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Are you considering developing an app for your downtown to promote local businesses and events? If so, it might be a good idea to take a moment to think through the pros and cons. Today we talked with Jim Blakeslee of Geocentric, a web software and interactive services firm in Bethesda, MD that works with over 30 downtown districts.  We discussed website development versus app development for downtown business directories and events marketing – his firm does both with their Citylight product, a web-based and data-driven system that tracks and maps all kinds of data within downtown boundaries. Below are some highlights from our conversation that might make the app decision easier to make.

Why you might want to pause before developing a native app
Jim cautions BIDs to think twice before developing an app for the following reasons…
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  • Apps can be duplicative of a good website. Geocentric already finds over 50% of the web traffic to downtown district websites is coming through mobile devices. Therefore, your downtown website already needs to be optimized for a phone anyway. There is limited value to creating an app that just duplicates what is already visible in browser without adding additional value.
  • Many customers start their journey of information-gathering on the web. Geocentric notes that up to 75% of web traffic to district websites comes directly from Google search. Unlike websites that live on the Internet, apps are a closed system, making it more difficult for people to find the information tucked within an app. In addition, apps need to be downloaded by users before being of use to anyone – this is yet another hurdle for customers to get simple information such as what’s happening downtown this evening.  Geocentric has found that more than half of all pageviews on their clients’ downtown websites go directly to business directory and events calendar pages.
  • Apps are a lot of trouble and more expensive to maintain. Native apps can be expensive. Jim quoted estimates in the range of $20-40k for a native app, compared to $10-20k for a good website. Keep in mind these estimates reflect an average range, there are apps that can cost up to $100k, and websites that can cost as little as $5k. Either way, the additional cost and time associated with developing and updating/ maintaining an app is significant. Remember, the Google Play and Apple App Stores often require apps to go through an approvals process before being made available in stores.

If you do decide to go with an app. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:
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  • Make sure you have a good website first. A good app starts with a good website, one that feeds information into the app and prevents the need for double entry of importation information.
  • Integrate supportive tech infrastructure downtown. Take a tip from the shopping center industry and offer free public Wifi downtown. Once the customer has signed in or connected to free Wifi, download prompts for your downtown app on the Wifi landing page can easily be created.
  • Make sure the app offers something above and beyond what your website does. Apps do have the capability to do more than simply duplicate the information found on a good website, so if you are going to use it make sure you enhance its functionality by allowing for push marketing and offers/deals. This is what will help make the app useful and more appealing to download.
  • Marketing is key.An app that is not promoted properly is like a tree that falls in a forest. Does it make a sound? Not if no one hears it. Make sure every business in town is actively marketing the app – one of our clients has given window clings to every business to promote the app and raises awareness of its existence.
  • Measure success.According to Jim, positive growth trends in app usage and downloads is a good indicator that your downtown app is doing well. Of course, like websites, it all depends on the level of competition for news and information in your locality.