In today’s digital age, businesses should have a strong online presence to thrive and stay competitive. Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are no exception. They need a robust digital strategy to reach target audiences, engage with customers, and promote products or services.
While that was perhaps triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic, wrote Colin Sutherland of Forbes magazine, the trend is ongoing. Technology can help SMEs “connect to their customers through various small digital transformations like increased online ordering and delivery capabilities,” he wrote.
A central question for SMEs during their tech transformations is whether they should invest in building a mobile app or a website. While both options have advantages and disadvantages, the decision ultimately comes down to the specific needs and goals of the business, according to Kuty Shalev of Entrepreneur magazine.
While this may be a tricky decision for SMEs in general, it might be trickier for SMEs in emerging markets, according to a blog post by Ouida Taaffe for the London Institute of Banking and Finance. Most experts agree that SMEs should carefully consider their budget, target audience, market conditions and business objectives before deciding which option is best for them. Only by making the right choice can SMEs leverage the power of digital technology.
To app or not to app
When deciding whether an SME should create its own mobile app, the answer might appear deceptively simple: yes. “Apps are all the rage,” said Stephanie Burns of Forbes. According to a 2022 report by app developer Clutch, “Half of all millennial-owned businesses have an app, and 42% of all small businesses have one.” However, Burns urged SMEs not to succumb to the “pressure” of creating an app, as it shouldn’t be done “without careful consideration.” In the United States, the estimated cost of developing an app ranges from $5,000 to $10,000. It can be costly, especially for startups that have yet to fully prove their concept, he added.
The trend of SMEs creating apps isn’t wholly unwarranted. There is some proof that apps help businesses grow in several areas, experts say. For example, “mobile apps can enhance customers’ experiences and improve product and service marketing,” according to Business News Daily’s Sean Peek. Data further proves that mobile users are attracted to mobile apps. Data AI’s market insight report estimates that mobile users spent more than $155 billion using mobile apps in 2022.
Peek thinks apps may be a good idea for SMEs in industries such as “restaurants, flower shops, hairdressers, medical professionals and community-based goods and services of all types.” Additionally, apps are vital for the travel sector, said Ranghan Venkatraman, CEO of intelligence-as-a-service provider Rezilyens LLC. Not only can “highly relevant recommendations be made to customers” by tracking activity, but it also means “more data is captured [and] the recommendations become increasingly hyper-relevant.”
Apps also are necessary for Higher Education stakeholders, said Buyan Thyagarajan of CRM & Analytics consulting firm Eigen X. “Almost all students live on their mobile phones, and it’s important to connect with them via their preferred channel and help them with everything from choosing the right courses to completing their graduation requirements on time,” he said, adding that apps can help universities increase retention and enrollment by providing more personalized services.
That said, even in developed markets, apps may not always be necessary, experts agree. Developing an app is not a one-time thing, but an ongoing commitment. So before creating one, the question “isn’t whether or not your company can benefit from its own mobile app, but under what circumstances is it practical to develop and maintain an app, consistently infusing it with fresh content and compelling features that keep customers coming back?” Peek wrote.
App creation is only one way to leverage technology. “Sometimes a client actually needs a website, lead generation page or game — not just an app,” said Ben Lee, CEO and co-founder of Rootstrap, a design and development studio. That way, the SME is leveraging technology in a way that makes sense for the client or customer. If SMEs decide their target audience could benefit from the app, their next considerations should be “your goal, your target audience’s mobile usage, and your development strategy and budget,” said Peek.
While a mobile app may be a big and risky commitment for a lot of SMEs, there are other ways to have an online presence. One option is a website, which Kasey Kaplan of Forbes said “every business needs” because “a majority of customers will visit [a company’s] website before making a purchase.”
Having an informative, high-quality website communicates several things to your customer base, Kaplan said. For example, it adds credibility: “Without a website, people may question your legitimacy as a business.” A website also helps establish a brand’s voice and image, increases chances of getting leads and opportunities within the industry, and generates traffic by appearing in Google search results, she said. In addition, a website can cut the time needed for customer service by making information readily accessible and communicating updates and announcements.
With the emergence of social media, there are new ways to establish an online presence. “Social media and influencers have evolved into legitimate ways for brands to reach customers and generate income,” said Tony M. Fountain of Forbes. One advantage that social media has over mobile apps and websites, Fountain said, is accessibility and cost-efficiency. It is quite easy and cheap to create an Instagram account, for example, and “spread information about your business in a quick and cost-efficient manner and potentially reach millions of people with your message.”
In fact, social media might be a more suitable way to establish an online presence in an emerging market than websites or mobile apps. Social media offers “direct communication” with the customer, Norhan El Sakkout, lead designer and founder of the Egyptian fashion brand “saqhoute,” told Business Monthly in 2021. While other brands in developed markets might have an e-commerce website as their main channel, El Sakkout (in addition to a website) utilizes social media to show customers how e-commerce works. “When it comes to first-time online shoppers, we started receiving messages from people asking us how the process works,” she said.
In addition to the exposure and direct communication social media can offer, it also gives SMEs a chance to “go viral,” meaning to “gain a massive audience or views from many people worldwide,” according to a blog post on the employment website Indeed. That can be thought of as a marketing shortcut, as it instantly boosts the probability of reaching the target audience. That saves money, enhances growth and improves recognition and lead generation.
However, some experts say online presence, especially mobile apps, should be considered carefully in emerging markets. That goes back to technological awareness and smartphone penetration. In 2017, Statscounter estimated half of all people accessed the internet via smartphone. That number is quickly compounding, though. Forecast figures by Ericsson & The Radicati Group for 2023 estimate that 6.92 billion people own smartphones, which is 86% of the world’s population.
That suggests most people in emerging markets rely on their phones for internet access, according to a blog by Toppan, a U.K.-based language solutions provider. Toppan recommends SMEs “take a mobile-first approach” for these markets. That is because while “marketers in established markets often assume consumers will have internet access via more than one kind of device,” this is often not the case for emerging markets.
That presents a conundrum for a lot of emerging market SMEs. On the one hand, their customer base is likely accessible through smartphones. On the other hand, developing a mobile app can be risky, as experts suggest. In fact, some brands have tried and found little to no success. Egyptian fashion brand Palma launched a mobile app in 2021 to supplement e-commerce sales. By 2022 the app had been taken off the app store with no announcement or explanation.
That might be why social media is critical, as El Sakkout and others have found out. However, another approach is to focus on the mobile website instead of a mobile app, which is “designed for the small screens of smartphones,” according to tech magazine PCMag. “It is of paramount importance for a website to be mobile optimized (i.e. mobile responsive). It will prime a website to please the users and Google,” according to Brain Miller of Entrepreneur Middle East.
It also is essential to consider that it is not a one-approach-only situation. A successful SME online presence that achieves its goals can be achieved by combining everything above. There also are exceptions to the rules. For example, while ride-hailing company Uber is almost strictly a mobile app, it has witnessed great success with recent leadership “doubling down” on emerging markets. Burns, Lee, and Peek agree that, ultimately, the successful recipe will depend on every individual SME’s specific needs and conditions.