Mobile Websites vs Mobile Apps

...which is right for you?

The answer may be one, the other, or both, depending on your business and your target customer base. We can’t tell you which is right for your business in this article, but we can give you some important facts to consider in light of your situation. We can also tell you that mobile access will likely become an increasingly important part of your brand and business strategy as consumers demand 24/7 access to services and brands via their mobile devices.

So, how do you determine your best mobile strategy? First we’ll cover some of the basics, and then we’ll explore some pertinent questions to ask.

Ten years ago, it was difficult not to have a web site for your business. Today, as more and more consumers opt for smartphones and tablets, it’s getting difficult not to have a mobile website. Mobile websites are easily accessible to anyone with a smartphone or tablet, regardless of which Internet browser, operating system, device or network is used. Customers or prospects can access the Internet – and your mobile web site -- via a data plan purchased from a wireless provider or via any WiFi connection. Because your website is developed in one of the standard compliant languages, Internet browsers on smartphones and tablets work much the same way as Internet browsers on your laptop or desktop, though the space available for display is much more limited.

While any URL can be accessed from an Internet browser on a smartphone or tablet, if it is not formatted for mobile use, it may be practically unusable. Your content should be available in a format consistent with mobile devices, and your mobile website should be marketed as aggressively as your regular website.

There are a number of tools available to help you migrate your current website to support mobile browsers, though a complete redesign may be a better option since the layout and navigation will almost always be somewhat different on a mobile-sized device than on a laptop or desktop.

One brand that does this very well is Starbucks. Take a couple of minutes to look at on a desktop or laptop and then on a mobile device. Notice how the design of both web sites is very similar, but the layout and navigation is subtly different. The mobile site works well for viewing over a mobile device, and the regular site works well for viewing via a computer.  

Mobile applications provide additional features and capabilities that are not readily available via an Internet browser, but they do so at an additional cost in development and complexity. The most obvious and most used function is geolocation information for your mobile device, which allows an app to identify your location and then provide access to nearby services. (Think of Starbucks, using the location of your mobile device to locate the closest store.) This can be done using available network information (for coarse approximations) or the GPS on a mobile device (for very fine location information).

Further, mobile apps can use the processing power on your phone to interact with you in ways that are much faster and more robust than those typically available via mobile websites. The popularity of games and music that are hosted on your mobile device are the best examples.

The downside to mobile applications is that their development usually costs much more than mobile websites. One of the primary reasons for this is that each of the major platforms for mobile apps is different. While some tools allow you to develop an application and port it to the different platforms, they cannot easily keep up with the ever-changing standards for these platforms. The dominant players continue to evolve and improve their platforms to distinguish themselves from their competitors. Apple (iOS platform) and Google (Android platform) have the greatest market share by far, but Microsoft isn’t going away easily and has a promising platform for mobile devices.

Another reason mobile applications tend to cost more is because writing code (for apps) allows greater functionality and flexibility compared with writing to an html standard (which all Internet browsers recognize). This offers many more ways that you can distinguish your application and your business from your competitors (as service providers do with their platforms). This is a classic double-edged sword, providing opportunities and risk/cost concurrently.

Starbucks has a mobile application which helps to illustrate the power of mobile applications over mobile websites. The Starbucks mobile app for Android essentially blends the benefits of the Starbucks rewards program, the reloadable Starbucks gift/payment card, and mobile payments. Once customers download the app, their phone becomes their Starbucks card. They can buy coffee at the counter and make payments by swiping their phone, reload their cards, check balances, and even earn and track rewards toward free beverages.

Before you decide which mobile strategy is right for your business, ask yourself these questions:

  • What is your target demographic?

Mass market? A specific niche? How “mobile” are they? Do they have an iPad or an Android Tablet? There’s no point in spending money on a mobile website or application unless you know how your customers and prospects are trying to reach you.

Generally speaking, mobile web sites are more appropriate for the mass market and mobile apps are better for specific niche audiences. But answering the next two questions is important before making a final decision.

  • Do you need the capabilities that are only available in a mobile application?

Examples include providing information or services based on a user’s location (determined through a smartphone’s GPS) as well as click-to-call capabilities, local processing power, push notifications, and integration with SMS text messages. Using these capabilities could push you toward a mobile app.

Mobile apps work best for very specific tools or activities that are idiosyncratic or domain specific and can take advantage of the device capabilities in ways that an Internet browser cannot. Mobile websites, on the other hand, are often better for delivering information, browsing catalogs, and making purchases, so they are often used more by retailers and news outlets.

It may also make sense to consider a mobile app and a mobile web site. The mobile app can provide easy access to specific activities, tasks, or entertainment, and then easily link to a mobile web site if the user desires more information or wants to make a purchase.

  • What is your budget for development and maintenance?

HTML offers a more limited, stable platform that is readily consumable on every smartphone and tablet, keeping development and maintenance costs down. Breaking through those limitations is what helps to justify the additional cost for developing and maintaining a mobile application across the different platforms.

In both cases, content remains king. It is important to supply new content on a regular basis and to ensure that dated material is removed, so you’ll want to evaluate the frequency and cost of the necessary updates to keep your mobile website or mobile app up-to-date. 

Thinking through your target audience, the mobile experience you’d like to deliver, and your budget parameters will help you determine which avenue to pursue. Whether you opt for a mobile app or mobile website, or some combination of both, giving your customers the ability to interact with your brand via mobile device is a very strategic choice.

Charles Austin

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