According to the Pew Research Center, 35 percent of Americans owned a smartphone in 2011. Four years later, that figure is 64 percent. What's more, about half of all Internet searches are now done on mobile devices. Given these usage statistics — and the fact that they will only rise over time — middle market firms must consider whether having their own mobile business apps for customers is the right way to go.

Naturally, executives at small and midsized companies will ask, "What do they cost to build and maintain?" Indeed, apps built from the ground up are mostly the domain of enterprise-level firms because of cost. On the other hand, if a midsized firm's executives come to understand how business apps can improve their customers' experience, then the cost of tailoring an existing platform from an app vendor could be justified.

When done well, business apps can do a few things. First, they can turn users into loyal purchasers. They also motivate users to be brand ambassadors and make all users a source of valuable data. These are three elements that midsized firms simply must cultivate in order to succeed against larger competitors. And if an app is well received by the marketplace, it can also reduce the company's traditional marketing spend, further improving ROI.

What Should a Business App Include?

If you decide to move forward with creating an app for your customers' use, make sure it:

  • Has a straightforward user interface (UI). Because an app resides on the user's mobile device, it activates quickly and needs no Internet connection — an advantage over having only a mobile-responsive website. However, an app must present simple, intuitive paths to and from each area. The average user only regularly opens five apps on their phone, according to a report from Forrester Research, so yours must stand out. Otherwise, use will not be great enough to justify cost. This requires strong planning and testing ahead of time, because revising an app means additional costs that could put midsized firms in a bind.
  • Provides robust functionality in the most popular areas. Do customers and prospects use or want product catalogs, instant order placement, real-time customer support, exclusive deals or access, mobile payment capability, a chat forum with fellow users or other elements? Besides the necessary upfront research, it's critical to gather user feedback after launch to measure satisfaction with each feature and to learn what other features could be added to meet customers' needs.
  • Rewards customers for app use, sharing in-app information and providing useful data. Rewards draw customers back to your app and reduce the likelihood that they will use a competitor's app or website instead. They also give a midsized firm the opportunity to obtain critical buyer information that can be used to tailor in-app deals, out-of-app marketing initiatives, new product features and other purchasing triggers. When rewards resonate with customers, it creates a virtuous cycle: More data produces better offerings, which results in increased customer app use and more data captured to continue refining the firm's products and operations. Consider offering product credit, points or achievement badges as rewards.

The bottom line is that a business app has to be so useful that customers are willing to let it reside on their mobile devices' home screens. If a middle market company's app does not deliver enough value, the app is likely to become an expensive failure that damages the firm's sales and marketing function.

Does your middle market company provide smartphone apps? What has the experience been like? Tell us in the comments below.

Rob Carey is an NCMM contributor and a features writer who has focused on the business-to-business niche since 1992. He spent his first 15 years at Nielsen Business Media, rising from editorial intern to editorial director. Since then, he has been the principal of New York-based Meetings & Hospitality Insight, working with large hospitality brands in addition to various media outlets.