

Bender also said businesses shouldn't expect to generate a lot of revenue from apps.

"Not everybody is an Angry Birds," he said, referring to a popular gaming app. "Do it because you feel like you've got something to contribute and make that your reward."

Halter said the Poplar Bluff chamber's app has created better visibility, new marketing opportunities for local businesses and convenient navigation for visitors to his community. He worked with a company that develops apps specifically for chambers of commerce and communities and said his app was live and functional within about a week's time.

The cost of an app will depend on the hours it takes programmers to create it, on average about $150 per hour, Bender said. Web-based apps, which are similar to mobile-formatted websites, require much less time and effort than native apps created from scratch, he said.

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