This post originally appeared on the American Express OPEN Forum, where Mashable regularly contributes articles about leveraging social media and technology in small business.
This year saw a staggering growth in consumer mobile usage, and with the smartphone industry growing at an unprecedented rate, 2011 could prove to be an unparalleled year in terms of mobile innovation and expansion.
With more than 70% of the world’s population owning a mobile phone, it’s time for small businesses to pay attention to mobile and begin planning their mobile strategy now.
Below are four predictions on how the growth of mobile will affect small businesses in 2011, with key takeaways on how you can get started with each one.
1. Mobile Payments
Allowing your customers to buy with speed and confidence is essential for any small business owner, but with the pace of modern life, it’s now increasingly important to let your customers buy at their convenience.
Mobile payments mean a retailer of any size can accept and process credit card payments, all with a smartphone, an account and corresponding app. Mobile payments can aid in expanding business and increasing revenue for a small business simply by using their existing smartphone.
There are already several options available to any small business interested in accepting mobile payments, including:
- Square is a cube-like plug-in that works with your iPhone, iPad or Android phone, to read credit cards and allows merchants to accept mobile payments. You can track sales, tips, tax, payment locations and your customers from one place. There are no contracts or monthly minimums, and the card reader and setup are free. There is, however, a limit of $1,000 deposit per week into your bank account, with the remainder deposited in 30 days.
- PAYware Mobile is an app, card reader and payment gateway from Verifone that allows the user to accept and process credit cards using an iPhone 3G/3GS. Manual card entry only is supported on the iPhone 4, iPad and iPod touch. It uses VeriFone’s PAYware connect payment gateway to process payments. The encryption sleeve costs $149 and the transaction fees vary by merchant account.
- GoPayment is a service provided via a partnership between Intuit and Mophie to enable secure credit card processing on your iPhone (3G/3GS). You can process any credit card either directly or by swiping it with the Mophie credit card reader. Receipts are either e-mailed or texted to your customers. The card reader costs $179.95 with a monthly service fee of $12.95. There are no setup fees or monthly minimums.
While in 2010 mobile payments became a talking point, in 2011 making and taking payments directly from your mobile phone looks set to be the future of commerce.
2. Location, Location, Location
Location-based services and marketing have seen a huge growth this year, especially within social media, with services such as Gowalla, Foursquare and SCVNGR. But they have yet to be taken up on a large scale by small businesses.
The launch of Facebook Places and Deals, however, could push location mainstream, as most small businesses already have some type of Facebook presence, and the network already has half a billion users. In 2011, location-based services will prove a powerful, relevant way to create a location-based loyalty program, offer specials and perks, and leverage verified checkins to attract new customers. Over the next year, businesses will be able to offer real measurable rewards (and not just “fun”) for consumers, pushing the trend into the mainstream.
Services like Yelp are now offering checkin offers for businesses, meaning that businesses can offer Yelp users special deals for checking in at their places of business. With checkins tied to Twitter and Facebook when a user checks in, it puts your business in front of a lot of eyeballs. This is just the latest example of how a small business can take advantage of location-based services to reach the masses.
Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter, also recently revealed that the microblogging service is working on a “self-serve process to advertise on Twitter, where a local coffee shop can advertise on the service looking for Twitter users in the area.” When combined with the plethora of third-party Twitter apps available, it means small businesses could potentially reach a large slice of their target market and demographic.
Using location-based marketing to proactively deliver messages and reach potential customers based on their geographic locations will enable small businesses to increase foot traffic and profits. With services like Geotoko now offering a way to quickly and easily build and measure location-based deals and promotions, it means creating a campaign needn’t be overly complex.
Partnering location-based incentives and marketing with mobile payments could prove to be a killer move for many small businesses in 2011.
3. Mobile Websites
In 2011, every website should include a mobile version, as consumers continue to shift their behavior to regularly using the mobile web. As mobile traffic increases exponentially, it makes sense for small businesses to craft mobile-friendly sites to ensure they don’t miss out on mobile traffic, and more importantly, sales.
Mobile and smartphone optimized web design will also be key to driving online sales, so now is the time to invest in designing your site for the mobile masses. For small business owners, considering your audience and user behavior for the lifecycle of your site is essential, and creating a professional mobile experience is key to this. Making this experience fast and efficient is an excellent way to improve your site’s effectiveness and make purchasing products as easy as possible.
Optimizing your website for mobile browsers no longer has to be a painful or difficult process, as there are a slew of services which make the task easier, including:
- WPTouch Pro is a powerful WordPress plugin that can be used to create rich mobile themes for iPhone, iPad, Andriod, Blackberry, Palm OS and Samsung touch mobile visitors, independent of your desktop theme. Prices range from $39 for a single license to $199 for the developer license.
- Mobify offers the ability to optimize and design your mobile site for thousands of mobile devices. It allows extensive customization and a plugin that automatically redirects visitors to the mobile version when using their phones to reach your site. There is a free version that you can use to get up and running quickly or switch to the pro plan, which offers custom branding, analytics, ad integration and more.
- Mofuse provides a platform that optimizes your site for more than 5,000 supported mobile devices with built-in analytics, SEO, automatic redirection and WYSIWYG editing. Plans start from $7.95 for the local/personal use to $89 for small businesses and $199.99 for the ultimate plan aimed at larger groups.
- Instant Mobilizer is an automated tool from dotMobi that takes any existing desktop website and transforms it into an enhanced mobile site. It resizes images, reformats text and inserts other mobile-friendly features to ensure your website works on any phone. You have to register your .mobi domain with one of their registrar partners, and Instant Mobilizer will take care of the rest.
With the mobile web estimated to overtake desktop Internet in usage by 2015, it’s time for small businesses to get ahead of the competition and cultivate a great mobile website experience now.
4. Small Business Apps
With more than 25 billion mobile apps estimated to be sold in 2011, up from 10 billion in 2010, the coming year looks set to be the year of the app.
Smartphone applications have changed the way many businesses operate, and small businesses will begin turning to creating apps that enhance the way customers interact with their products and services. These apps will also prove to be an affordable way to boost profits. There will be a distinctive shift from viewing apps as a fun buzz word to becoming an integral part of a small business’s marketing plan.
Having your business app front and center on a consumer’s smartphone is a tremendous marketing opportunity to improve customer service, attract new customers and open up the possibility of creating a revenue opportunity.
It’s important to note it may be wise to firstly make sure your website is mobile optimized before embarking on a dedicated app, as it will give you firsthand knowledge of building and refining a great mobile experience and effectively utilizing touchscreen navigation. You can then use your mobile website to graduate users to your native app to provide value beyond your regular desktop and mobile website.
Many applications have hit the market with no real strategy behind them, with many apps being deleted within 72 hours of being downloaded. It’s therefore important to identify the user case, define goals and create an app that provides real value. Ultimately asking “what do my customers want?” will enable you to decide if developing a native mobile app is the correct route for your small business.
For small businesses, where budgets are restricted, there are a multitude of options available, including DIY Tools, services such as iPhone App Quotes and dedicated developers such as those listed on They Make Apps.
These four trends are a look at how the mobile experience will shape small business plans in 2011. Let us know what you’d add in the comments below.
Image courtesy of Flickr: Randy Kashka, AxsDeny