4 Key Mobile App Trends for Small Businesses

Mobile apps open new opportunities for small businesses to connect with their customers. While just about one-third (32%) of small businesses currently have a mobile app, 41% are planning to build one to support future business growth. Mobile phone owners collectively downloaded 130 billion apps in 2020 alone. That number continues to grow as consumers become more dependent on mobile devices for their everyday needs. Small businesses can take advantage of people’s dependence on technology by connecting with customers through mobile apps. Brandon Werber, CEO and founder of Airvet, recognized this opportunity and built his business with a mobile app at its center. Airvet offers both iOS and Android versions of a mobile app for 24/7 virtual veterinary care. “On the app, pet parents are able to voice their concerns, questions, or fears with no time limit,” Weber said. “Veterinarians are able to assess the severity of their pet’s health issue and owners are able to get more accurate information than they’d get from an internet search.” Werber’s platform has increased access to immediate medical advice — pet owners on Airvet connect with a vet six times more than the average pet owner. “Many startups in our space focus on building tools for veterinarians alone, and not for pet owners,” Werber said. “One piece of advice I can offer to other business owners is to consider their target consumers first when planning a mobile app.”

“One piece of advice I can offer to other business owners is to consider their target consumers first when planning a mobile app.”

Small businesses should weigh their own needs and target audience when considering the value of a mobile app. Top Design Firms surveyed 500 small business owners about their experience with mobile apps. The data highlights four key trends in how small businesses are building and using mobile apps to support business objectives.

Our Findings

  • Mobile apps are increasing in popularity — 32% of small businesses already have a mobile app and 42% plan to build one in the future. Still, 26% of small businesses are unlikely to ever release a mobile app.
  • Small businesses are most motivated to build a mobile app to improve customer service (34%) and boost branding efforts (32%).
  • Outsourcing is the most popular way small businesses choose to build an app: 53% of small business outsource app development, compared to 41% that use a freelancer, 37% that have an in-house development team, and 23% that use DIY software.
  • Most small businesses have apps for both iOS and Android devices (37%), while 35% have only an Android app and 25% have only an iOS app.

Mobile Apps Are Gaining Popularity Among Small Businesses

The need for a mobile app varies from business to business depending on unique factors such as industry, services offered, target audience, competitors, and even the age of the business itself. However, with the average American spending over five hours a day on mobile devices, small businesses can’t ignore the opportunity to connect with customers. Small businesses across various industries are weighing the pros and cons of adding a mobile app to their business model, and there is a lot to consider. “You have to know your business,” said Tim Denman, chief marketing and sales officer at ServGrow, a field service management software company. “You also have to ask yourself if your business has the funds to hire an app developer, skills to run it, and the time to balance the app with your existing website.” As mobile device usage rates continue to grow, many small businesses are confronting these questions and determining the value a mobile app could add to their services. While some small businesses have already built their mobile app, most small businesses are planning to build one in the future. However, there is still a group of small businesses that don’t ever plan to release a mobile app.

How many small businesses already have a mobile app?

Our data found that 32% of small businesses already have a mobile app to support their business objectives.

32% of small businesses have a mobile app. Mobile apps can serve different purposes for different businesses. Goalry is a personal financial planning company with a mobile app that helps users achieve their financial goals. “We built our mobile app because we feel like it streamlines our service for customers and makes the information more easily presentable,” said Ethan Taub, the company’s CEO. While the Goalry apps purpose was to better connect and communicate with customers, other small businesses leverage mobile apps to add value to their service offering. Caroline Lee, marketing director at digital signature company CocoSign, shares that her company’s app has an employee tracking feature. “The app increases the visibility of our operations and helps us to deliver our services more efficiently,” Lee said.

“The app increases the visibility of our operations and helps us to deliver our services more efficiently.”

Nearly a third of small businesses already use mobile apps to improve their operations.

When is the best time to build a mobile app?

This answer varies based on each business’ specific needs. Apps can help with sales growth, brand building, marketing and communications, data collection, and more. Businesses that need support in any of these areas would find a mobile app useful. However, there are other factors to consider like financial cost and time spent managing the new platform. Because of this, planning is key. Forty-two percent (42%) of small businesses plan to build a mobile app in the future. 42% of small businesses plan to build a mobile app in the future. Small businesses need to get the timing right if they want to invest in a high-quality mobile app. Charles Vallena is CEO of TheGuitarJunky.com, a review platform for guitars and music accessories. Vallena understands the importance of planning and has decided to pause any effort to build a mobile app for his business. “The pandemic clearly played a big role in our decision,” Vallena said. “Currently, we are more focused on improving our website’s user experience and customer acquisition rate.” The financial cost and time investment required to build a mobile app doesn’t align with Vallena’s current needs and capabilities. “Sales have declined, our budget is tight, and we need to invest on business activities that will have an immediate positive effect on our revenue,” Vallena said. While most small businesses could find use for a mobile app, owners need to consider their resources and any other business priorities when deciding the right time to build a mobile app.

Do all small businesses need a mobile app?

Some small business owners don’t find mobile apps necessary for their business strategy. Just over a quarter (26%) of small businesses are unlikely to ever release a mobile app. While some owners recognize the benefits of mobile apps, they might not feel that it aligns with their specific business offering. “I think product-based businesses have huge potential for success with mobile apps,” said Laura English, Lead Copywriter at Sonder Digital Marketing, a digital agency. “However, I don’t think they’re as important as we’re led to believe and I think if business owners have a limited budget, they should focus on a website with perfect responsiveness.” Mobile apps also require a huge financial investment. Small businesses need to weigh those costs with the benefits of a mobile app. Stephen Light, Co-owner of Nolah Mattress, decided his mattress company does not need an app to support their operations. “A massive financial budget is essential in making and marketing a mobile app, so companies with limited funds shouldn’t consider this venture,” Light said. “Additionally, businesses without a large established customer base would find it difficult to get people to download their app.”

“A massive financial budget is essential in making and marketing a mobile app, so companies with limited funds shouldn’t consider this venture.”

Mobile apps don’t fit naturally into every business model. Small businesses without a lot of financial flexibility should invest other growth initiatives integral to their strategy before building a mobile app.

Small Business Mobile Apps Support Customer Experience and Branding Efforts

The benefits of mobile apps go beyond just boosting your service offering for customers. Some small businesses may choose to invest in a mobile app to support marketing efforts, increase sales, or stand out from the competition. However, our data reveals that most small business owners chose to build a mobile app to improve their customer experience and branding efforts.

How can mobile apps improve customer experience for small businesses?

Mobile apps offer another channel for businesses to communicate directly with their customers. In fact, 34% of small businesses created a mobile app to improve customer service efforts or streamline the purchasing process for their users. 34% of small businesses built mobile apps to improve customer experience. Taub explains that Goalry’s app provides a better experience not only because it’s tailor-made for portable devices, but also because users can easily receive help and support. “The app has a customer support section, allowing customers to contact us without having to email us,” Taub said.

“The app has a customer support section, allowing customers to contact us without having to email us.”

Many mobile apps have contact features that allow customers to receive timely and helpful customer service, leaving users with a positive impression of the business. The CocoSign app has also increased customer satisfaction. However, Lee explains the main benefit of the app is the additional value it brings to customers’ experience. “The app helped our customers to use our employee tracking tool remotely and efficiently,” Lee said. “We included features like GPS tracking, notifications and alerts, employee profiles, and reporting features in the app.” Mobile apps not only act as another channel for customer support services, but also improve user experience by offering additional features specific to mobile devices.

How can mobile apps boost branding efforts for small businesses?

Branding is essential to small businesses looking to scale, and a mobile app is another opportunity to build a visual identity. Just under one-third of small businesses (32%) have invested in a mobile app to further develop their brand or build customer loyalty. 32% of small businesses develop mobile apps to build their brand. Taub explains that Goalry’s app helps the company build trust with users subconsciously. “More people have discovered our business from the app as they see it scrolling through the app store,” Taub said. “Even if they don’t download it, they may recognize our name if they see it again.” From Taub’s perspective, it’s basically free marketing. A strong, high-quality mobile app can act as an extension of a company’s full image by increasing brand awareness standing out among competitors.

Most Small Businesses Outsource Mobile App Development Needs

Small businesses have many options available when deciding how to build their mobile app. While outsourcing development to another company is most popular, many small businesses also choose to:

  • Work with a freelancer
  • Use an in-house developer
  • Use a do-it-yourself (DIY) software

Some small businesses even opt for a combined approach. 53% of small businesses use an app development company to build their app, 41% use a freelancer, 37% use an in-house developer, 23% use a DIY software Small businesses should consider the pros and cons of each development solution when planning their project.

What are the different options for outsourcing mobile app development?

For small businesses without in-house development knowledge and with the funds available, outsourcing mobile app development services is a great option. Over half of small businesses (53%) have outsourced the development of their mobile app to another agency. By outsourcing, companies can avoid the time and money associated with hiring and training additional staff. Additionally, small business owners can continue to focus on their core business processes and trust the experts to build their vision. Small businesses looking for a more cost-effective outsourcing solution should consider a freelancer. About 4 in 10 small businesses (41%) have contracted their mobile app development needs to a freelancer. The costs associated with a freelancer are less than that of a full outsourced development team, but small businesses need to be clear about communication to ensure a successful project.

What are the options for building a mobile app in-house?

More established businesses might already have an in-house development department. Thirty-seven percent (37%) of small businesses were able to build their mobile app in-house. While it is costly to hire and train developers specifically to build a mobile app, it is worth the investment if the mobile app will become an integral part of your business strategy. Goalry had developers in-house build the financial planning app. “We had someone in-house develop an app that is like a portable version of our website,” Taub said. “Though mobile users could just use the website, the app runs much better and allows users to have access to specific features when offline.” In-house development also allows small businesses to have more control over the finished product. Another in-house option is using a third-party development software. Just under a quarter (23%) of small businesses are building an app themselves using a “do-it-yourself” or DIY app development technology. There are plenty of programs like BuildFire and Appian available for small businesses looking for a practical way to build a mobile app for their business. In-house development is a great option for small businesses that either already have in-house development talent or are looking to fully invest in a mobile app at a reasonable cost.

Small Businesses Prioritize Accessibility When Building Mobile Apps

In the U.S., iOS has 61% of the market share for mobile operating systems compared to 39% occupied by Android devices, all other operating systems represent about 1% of the total market share When small businesses are planning to build a mobile app of their own, it’s important that they consider the devices their customers use — iOS or Android, or both.

How can small businesses reach the largest audience with a mobile app?

Small businesses that develop mobile apps to grow their customer base prioritize accessibility and have apps available for both iOS and Android users. In fact, 37% of small businesses offer apps across both operating systems. 37% of small businesses have apps for both iOS and Android devices, 35% only have Android apps, and 26% only have iOS apps Goalry falls into that group. “Our app supports both iOS and Android platforms because we don’t want to restrict who can use it,” Taub said.

“Our app supports both iOS and Android platforms because we don’t want to restrict who can use it.”

For companies like Goalry that have heavily invested in their mobile app, it’s important that it be as widely available as possible. CocoSign also was designed to support both platforms. “We didn’t want to differentiate our services on this front,” Lee said. Small businesses with a broad audience should build apps for both iOS and Android devices to ensure that their mobile app has an expansive reach.

How should small businesses decide which platform to support with their mobile app?

For businesses with a more niche audience, owners may be in the position to decide between building an iOS app or an Android app. Small businesses should think about their audience’s geographic locations and demographics when making the decision. While iOS has the majority of the market share in the United States, Android is more popular globally. For that reason, 35% of small businesses have prioritized building apps for Android devices. If you are primarily targeting well-off consumers in the United States, you should consider targeting Apple devices. About one quarter of small businesses (26%) have apps that are only compatible with Apple devices. It’s important that small businesses understand their audience’s preferences when deciding which operating system to prioritize when building a mobile app.

Mobile Apps Open New Opportunities for Small Businesses

As consumer dependence on mobile devices grows, small businesses are taking advantage of mobile apps to support their objectives and scale their operations. Our data highlights the following trends in small business mobile app use:

  • Most small businesses either already have or are planning to build a mobile app.
  • Improved customer experience and branding efforts are the top two reasons small businesses invest in a mobile app.
  • Outsourcing is the most popular approach for mobile app development among small businesses.
  • Small businesses consider audience demographics when deciding which platforms their app should support.

These trends indicate that small businesses will use mobile apps to support a variety of business functions in the future.

About the Survey

Top Design Firms surveyed 500 small business owners and managers at U.S. companies with fewer than 500 employees in December 2020. Fifty-three percent (53%) of respondents are female and 47% are male. About a quarter of respondents (25%) are ages 18–34; 50% are 35–54; 24% are over 55. Respondents are located in the South (35%), Northeast (23%), West (22%), and Midwest (20%). Seven percent (7%) of respondents are the only employees at their business; 36% of respondents’ businesses have 2–10 employees; 25% have 11–50 employees; 18% have 51–250 employees. 15% have 251–500 employees.

About the Author

Shelby Jordan is an editorial manager at Clutch, the leading B2B ratings and reviews platform.

Need help selecting a company?

Based on your budget, timeline, and specifications we can help you build a shortlist of companies that perfectly matches your project needs. Schedule a free consultation with an analyst.

Free Consultation