Learn how to design and promote your own app for maximum success

Americans love mobile apps. We use them for everything from checking email and downloading music to tracking down the lowest gas prices in town. And when we’re hungry and in a hurry, apps have become our go-to solution. According to the 2013 First Data Global Study, 40% of U.S. consumers find the ability to order food using a mobile app appealing, and Americans are increasingly using mobile apps for purchases; nearly two-thirds of smartphone users have a merchant app. Even better, a 2013 survey of mobile device users by the Interactive Advertising Bureau and Viggle, a company specializing in TV-related apps, found that 50% have downloaded at least one restaurant-branded app and 69% have ordered food using a mobile device. And what’s the latter group’s favorite food to order? Pizza topped the list by far, with 72% saying they’d ordered a pie with their mobile devices. Yet aside from major chains such as Pizza Hut and Domino’s, only a relatively small number of pizzerias currently offer apps for their customers. As of mid-July, a search for “pizza apps” on Apple’s app store retrieved more than 2,000 responses, but the majority were pizza-related games.

In other words, pizzeria apps are still largely unexplored, but the market is demanding them. In fact, some believe apps will soon become a must-have. “Look at how websites are now a component of every restaurant; apps will become the same in the future,” predicts Chris Pautsch, co-founder and CEO of MojoBistro in Downers Grove, Illinois. “They’re now few and far between, but with more people using smartphones, apps will prove to be a better way to engage businesses with their customers.”

Why an App?

When it comes to making purchases, the 2013 First Data Global Study reveals that consumers expect three features: seamlessness and control; tailored and personalized experiences; and a direct connection to other consumers and information through social media and shared online content. A well-designed app can meet all of these demands while promoting brand awareness and loyalty. “Because mobile apps bypass the Web and allow people to take full advantage of smartphone capabilities, apps can provide users with exclusive features, such as geographically targeted push notifications,” notes Li-at Karpel Gurwicz, marketing director for Conduit Mobile, based in Ness Tziona, Israel. “Restaurants can also offer coupons, specials, updates, discounts and customer loyalty programs exclusively to app users. And with the integration of social networking features, apps increase user engagement and expand brand visibility.”

Also see: The App Revolution: Resistance Is Futile

According to James Daleen, CEO of Appsuite in Boca Raton, Florida, apps help build relationships and loyalty and reduce turnover. They can also boost profits, enabling the pizzeria operator to track customer activity, target rewards and offers, and integrate e-commerce for takeout and delivery. “An app can be fully integrated with a POS system for operator and employee convenience, while allowing customers to easily see menus, select toppings and receive rewards for their purchases,” Daleen says.

One company, meanwhile, has even developed voice recognition technology for apps and is specifically targeting the pizzeria market. Chris Glauch, vice president of sales and business development for RedShift Company, compares the technology to Apple’s Siri, except that the program is designed and customized specifically to recognize all of the words likely to appear on a pizzeria menu. “With Siri, customers can search for, say, CiCi’s Pizza and get a list of these establishments,” Glauch says. “If the CiCi’s Pizza app used a speech recognition engine, customers could speak a specific food order and complete the online transaction.”

Ahead of the Curve

Of course, many major pizzeria players have already jumped on the app bandwagon. Pizza Hut (pizzahut.com) claims to be the first in the industry to introduce an iPhone ordering app and this year introduced Pizza Hut for Xbox Live, allowing customers to order directly from their gaming consoles. “We want to offer our customers the opportunity to access our products at every touch point: in-store, online, via apps, etc.,” notes Rohit Kapoor, Pizza Hut senior director of infrastructure—information technology.

Meanwhile, smaller-scale pizzerias—especially those with multiple locations—find that apps are a great way to connect with customers and (for now, at least) help separate them from the pack. “Everything is going mobile now, and when we decided to make our app, we knew technology was headed in that direction,” says Liz Lancaster, marketing, promotion and event planning manager for Mangia Bene Restaurant Management Group in Jackson, Mississippi, owner of Sal & Mookie’s New York Pizza & Ice Cream Joint (salandmookies.com) and two other restaurants. The app allows loyal customers to easily find out about daily specials and events, browse menus and purchase gift cards, Lancaster notes.

Also see: Mobile Apps Boost Online Pizza Orders

Amici’s East Coast Pizzeria (amicis.com) restaurants, based in Montara, California, with 13 locations, launched its app in early 2011. “We weren’t entirely sure it would catch on, but just as back in the early ’90s when people began talking about websites, we figured it might be useful one day and that we’d be better off having one,” says Richard Allum, director of marketing/purchasing for Amici’s. “The app’s use has grown steadily from day one, and the percentage of orders received via our app continues to grow month to month.” The Amici’s app presents customers with a convenient way to connect quickly using their mobile devices. It also retains the users’ previous orders, favorites and payment information so they can order in seconds (instead of minutes via telephone or even online). Meanwhile, for the business, it’s less expensive than online ordering, says Allum.

Building Your Own App

So let’s say you want to build an app. Where do you start, and what should you expect? “With so many options available, it’s now easy for any pizzeria—from family-owned establishments to national chains—to create a custom app,” Karpel Gurwicz says. She outlines a few options:

• Hire a pro. A private developer can work with you on creating an app that complements your brand and engages your target audience. Keep in mind, though, that developer fees can be expensive, and you’ll need the developer’s assistance to update the app with any new features you later want to include.
• Work with an agency. Look for a mobile design agency that provides a suite of features and functionality that you can include in your app. While this route may cost less than hiring a developer, you’ll remain dependent on the agency for any future updates you wish to make.
• Do it yourself. Check into a do-it-yourself app-maker platform. This is the most cost-effective option, but make sure the app maker offers a wide selection of mobile features and supports the major mobile platforms. It should also allow you to customize the app’s look and feel and provide app management functionality (such as sending push notifications or viewing analytics). Finally, you should be able to update your app whenever you want at no additional cost, with no coding or technical skills needed.

If you’re working with an agency, you can choose from a menu of features such as location services, enhanced menus, graphics and images, push messaging, special offers—all of the basics a restaurant requires, Daleen says. The company will configure what you need and brand the app for your business, then place it in the app store under your business’ name. Signup and configuration can be completed in a few weeks, he estimates.

And Pautsch notes that, because most restaurants request the same components (such as menu viewing and ordering capability), hiring such a company can save time and money while requiring little or no expertise on the part of the operator. “You don’t need to know coding—just what the restaurant needs from a functional point of view, such as coupons, reservations, push notifications, etc.,” Pautsch says. “The app can be simple to build online by selecting the features needed and entering content such as menus. An operator can input the necessary information in a few hours.”

Key Features

According to Karpel Gurwicz, it’s crucial to keep customers engaged by creating a good-looking, easy-to-use app that complements your brand’s look and feel. She suggests both fun and value-added features, including push notifications to update customers about specials, promotions and upcoming events, plus coupons with special offers such as free delivery for orders placed through the app. You could also give app users an inside peek at your pizzeria through behind-the-scenes stories and news or even share recipes. Finally, consider allowing users to communicate directly with your brand —or each other—via the app and providing a fun feature, such as a game or tool.

“You should consistently provide new, cool content to keep your app as fresh as your famous pies,” Karpel Gurwicz says. But, she adds, don’t forget the basics: reservations, menus, ordering, loyalty programs and rewards, coupons, click-to-call, review capability on sites like Yelp, directions and maps, social media, photos, and ways to solicit feedback and info (including business analytics).

Allum agrees that an app should be simple, convenient and easy to navigate, with an attractive design. “As far as features go, the ability for customers to duplicate previous or favorite orders with a single touch is a great feature,” he says. “Security of the customer’s payment and personal information is also very important.”

Finally, don’t overlook the power of social media and push notifications. Pautsch suggests incentivizing app users to share their experiences on Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, etc., by giving reward points for reviews (allowing operators to monitor them). Push notifications extolling a new promotion or menu item—or telling the customer when he has earned a reward—are also highly effective. “You can even have your app send the customer a notification when he’s in proximity of one of your stores and create a coupon tied to that location,” Pautsch says. “Or you can set up the app to send ‘happy birthday’ messages on the first of the month with automated coupons.” Best of all, you can determine what coupons, notifications or promos are receiving the best response—allowing you to alter them when necessary and tailor them to customers’ habits.

Recent studies have shown that customers tend to order more frequently from a restaurant when they have its mobile app on their phone.”
— Christopher Webb, CEO, ChowNow

Marketing Your App

Regardless of the quality of your pizzeria app, you first need to get people to download and use it. To create awareness and demand, Karpel Gurwicz suggests the following:

• Start with the Web. Leverage your website by adding a banner that includes links to download your mobile app. You can also redirect Web traffic to your app—an embedded code in your website can ask mobile users whether they’d like to be rerouted to your app or proceed with regular browsing.
• Use QR codes. They’re easy to create—several websites offer them at no cost—and can be placed on various marketing materials, such as your website, blog, print ads, menus and e-newsletters, as well as on your Facebook page and pizza boxes.
• Employ social media. Spread the word about your app on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and other social media accounts.
• Generate buzz. Promote your app to local news media and bloggers and ask them to review it.

Since the technology was relatively new when Amici’s created its app, the company engaged in significant marketing to encourage downloads. “QR codes that linked customers to download the app were very successful—each restaurant had a static display piece with a QR code in the customer pickup area, and we printed the QR code and instructions for downloading the app on our pizza box lids,” Allum says. “We also marketed the app in print ads and radio commercials, on our social networks, and on custom business cards that employees gave out with every order for the first few months.”

Daleen recommends that each employee be trained on the app and its features and notes that some app-building companies provide promotional materials and signage that can be posted in-store or distributed to guests. Meanwhile, to keep customers returning to your app, make sure offers and events are regularly updated and that new customers receive preprogrammed, periodic notifications.

Bierman touts text message marketing for mobile campaigns, so consider placing signage in the pizzeria that encourages customers to text message a short code to obtain a link for downloading. “Use your windows and store as billboards to advertise, and keep in mind that a lot of app users are going to be younger customers, so make your marketing unique and creative,” he advises.

No matter how you design and promote your app, many experts agree the technology is increasingly important for encouraging repeat business. If you’ve already covered the basics of online marketing—website, mobile website, social media—you should consider adding an app. And if you haven’t, you’d do well to catch up. In fact, Allum offers a single piece of advice for operators regarding apps: “Don’t wait. If you don’t have an app, at least one of your competitors probably does, and he’s able to compete for business on a level that you are not.”

Tracy Morin is PMQ’s senior copy editor.