Mobile offerings are no longer just important for businesses: they’re absolutely essential.
Over the past two years, desktop Internet traffic in the United States has dipped by 10 percent while smartphone Internet traffic has jumped by 69 percent. Worldwide, mobile devices now account for a bigger share of Internet traffic (51 percent) than desktop computers (49 percent).
In other words, success on digital is increasingly intertwined with mobile.
While most businesses recognize the ascendency of mobile, many still struggle with finding the right way to engage. Specifically, it’s often difficult to decide whether the foundation of a strong digital strategy should be a mobile website, a mobile app, or both.
Tackling this question may feel daunting, but finding the right answer can be straightforward if you take a step back and evaluate the options.
In particular, any firm trying to decide whether to invest in a mobile website or a mobile app should take these key factors and questions into consideration.
What’s the difference between a mobile website and a mobile app
At its core a mobile website is simply a website that displays well on mobile devices. The site is accessed via a browser, as on a computer.
Sometimes mobile sites are separate offerings from their desktop counterparts, but increasingly that’s not the case.
Platforms like WordPress, and approaches like responsive design, allow for the same site to be delivered seamlessly to different devices. The appearance may change a bit — the navigation may shift, the images may display differently, etc. — but the fundamental underpinnings in terms of technology, delivery, and content/experience are the same for a mobile site and desktop site.
A mobile app is an application. It must be downloaded to a mobile device such as a smartphone or tablet in order to run.
To access a mobile app the user needs to go to an app store, find it, install it on their device, and then launch it. Apps are developed separately from websites, and the same app needs to be modified for different operating systems (iOS, Android, etc.).
The design and user experience of an app can deviate significantly from a business’s site. For example, it can have a completely different look and have significantly different functionality. An app can even have some or even all of its elements work without an Internet connection.
What are the benefits of each?
- Large audience size: As long as a person has a mobile device with an Internet connection they can access your mobile site. For the most part, it doesn’t matter what sort of device they have or which OS they’re using. There is also no need to encourage a download via an app store or to get people to launch from their home screens.
- Low/no development and maintenance cost: With modern publishing platforms and design approaches it’s simple to create a website that works well on desktops, phones, and tablets. There is little to no additional development time and cost. Plus, fresh content can be delivered across all devices without extra work.
- Existing marketing/SEO benefits: A mobile site can piggyback on all the marketing and SEO work that goes into a desktop site. Advertising that drives people to a site will work regardless of which device a consumer decides to browse on. Similarly, a mobile site doesn’t start from scratch with search engines like Google; many desktop signals carry over.
- A controlled experience: An app gives a business the opportunity to develop a completely immersive offering that can be personalized to the user. You can guide every element, from the way interactions occur to the login process and exactly how the content is presented. If you want to do something truly innovative, and/or make every possible tweak to keep users engaged, it’s easier to do so via an app than via a site accessed with a mobile browser.
- Full (and offline) use of device capabilities: Mobile devices are incredible. Even a less expensive smartphone now includes hardware like a camera, a built-in GPS, a touch-screen, an accelerometer, and a gyroscope. While mobile websites can make use of some of this — such as direct-dialing a phone number via a link — mobile apps have much more freedom to capitalize. Moreover, because they live on the phone itself, apps can do much more without an Internet connection.
- Natural mobile behavior: An analysis of how consumers use their smartphones found that 90% of time is spent on apps and just 10% on mobile browsing. Fundamentally, the mobile device experience is currently based in using apps, not sites (though the line is blurring). The caveat here — and it’s a very big one — is that most of that time is spent with a select few apps like social networks, messaging platforms, and email.
Which is right for your business?
OK, so now that we’ve covered all that, what’s the answer? Should you invest in a mobile website, a mobile app, or both? For most businesses the answer is simple: start with a mobile website then decide whether or not you need an app. Why? Because of the cost and effort.
A mobile website is remarkably simple to create. If you pick a good platform and make good design decisions, you can simultaneously deliver great website experiences for both desktop and mobile visitors.
Mobile sites are also easy to maintain. All new content will instantly appear cross-platform and most updates to your underlying technology will occur without any effort on your part. Moreover, a mobile site has become a must-have for marketing and search purposes. Investing in one is necessary for almost every business.
As for whether you should build a mobile app, that’s a harder question because creating a successful one is a longer, more difficult process. There’s the time and money it takes to actually develop and continually maintain the app, plus there’s the effort needed to market it.
Also, you have to ensure that people keep using the app after downloading it: some 75 percent of apps aren’t revisited after the first day of use.
This isn’t to say by any means that developing a mobile app is a bad idea. A truly excellent app can present experiences/personalization in ways a site can’t, and it can make better use of mobile hardware. If you’re able to create an something exceptional — something that consumers will return to regularly — then the payoff can be huge in terms of engagement.
Ultimately, it’s helpful to not think of mobile apps and mobile websites as competing with each other. Rather, view your site is the foundation of your mobile presence: it’s necessary and must come first. From there, if you are able to commit to the additional development, marketing, and maintenance costs, then dive in and build an app.