Mobile App vs. Mobile Website: Choosing Your Mobile Presence

Richie Harris

Written by Richie Harris

Mobile website on an iPad and mobile app on an iPhone X

In the fast paced lives of consumers today, everyone is looking for the advantage that a viable presence on mobile devices offers. With projections of mobile web use matching or even exceeding desktop web use in the next few years, mobile applications already exceeding both, and the ever expanding mobile device market, it’s past time to jump on this bandwagon. The question is no longer whether on not to invest in a mobile presence, the only question now is what that presence should look like, and how can you invest in it wisely.

The two primary means to establish a mobile presence are through a mobile website, and platform dependent native mobile applications. For our clients, we would perform a critical review of their business goals in the mobile market, and suggest what we believe would work best for them. In this post we’re going to try to break these two options down and provide resources for you to come to your own conclusions as to what best fits your business needs. We’ll provide overviews of both and then compare and contrast their strengths in terms of end-user experience/usability, cost, and marketing effectiveness.

Native Mobile Applications

Native mobile applications can be leveraged to drive mobile traffic to or awareness of your products/services. They can be as simple as a bookmark/link to your site, to as complex as a fully integrated service layer that provides your customer/client seamless use of your products/services outside of a mobile browser. Whether you’re an online retailer or a service provider, a native mobile application in the iPhone and Android markets can give you an edge over competitors with one more way to reach your audience.

The primary goal with any mobile application should be to provide your customers with the easiest and most straight forward path to you. What a good mobile app does, is boil down your product or service to its most fundamental principles. For an online retailer, this often translates into a very simple search tool that provides a means for your customers to easily and quickly search your inventory or find the closest store. For an online service provider, such as a financial institution, it will often mean simply allowing their customers to view their account balance and/or a history of charges on their account.

Building native mobile applications can represent a considerable investment both initially, as well as ongoing, as you may need to perform updates for security purposes, or even just to keep up with changes within iOS or Android systems. The choice to invest in development of mobile applications should be made when there is a clear return either in terms of an under-reached audience, or in being able to expand your service base to a specific business need.

Pros

  • Access to native resources on the device
  • Can ‘start from scratch’
  • Reach a market that may otherwise pass you by
  • Leverage mobile advertising with key partnerships
  • Get customers invested

Cons

  • Relative cost
  • Short maintenance cycle
  • Support of multiple markets to contend with
  • Updates require customer compliance/involvement
  • Chance to lose customers/put yourself into a niche

The upside

With a native app you gain access to features and capabilities within the mobile device that are simply not available from a mobile website running in a browser. The Flickr app, for instance, allows you to snap a picture using your mobile device camera at which point it can use the devices GPS to tag the image with your location, and give you the choice to save it to your account in one or two button clicks. From the Flickr mobile website, you’d have to use the standard upload navigation to find the file, tag the location of the file yourself, etc.

Starting from scratch with a mobile app means that you can do something entirely different with your app rather than just skinning your website. It can be a strong selling point if you have ideas you’d like to try for design but you don’t want to change what works on your existing site.

A mobile application can open a market for you if you’re in a relatively niche field. Sometimes an app that isn’t related to your website at all can be an excellent marketing tool. A crafting supply store, for instance, could build a simple stitch counter for knitters, or a conversion calculator, or even an interactive clothes size graph that helps seamstresses figure out size differences in patterns. Something that it useful to your customers, that they will use outside of your products/services, but will leave them thinking of you every time.

Mobile applications also allow you to leverage mobile advertising. This means that while customers are using your application, you could be earning advertising revenue from targeted advertising.

Providing a mobile application to your customers can get them invested in your organization in a way that a mobile website cannot. Their choice to install your app can be an opportunity to foster a brand recognition with your users in that they’ve opted in to hosting you on a device that they will use all the time, and often, something that never leaves their side.

The downside

The relative cost of a mobile application versus a mobile theme for your website can be substantial. As stated previously, you need to have a specific business target for your app that goes above and beyond just allowing customers to use your site from a mobile device.

The maintenance cycle for mobile applications can be a headache. Different kinds of devices, especially on the Android side of things, can require quite a bit more support and ongoing maintenance as Operating System updates are circulated and as customers upgrade devices over time.

Mobile app development and maintenance is also complicated by the need to support multiple markets with independent policies and requirements.

If you want to roll out a new set of features or updates you have to rely on your customers to actively update to your latest release rather than simply roll out the changes on the codebase you control.

Finally, there will be cases where a mobile application you’ve distributed doesn’t play nicely with a particular device or conflicts with a particular version in a way that could cause you to lose customers through frustration or bad social media.

Mobile Website

A mobile site shares certain principles of an application in that you want to focus your efforts on providing a very clean simple interface for your visitors. The first thing to consider when moving your site to a mobile theme is what exactly would someone going to your website from a mobile device be looking for? Most often this would be basic information and search capability. Browsing through a complex site-map using standard menu style navigation on a mobile device can be torturous, you want to place the tools your users need literally at their fingertips. This will often mean paring down what your site has in terms of functionality from a mobile perspective, to the most basic premise of your site.

Building a mobile version of your site can be very simple and low rent, to highly customized and expansive. It all depends on what your business goals are for mobile use. Any serious business should have, if not a fully dedicated mobile site, a mobile friendly theme for their website. Implementing a mobile theme can be as simple as a single page that offers a search/return feature, or as complex as a complete re-theme of your whole site. Unless you’re a major online service provider or retailer such as ebay, facebook, amazon, etc, you’re likely better off keeping it simple.

Pros

  • Relative cost
  • Much longer maintenance cycle
  • Expanding on existing framework rather than building something new
  • Updates on your own terms
  • Variety of services make setup a breeze.

Cons

  • Certain things are only possible through ‘hacks’
  • No native support/access to device capabilities
  • Locked into browser based navigation/use

The upside

The lower relative cost of a mobile theme for your website should definitely be a factor in your decision making. You can do a lot more with your mobile site rather than investing in both.

The maintenance cycle for a mobile site is much more controllable. While new updates for mobile devices come out fairly regularly, browser standards have a much longer lead in time, giving you the advantage to stay ahead without having to work too hard on it.

With a mobile website you’re most likely just creating a skin for a site you’ve already built and are happy with. This makes it easier to determine what the scope of the work will be when you’re putting together a proposal.

Your mobile website is exactly that. Your mobile website. You have complete control of the code base and the content. You don’t have to rely on your customers choosing to update remote software when prompted, and you’re not at the mercy of the release schedule for mobile devices or operating systems.

Finally, there are literally dozens of services that, with a relatively small monthly fee, can make very short work of a mobile web presence with literally no development effort.

The downside

There are certain features or capabilities that are just no easy ways to build into a mobile theme. And while there are work-arounds, these tend to not be especially elegant, and to fall outside what is known as ‘best-practice’. If you want a user experience that’s very tied in to the device, you should consider building an application.

Native device features such as use of the camera or GPS are simply not possible from a mobile browser.

Finally, a mobile website is ultimately nothing more than a skin, and can only be as feature rich as any other browser based experience. Which isn’t to say that it’s not perfectly adequate for the majority of what you probably want to do, but there are definitely limitations to it that are not there with an application.

Conclusions

The purpose of this write-up is to give you the information you need to draw your own conclusions and to chart your path into mobile web marketing. We will, however, offer what we consider common wisdom, and what we usually end up telling our clients.

Start with what you have: Build a simple mobile website and track usage trends using Google analytics or something equivalent. Based on those trends you can chart out your next steps.

Bend to the will of the masses: Listen to community feedback. It really doesn’t matter how interesting or fun you think a particular feature would be. All that matters is whether or not your customers would think so. Give them the opportunity to tell you what they want.

If you’re going native, ease into it: Native applications can be a terrific marketing tool. They can also be a headache from a product management perspective. You should ease into the market in phases. Don’t try to fit the kitchen sink into a pilot release, and don’t try to be everything to everyone. Make something simple that people can use, and release it on one platform. See how it does, learn from feedback, improve it over time, and once it’s a proven tool, work to port it to other platforms.

Bring a friend: If you don’t have the resources to do the work in house, you need to make sure whoever you’re partnering with on the project is ready to genuinely help you, not just be along for the ride.

Desperately seeking search: Efficient search tools and a clean organization of content are what made Google what it is today. For both mobile websites, and mobile applications, make sure that search is a focus, not an after-thought.

Richie Harris

Written by Richie Harris

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