How to Go Mobile: App vs. Mobile-Responsive Site?

In Commentary by Dan Engel

Last Updated October 25, 2016

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The writing is on the wall. Your customers are increasingly accessing your website with their phones and tablets. They’re clicking on the links in your social accounts. They’re browsing your latest product info via mobile… Yet your current website is anything BUT mobile friendly.

You know you need to deliver an intelligent mobile experience to maintain your customers and sustain your revenues, so you commit – you’re gonna take the plunge and dive into mobile.

Now here’s the hard question – How will you go mobile? Are you going to roll out a mobile app or a mobile-responsive website? Your success (and a big bankroll) rests on your answer.

The Mobile Mob

When your customers are in a full-fledged online shopping frenzy, they are most likely to be staring intently into the mini screen of their phone. eMarketer reports that in May 2015 mobile devices for the first time surpassed desktop computers to reach 53% of online shopping time, a 5% YoY growth.

It has gotten to a point where businesses are no longer gingerly testing the mobile water – that luxury no longer exists – instead,  they are diving into the mobile waters, sometimes head-first

Now the Decision: Mobile App vs Mobile Site

While marketing professionals continue to rank desktop websites as their single most important business channel (after all, it’s where most online sales conversions occur), three-fourths of brands and major retailers have a mobile-optimized sites and two-thirds have a mobile app, according to eMarketer. But when the data is probed further, few retailers actually have all their bases covered – few have both a mobile-enabled site and an app for iOS and/or Android.

Marketing managers are making a choice, but on what basis?

Certainly having a presence in at least one mobile channel is the minimum requirement for all companies, especially after Google altered its search engine to privilege mobile-friendly sites. Deciding where to place your mobile resources – in an iOS app or an Android one or in a mobile responsive site – necessitates a meticulous examination of your target audience’s mobile behavior and your needs and it requires understanding what sites versus apps have to offer.

Mobile Sites

The big benefit of a mobile-optimized site is that it ensures the regular website is accessible anywhere and anytime to mobile users across all platforms, versions and devices. In contrast, apps are OS specific. With mobile responsive design, the website’s branding, design and colors stay the same, but the site is optimized for the unique experience of smartphones and tablets in terms of size, simplification and touchscreen functionality.

A mobile website’s key advantage over apps, says Jason Summerfield, resides in its “broader accessibility, compatibility across all platforms and cost-effectiveness.”

Mobile Apps

Apps are downloaded and installed on your mobile device, rather than being rendered within a browser. Readily accessible on the screen with the tap of a finger, the app gives brands and retailers a chunk of real estate on the user’s device.

Even when closed, the app can continue to labor away in the background, collecting data about customer’s preferences and transmitting targeted messaging. Apps enable a greater degree of interactivity, personalization and push notifications not found on websites.

In comparing apps and mobile websites, marketing managers should consider four additional key differences as it pertains to mobile consumer behaviors:

  • We Want It Now

Shoppers are notoriously impatient. They are ready to bounce from your site whenever technology threatens to make them wait. Mobile optimized sites have an edge over apps in their immediate availability since they can be directly opened via a browser across a range of devices. Apps, in contrast, require downloading from an app marketplace and installation before users can engage with their content. That imposes, notes Summerfield, a not insignificant barrier to initial engagement.

  •  Where Art Thou?

How easy is it to discover your mobile site or app? Finding a mobile website is the easier option simply because the site pages are displayed in search results. Visitors to your regular website are automatically directed to the mobile site when they are on a handheld device.  In contrast, the visibility of apps is largely restricted to Google Play and Apple iTune stores.

  •  The Short, Unhappy Life of the Average App

While consumers spend significant chunk of time engaging with apps, that engagement tends to be highly concentrated on a few applications largely in social media, like Facebook and YouTube. Over 20,000 iPhone apps are available, delivering every business and service imaginable. But two-thirds of mobile users download zero apps each month on average. Facebook’s pool of apps, reports Forester, ate up 13% of the time spent on smartphones, while Google’s bouquet of apps grabbed 12%.

Even when downloaded, a typical app’s usage falls off sharply. Just one-fifth of users actually return to open up the new app the first day, and by day 30, only 5% still use the app. Certainly eBay and Amazon report most of their mobile traffic (about 70% in 2104) uses their apps instead of the websites, but for large retailers (such as Macy’s, BestBuy, and Home Depot) it’s almost the reverse. Eighty percent of their customers visit their mobile optimized site instead of the app, reports Comscore.

  •  Interactivity

The key advantage of apps is their ability to support interactivity. As long as brands, merchants and services desire an application to function more like a computer program than a website and deliver interactive engagement, then an app will likely be the mobile solution of choice.

Apps’ interactivity can help drive push notifications. Such messages advertise particular items or sales related to the past searches of a customer or to their geo-location and can build business and engagement. However, this advantage of apps over mobile-responsive sites will likely be eroded by future tech developments.  Google’s Chrome browser for Android permits websites to push notification to mobile customers. Chrome users can agree to receive messages from their favorite companies such as eBay, states RetailDive.

The Fateful Choice

As businesses dive into the choppy mobile waters, they will need to choose how to go mobile, whether a mobile-enabled site or a mobile app. Websites possess the distinct advantage of establishing a broad, cost-effectively presence that is accessible across all mobile platforms and devices. Apps, in contrast, stake a claim to territory directly on the user’s phone or tablet, potentially driving stronger customer engagement and interactivity.

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