Illustration by Chris Silas Neal Illustration by Chris Silas Neal

The number of mobile apps has grown at a breathtaking rate over the past few years. Mobilewalla, a Singapore-based search portal for mobile apps, estimates that the total passed one million last December, up from just 8,000 in 2008. Now, many firms are jumping at the chance to forge stronger ties with customers by distributing their own branded mobile apps.

Whether you sell to consumers or businesses, it’s likely that a large and fast-growing share of your target clients are already using apps. This reflects the dramatic rise in usage of tablets and smartphones, and the allure of apps’ anytime/anywhere convenience and (in most cases) ease of use.

Companies of all sizes are developing custom mobile apps for an array of purposes. For SMEs, the biggest action is in using apps as an affordable marketing tool. (You also can employ them for various internal business processes but, for now, the greater complexity and cost of such usage typically makes an off-the-shelf app a better bet than developing a custom one.)

It’s easy to see the appeal for businesses of creating a custom mobile app—or, more likely, hiring an app developer to do so. With development costs for a basic app typically running in the $10,000 to $20,000 range, this is an affordable way to reach out to target markets. What’s more, once someone chooses to download your mobile app from an online store such as Apple’s The App Store and install it, it will reside on that person’s mobile device. That’s a strong brand presence.

“It’s an unprecedented opportunity to have an extension of your business in everyone’s pocket,” says Greg Betty, president and CEO of Intelliware Software Development Inc., a Toronto-based firm that helps companies plan and manage custom-app projects. “That we’re able to do this is quite remarkable.”

Of course, you first have to come up with a compelling reason for people to download, install and start using your app. Here are five smart ways to do so, and thereby build a connection with existing and potential clients:

Get them addicted to your on-the-go game: There’s little point in developing an app that someone will use only once. “You need to make it interesting enough that people will use it over and over again,” says Jennifer Blakeley, CEO of Niagara Falls, Ont.-based Alphabet Photography Inc. “You want to keep it high on the list of the apps that they use every day.”

For that, it’s hard to beat a mobile game. That’s why Blakeley’s fi rm paid a developer $12,000 to create Word Chaos, a scrambled word game with photos that look like letters of the alphabet. The game creates awareness of what Alphabet sells: photos of objects and scenery, each resembling a letter of the alphabet, framed in combinations spelling out a word of the client’s choice. More than 200,000 people have downloaded Word Chaos since last July.

Aside from the app’s value as a marketing method, Blakeley had considered creating a new source of revenue by charging for the game. But with hundreds of leads streaming in from all over the world, she has decided to keep Word Chaos free and thus maximize the number of downloads. “It’s really a marketing and branding tool at this moment,” says Blakeley. “We’re just allowing people to enjoy it.”

Offer consumers something both enticing and nearby: Mobile devices’ geographical-location feature opens up a wealth of marketing possibilities. These go beyond the obvious one of showing a consumer which of your locations she’s closest to at the moment and a map of how to get there. You also should give her an incentive to head to that location right now.

People who are out and about, for instance, can use Canadian Tire’s mobile app to view the retailer’s flyers for special offers as well as to check product availability by store. And TimmyMe, the Tim Hortons mobile app, lists amenities at each of the chain’s 10 closest locations, such as whether a given outlet has a drive-thru and accepts the Tim Card.

SMEs also can learn from what the Canadian Real Estate Association offers with its app. Out of the thousands of property listings, homebuyers can use the app to review only those ones that are in a specified geographical area and meet other criteria they select, such as size and price range. The app even allows a user to add an open-house listing directly to the calendar on her mobile. Companies in an array of sectors could apply the same idea to an app that lets users zero in on offers that are relevant and close at hand.

Provide the right tool for the job: Look for ways to win over consumers with an app that lets them access useful information right when they need it. Although Oakley Products Inc., a Foothill Ranch, Calif.-based sunglasses and sportswear manufacturer, isn’t in the marine-forecasting business, its free Surf Report app advises on wave conditions in locations frequented by users of Oakley products. This creates a brand presence on thousands of surfers’ mobile devices—a prime target for Oakley.

In a similar vein, Genworth Financial Canada, an Oakville, Ont.-based provider of mortgage-default insurance, distributes a mobile mortgage-calculator app that real estate agents can use when consulting with their clients. This brings the Genworth brand into the conversation at precisely the right moment.

Give ‘em a soft sell wrapped in useful information: Toronto-based Random House Canada amuses book lovers all the way to the online checkout. Its Conversation Starters app suggests lively facts you can drop to break the ice at social gatherings. For instance, did you know that CBC brass originally rejected Don Cherry as a hockey commentator because he didn’t meet the network’s standards for grammar? This particular conversation starter includes a link to Amazon’s website, where you can order a copy of the hockey book from Random House in which this tidbit appears.

You could emulate this idea on your app by presenting intriguing facts, with links to a product or service related to each fact. Or you could take a more earnest approach by offering FAQ content that, in answering a consumer’s question, alerts him to products or services related to that question.

Save consumers precious time: Chipotle Mexican Grill has an app that allows a customer to order and pay for, say, a burrito from a mobile device. That’s handy, but the real appeal is that the customer can then bypass the restaurant lineup and go straight to the cashier to pick up her meal.

Companies in other industries could apply the same idea of using a mobile app to speed up the buying process. You could, for instance, present a menu of product or service offerings that lays out the options clearly, then anticipates and answers the key questions that a client is likely to ask. Depending on the nature of what you sell, customers might be able to place an order through your app. But even if that isn’t feasible, they could save valuable time up front by narrowing down their options before they sit down with you to make a final choice.

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