Mobile Apps: Keeping Downtowns Open and Communities Connected

Two adult girls on mobile phone enjoy ice cream and use a cell phone while walking in city street

Having a sense of place and community is more important now than ever. But the pandemic has increased our digital footprint with online shopping, at-home deliveries, and curbside pick-up—not to mention streaming services, social media, and more.  The Googles and Amazons of the internet do not know or respect communities’ borders.  These platforms provide information based on criteria and paid search that only they control.

Two adult girls on mobile phone enjoy ice cream and use a cell phone while walking in city street

So how can municipalities help people avoid online isolation, keep safe, and stay informed – all while embracing a sense of community?  One solution is by using a dedicated community and downtown-focused mobile app.

Supporting Local Small Business

According to the Pew Research Center, in 2019, 81% of the US population owned a smartphone. By using online devices, people are reaching outside regional boundaries for things they once bought locally.  In response, towns and BIDs need to make it as easy as possible for residents to find local products, services, events and information safely – not to mention support local business.

Residents and visitors need a dedicated app that can act like a town’s digital “town green.”  By making it easy to find local products and information, municipalities can maintain a sense of community, belonging, and connectedness, while simultaneously supporting local commerce, especially in the wake of COVID-19, when family and businesses are working hard to rebuild.

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Digital Placemaking For Centralized Town Communications

For years, towns have used websites and social media to communicate, but residents are on their own in terms of keeping track of all these resources.  However, some towns have discovered that having a mobile town app can do just that – become a unified, digital “place,” where businesses, schools, the library, and all of the town’s resources are at their residents’ fingertips.

Lavon Phillips, Communications Director of Glassboro, NJ noted that “using the app can tie everything together” and can cut through the noise. And in addition, a branded app can boost a municipality’s sense of identity and “place.”

Phillips built Glassboro’s customized branded app with MyDowntown Mobile, which launched over three years ago and continues to deliver great results.  According to Mr. Phillips, a curated local app presents the most important information to the local community, and he said, it has “no bias. You’re not being sold anything.”

Sites like Google and Yelp use complicated algorithms and weighted systems to “make you find what they want you to find,” says Mr. Phillips.

Instead, having a mobile app enables towns and BIDs to give their communities the local content they are looking for.  Towns can present just the information their residents want: the businesses; their Facebook pages and Instagram accounts; hyper-local news sources; and a well-rounded, accurate, view of their community in one place.  Mr. Phillips feels that for Glassboro, “the app was a natural extension,” of their existing marketing efforts and has become a valuable asset for the community.

The Digital Expression of Your Town

Available for download on Apple App Store and Google Play Store

Your mobile presence should be treated similarly to the way you treat your town center – it represents who you are as a community and culture, so visitors and residents can identify with it.  As the digital version of your town center, its “persona” needs to be reflected in your mobile communications.

But a digital downtown does not need to replicate your municipal website.  Some key elements you want to share can be included, “the app information is clean, quick, and fun.  We do not want to bog it down with traffic reports or too much municipal information,” says Phillips. 

This approach can be likened to your downtown visitors who come to enjoy a town’s businesses and lifestyle amenities rather than take care of business at town hall. 

Good Content Leads to Good Results for your Mobile App

“Build it and they will come” does not typically work here.  Once you create your own app, its content should be updated regularly and be integral to your marketing communications plan.  For example, your business directory should be updated with the latest information for local shops and you should promote app-exclusive deals through social media and carefully timed push notifications.

In addition, pulling the best, hyper local news resources into the app will keep your community informed.  Using push notifications, residents can receive important updates like the latest school information and road closures.  Virtual and in-person events also can be promoted. Your app becomes the go-to for fun, lifestyle, and critical information for your residents. 

With a mobile app platform, you have a range of options for making valuable updates.  Mr. Phillips of Glassboro finds the back-end system for their customized mobile app very easy to use.

“MyDowntown Mobile provides the ‘back door’ for clients to update content which can be assigned to any staff member, so it’s good for continuity in case an employee leaves the team,” says Mr. Phillips. If you don’t have the time or resources to keep your mobile app updated, you can ask if your app development team offers a content maintenance service.

Building Your Mobile App

As with anything, there is more than one way to get your app developed.  An app builder platform can provide a variety of templates to speed up development time and lower costs.  However, if you’re looking for something different than what a template offers and have the time, a custom app could be the better choice.  A semi-custom, branded, template app will cost about $6,000-$12,000 to build, and depending on your maintenance plan, $5,000-$10,000 per year to maintain.  A fully custom app is in the $30,000 to $60,000 range for development with $1,000-$2,000 in monthly maintenance.  It is a significant difference, however depending on your goals and needs, either option could be considered.

The past year and a half has presented us all with new and unexpected challenges, but downtowns are resilient and adaptable.  With the right plan and partners at your side, your town can rise to the challenge.  How are you currently meeting the needs of your residents and businesses, and is it working?  A mobile app could be the next indispensable tool in your belt.

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