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Mobile Site or Mobile App: What is right for you?

By December 9, 2011 No Comments

Is there a hotter product category than Smart Phones and tablets? There’s certainly no hotter product from a marketer’s perspective. Mobile devices have outsold PCs for more than a year. Walker Sands’ new Q3 Web Traffic Report says that mobile accounts for more than 10% of all web traffic – way up from last year. Mobile Apps are flowing into app stores at a faster pace each day. Marketers are scrambling to adjust their strategies to meet the needs of these new mobile, connected consumers. Beyond discussions of QR Codes and SMS short codes, one question I’m hearing frequently is “Do we need to build a mobile app?”

It’s an important and timely question. Typically, the real question being asked is, “Do we need to cater to mobile users?” Given mobile’s growth rate I say, almost without exception, “Yes!”

So how should you cater to mobile users? The simple answer is, “either through a mobile website or a mobile application.” But before we go there, let’s define the mobile options:

Mobile-friendly website: Your current website, cleaned up for mobile. Mobile-friendly implies only a minimally functional site on a mobile browser: no broken elements. For example, a finger (not a mouse) makes selections on a smart phone. So, Websites that require mouse-overs to trigger submenus are not mobile-friendly.

Mobile-optimized website: A website designed specifically for a mobile device. These are normally alternates to primary sites, with content and presentation adjustments to improve the mobile user experience. Chunky, easy-to-click buttons replace small, hyperlinked text. Mobile users need quick access to specific content, so the key is to provide easy navigation to the content, and then present it in an easy-to-consume manner. This ease of use distinguishes mobile- optimized websites from lesser mobile-friendly websites.

Mobile app: Mobile apps bypass the web, providing an actual program that resides on the phone or tablet. In many cases, that program reaches out over the Internet to pull information from a server, meaning content can stay fresh. Mobile apps are written for a specific mobile OS (think Android or Apple’s iOS, for example).

Mobile web app: These are emerging as alternatives to “traditional” mobile apps. The W3C defines web apps as “a Web page … or collection of Web pages … which use server-side or client-side processing … to provide an application-like experience within a Web browser.” Tools like HTML5 provide the sophistication and functionality to allow web apps to function like a traditional mobile app, but remain platform independent (i.e., you can use the same mobile web app on an iPhone or an Android-based phone).

The remainder of this post will focus on comparing the two options that get the most attention today: mobile-optimized websites and mobile apps. How do you know which one makes the most sense for you? Start with this frame of mind: only create a mobile app if there is a specific need. There are plenty of times where an actual mobile app fits the bill, but (as you’ll see) it shouldn’t necessarily be the first thing you consider.

Reach – A mobile-optimized application will work on any smart-phone. It will also many times work on older “feature phones” with their built-in browser or the Opera mini-browser. A mobile app, on the other hand, is designed to the operating system of a specific phone. As of October, 2011, the market is split among five operating systems (Google’s Android, Apple’s iOS, RIM’s Blackberry OS, Microsoft’s Windows Phone, and Nokia’s Symbian), with no single OS controlling more than 50% of the market. That means that if you’re going to develop a mobile app, you’ll have to develop, support, and maintain apps for more than one OS, or immediately turn away at least half of your potential users.

Use – Mobile sites are great for delivering basic information. Mobile sites fit nicely for restaurants, theatres and events, and other retail- and consumer product-oriented businesses. On the other hand, companies that provide services (such as financial or travel services) – especially services that would require or benefit from individualized information being loaded to the local device (for future reference, for example) or applications that might need to take advantage of the mobile devices local features (camera, GPS, gyroscope, etc) will typically need the local computing power that a mobile app allows.

Re-purposing of Content – If you’ve built a website using a Content Management System (CMS) like WordPress, the real “meat” of your site – the valuable content you provide – can easily be re-purposed in the web-optimized version of the site, without having to enter any new information. Updating or editing both the main site and mobile site content can then be done all at once. By contrast, a mobile app will typically need access to its own content, which creates additional work necessary to update the app for each of the mobile OS versions.

Frequency – A mobile app is always just a touch or two away from the user, making it very convenient for users who will want to access the app frequently. Mobile-optimized sites don’t enjoy the same “at the tip of your fingertips” access by default, though shortcuts can be placed on a mobile home screen (with varying degrees of effort, based on the version of the mobile operating system).

Visibility – Is it important that mobile Internet users find your content when they do a Google search? If so, it needs to be incorporated into a mobile-optimized website. Content exclusive to mobile apps is not indexed by the search engines.

Cost – It’s always dangerous to talk in general terms about costs. That said, developing a mobile site is relatively inexpensive – typically 50-80% of the cost of a similar “full site” developed from scratch, and perhaps less, especially if CMS-managed content from an original site can be repurposed for mobile. On the other hand, developing mobile apps – particularly custom mobile apps – can be quite expensive. Multiplying that expense is a need to build to multiple OS’s unless you can justify reaching just one segment of the overall mobile market.

Conclusion: While there is no one single answer to the original question of whether a mobile site or a mobile app is the right choice for your specific needs, the considerations above will help guide you toward the answer that is right for you. As you consider the options, keep in mind that a solution to your specific needs may require a hybrid. You may require a mobile app to meet the needs of a specific project along with the ease of use that a mobile-optimized website would provide to a more general audience. Either way, the key is to start thinking mobile. It’s where the action is, and its importance will only continue to grow over time.