TLC Properties tenants toting iPhones now have a more convenient way to pay rent, report noisy neighbors or request maintenance for a clogged drain.

The Springfield property management firm has developed its very own downloadable application - or app, in tech-speak - to better connect with its target demographic: college students and young professionals armed with smartphones.

Officials at Apple, owner of the iPhone, said TLC Properties is the first Springfield company to launch an iPhone app.

"The vehicle for the message has to become more creative every day," said Jacob Harvey, director of marketing and public relations at TLC. "If a business is not on somebody's phone or working toward being on somebody's phone, I would highly suggest they do it. ... This is just another piece to that mobile puzzle where the marketing game is going. You have to have your message mobile."

More small businesses are investing in customized iPhone apps, and their mobile marketing strategies appear to be hitting the mark. To date, the TLC app has been downloaded 120 times, but Harvey said the mobile marketing campaign hasn't yet resulted in a signed apartment lease.

In mid-July, California-based Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL) announced that customers had made more than 1.5 billion downloads from the 65,000 apps available at its virtual App Store. However, Apple doesn't track the number of small businesses that have developed apps, said spokeswoman Elisa Hickey.

An app for renters

Sam M. Coryell, chief operating officer of TLC Property Management LLC, made an iPhone app a top priority in the spring, and Harvey immediately began researching the development process and associated costs.

TLC ultimately hired its Pennsylvania-based Web designer, Webvantix, to design and code the app for $9,000 - a far cry from the $15,000 and $20,000 quotes Harvey received from most companies.

"Things like this are sexy right now," he said. "And when things are sexy and new, you can really overpay for stuff. Do your research. Don't be willing to be sold immediately."

Developers of iPhone apps pay an annual $99 registration fee to Apple, and the tech giant reviews proposed apps for appropriateness and technical compatibility, Harvey said. TLC's app was submitted to Apple on June 29 and approved July 23 after two minor revisions, he said.

The app, which is available to iPhone users for free, is aimed at both prospective and existing TLC tenants. Those looking for apartments can search for real-time availability based on price, floor plan or move-in date, and those who already live in a TLC complex can pay their rent electronically, contact the manager or file a maintenance request. In late July, the TLC app was updated with information about the company's new shuttle service for Missouri State University students living at five designated properties.

Carrie Trimble, an associate professor of marketing at Drury University, said an iPhone app seems like a good fit for a local property management firm targeting young adults.

If TLC does a good job of responding to inquiries and service requests, the big payoff could be tenant retention, she said.

"They may be really doing themselves a huge favor, because people might be willing to stay an additional year because they were happy with the response time they got from management," Trimble said.

TLC has an estimated 4,800 residents living in its 2,600 apartments in Springfield and Republic, but Harvey has been unable to determine what percentage of them own iPhones. He said TLC settled on the iPhone app because of Apple's ubiquitous marketing and the smartphone's popularity. According to recent Securities and Exchange Commission filings, Apple sold 5.2 million iPhones in its fiscal 2009 third quarter - a sevenfold increase compared to the same quarter last year.

Jeff Bertholdi, president of Springfield-based tech firm Bentvision.com, said TLC chose the right mobile platform in the iPhone. While Research in Motion's BlackBerry holds more of the smartphone market than the iPhone, Apple has gained significant ground, Bertholdi said, adding that small businesses whose customers are in their 20s and early 30s should be investigating the feasibility of smartphone applications.

Business surpasses consumer use

The number of businesses seeking developers for apps is on the rise, according to iPhoneAppQuotes.com - a Florida-based company that aligns businesses and entrepreneurs with developers in its pre-approved network.

In first-quarter 2009, the company said requests for new apps were split evenly between businesses and consumers, but business requests jumped to 70 percent in the second quarter. Requests to develop game and music apps, however, are on the decline.

"Just in the last six to eight months, apps have really taken off tremendously, and small businesses ... are realizing this is another way for me to reach my potential consumers with my product or my service or just put my brand in front of them," said Greg Weiss, founder of iPhoneAppQuotes.com.

Oklahoma City-based brewery Coop Ale Works has an app that pings an iPhone when a retailer, restaurant or bar that stocks the company's beer is within 100 miles of the user. The app, launched in June, was downloaded some 680 times in the first month, according to the brewery's Web site.

In Atlanta, Vivid Hair Salon customers can book appointments using the salon's iPhone app, and Mountain Mike's Pizza in Santa Clara, Calif., offers coupons to those who download its app. Several larger corporations, such as Sirius XM Radio, Whole Foods Market and Barnes & Noble, also have launched apps.

Weiss said iPhone apps don't necessarily make sense for every business, and he cautioned companies about replicating their homepage for Apple's hip smartphone or trying to pack too many features into an app. He said businesses with iPhone apps also should have solid strategies for spreading the word to potential users.

"Apple will give you a little bit of love in the first couple of weeks," Weiss said. "Depending on what category your app falls into, you will be featured (on the App Store) as a new release for a week or two. ... But after that, you've got to figure out what your marketing plan is."

Harvey said TLC is publicizing the app on its Facebook page and in e-mail blasts to tenants. Information about the new feature also has been incorporated into posters, fliers and all forms of advertising, he said.

The app also serves another purpose, Harvey added.

"We felt like this was an aggressive move for us to separate ourselves from our competition," he said.