It's no secret that the mobile industry is booming, and the explosion isn't stopping anytime soon. The progress and possibilities made in the industry, in the past 10 years alone, is mind-blowing.

With all this new technology, consumers are developing certain expectations of the brands they like and the businesses they frequent. According to digital marketing agency Latitude, 61% of consumers have a better opinion of brands that offer a mobile-friendly experience. Some could say we're spoiled, but with all these technological advancements it would be a serious oversight for any small business owner not to take advantage and up their mobile game.

60% of consumers search for local businesses on their smartphone – and, even more importantly, 70% of all searches on mobile result in action within just one hour, according to Social Media Today. That's pretty powerful real-time stuff, and it's fair to assume businesses with only a desktop-optimised, slow-to-load, hard-to-read website are not getting a cut of this action.

With all that said, why have so few small businesses hopped aboard the mobile train with their own dedicated app? Well, historically speaking, mobile app creation has been a costly and time-consuming endeavour, drawing a comparison with the early days of website builders. 20 years ago when someone wanted to create a website, the options were limited, expensive and reliant on someone with coding knowledge to build it first-hand – but with the launch of tools such as Dreamweaver and Microsoft FrontPage, suddenly it became easy.

Mobile app builders are experiencing a similar trajectory, and thankfully we are finally entering that 'easy' phase. The limits of the little guys, such as massive costs and complexity, have been lifted, allowing competition with the big guys at last.

It's time to delve deeper into the iPhone apps run by some of the UK's biggest food and drink chains, the big players out there with multi-million pound marketing budgets and advanced in-house technology teams. Companies such as Starbucks, Pizza Express, Nando's and Subway are already on the ball, with dedicated mobile apps being downloaded en masse amongst their large customer bases. But what are the apps really capable of? And how out of reach would a similar solution be for someone with a tiny fraction of the budget and resources?

Apps (PD)Across the board these apps include a map and store locator, and most employ click-to-call for easy contact with any branch, in addition to the standard info one would expect. A menu is included in most of the apps as well. Beyond these basic features, only one other stood out as a major component of the apps – customer loyalty. The loyalty feature takes different shapes across the apps, including loyalty schemes corresponding with physical cards obtained in branch, a series of gamified loyalty-based challenges, with the completion of one unlocking the next, and other downloadable offers. Regardless of the implementation, it's clear that customer loyalty is the cornerstone of these apps, along with features that drive customer engagement and provide basic info.

According to research from marketing agency LocalVox, 82% of small business owners rely on customer loyalty as their main source of business growth. And coupons delivered on mobile devices get 10 times the redemption rate than traditional ones, so it should come as no surprise that loyalty and engagement take the lead.

For small businesses looking to offer their customers a mobile app, the functions of the app should be pretty straightforward – engage and reward customers, offer helpful information, and promote the business and its products or services. And all in one spot, behind that beautiful, branded icon on their customers' homescreens; simple. Well, thankfully all of that, and more, is possible with today's app builders.

As mentioned previously, we're no longer in an era where apps need to be outsourced to someone with extensive code prowess; self-service app builders enable mobile apps to be created and managed by the business owner. There are many viable platforms out there, ranging in cost and complexity that make this a reality – one such competitively priced platform is Appsme.com. It's a quick and easy app builder (with no coding whatsoever) that enables business owners to create a fully branded app and select the features most suitable for their business type.

For small businesses, the digital loyalty scheme, especially, offers an advantage over other solutions. It's certainly a better option than retro paper cards; these get lost in wallets and kill trees, whereas the digital equivalent is always available on the customer's phone. And typically small businesses do not have the scale (or necessity) to offer slick, plastic cards deeply integrated with their backend – in this regard the simple in-app loyalty scheme offers a better, more realistic solution for businesses looking to offer loyalty rewards.

Additionally, support for push notifications and geo-targeted messaging ups the ante in terms of engagement, allowing for custom marketing messages to be sent straight to customers' homescreens, potentially triggered by their exact location. Mobile branding firm Punch Mobility confirms this by reporting that push notifications trigger a whopping 540% increase in daily app opens.

Of course, templated apps may not contain all of the bells and whistles of their bespoke counterparts, but for small business owners looking to create an engaging mobile app that increases business and drives customer loyalty, there's no longer an excuse. It's not only possible – it's easy, quick and won't break the bank. Go mobile with an app, or risk getting left behind.

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