While most established brands and businesses are already attending to the rapid expansion of mobile audiences, too many companies are only just beginning to think about their mobile strategy and the mobile experience that helps define their brand.
Having a mobile presence is becoming a barrier to entry in many industries, an absolute necessity if you want to remain competitive. If you’re attempting to redefine your business’ mobile strategy, one of the first considerations that will likely come to mind is whether you want to create a mobile application, mobile website, or possibly both. While mobile websites and apps can look very similar at first glance, they accomplish very different things.
This guide will provide a view into the business and development considerations behind mobile initiatives, and help determine whether your product merits a web-first or a mobile-first strategy.
Every mobile project presents unique challenges, but regardless of your situation, deciding whether to create a mobile app or a mobile website does not have to be difficult. By defining the purpose and prioritizing all of your business and marketing considerations, you’ll determine the mobile solution that will best address those needs now, and well into the future.
The Purpose and Goals
What is the purpose of your mobile initiative? Take everything else out of the equation, and answer this question first. Every mobile initiative should be driven by concrete business decisions.
Maybe your website isn’t currently driving the mobile traffic you thought it would, or your marketing team wants an application that helps personalize the experience for the users, sending push notifications based on user preferences. Whatever the end goal, define it first and think about the development and distribution second. Too many companies develop iPhone apps simply because they think they have to, with no real vision or purpose behind it.
Think about the target audience your mobile initiative is meant for, and how frequently these people engage with your brand or business. How are they currently performing the tasks that you wish to simplify? Why are you providing them a mobile option? Are they going to invest the time to discover and download your app?
For the most part, smartphone users will use applications for things they do regularly, things that tie into their lifestyles. That’s why so many smartphone users choose to download apps like Twitter and Facebook, instead of using the mobile versions of the website. It offers a better experience for regular use, which makes the initial download worth it.
Imagine how users will interact with your application. This may be the single biggest thing that determines whether a mobile app or a mobile website is appropriate. Determine whether you want mobile to deliver an engaging user experience across all browsers, or a personalized graphic-intensive experience within an application.
For most small and mid-sized businesses, budget is going to be a serious consideration. Developing mobile apps for multiple operating systems and devices quickly becomes resource-intensive. A more economically efficient option is to create a mobile website, which allows you to reach a broader audience within the same budget as an app. If your budget is limited and you don’t need to tap into native device functionality or create something that requires complex computing and graphics, a mobile website is going to be the better bang for your buck.
After you’ve thoroughly thought out the business case for your mobile initiative and have established its purpose, it’s imperative to take the development process into consideration.
Ease and Speed of implementation
The design, development, and deployment process of a mobile website is very similar to that of a standard website. Once it’s live, it’s immediately visible to anyone who visits the URL via a mobile browser. While mobile web development will present its own challenges (especially with varying screen sizes), it’s typically a much quicker implementation.
If you choose to go with an application, a major consideration is whether the app will be developed for more than one mobile operating system or device. If it is, you need to account for additional development time and resources. There is generally no easy and reliable way to build a mobile app for one operating system and port it to all the others, especially for apps that feature-rich and graphics-heavy.
Mobile apps may also require a submission approval process to be featured in app stores, which could be a lengthy process if you’re not familiar. The Apple App Store, for example, requires submission approval as well as an annual membership with an associated fee.
Everyone with a mobile browser can view mobile websites, regardless of their choice of hardware or operating system. Businesses need to consider their broad mobile presence before considering how people experience their business in app form.
If you aren’t regularly updated on your website’s analytics, you may not be aware of how quickly your mobile viewership is growing. Depending on your business, a significant percentage of your audience could be accessing your website via mobile devices, or in contrast, mobile traffic may only make up a small percentage of your audience.
Understanding this data allows you to go back and compare your current percentages to those of previous years. You may be surprised by how quickly your audience trends change, and can plan for mobile traffic to increase in the near future. On the other hand, you may find lower mobile browser traffic, possibly indicating that your website simply doesn’t perform well on smaller screens.
Apps tend to compartmentalize the audience that is engaging with your brand. The demographic of an iPhone app user may be very different from the average user that visits your mobile website, but you can leverage those differences as part of your mobile strategy.
Mobile web technologies continue to improve, and mobile websites are emulating the look and feel of mobile apps. While the visuals of the two can be similar, the capabilities of a well-designed mobile app typically delivers a superior experience. Apps can store resources locally, and use the computing power and memory of the device to perform operations instantaneously.
App interfaces are more intuitive and operate without the lag that comes of mobile websites. Because mobile websites send data between the server and the user, they don’t deliver the same speed you’d get from a mobile application. Apps are also developed for a single screen size, or at most – a smaller range of sizes, which makes it easier to design an aesthetically pleasing interface.
Updates and Maintenance
There’s a major difference between updating websites and updating apps. Updating a mobile-optimized website involves the same steps required to update your traditional website; publishing edits once will make the changes available everywhere.
Updating an application may require submission approvals before being updated in their native marketplace. Changes made on mobile apps also require users to download software updates. Keep in mind that if you’re developing apps for multiple platforms, even a simple update may require significant development resources, and time.
Data Connectivity and Offline Use
Within a mobile application, data and resources are stored locally. Since the user interface operates independently of web-based interface elements, your app will remain available when WiFi is not. If your users find themselves in situations where they will need to access the app while offline, or in weaker-connectivity locations, then an app is the choice.
Use Cases – Mobile Website
If you’ve based your goals on marketing or communications initiatives, a mobile website should be the first step in your mobile strategy. A mobile website has a number of inherent advantages over apps, including broader accessibility, compatibility and cost-effectiveness. The following is a list of advantages you’ll have deploying a mobile website over mobile application:
A mobile website is instantly accessible to all users, while apps require an initial download and installation. It may not seem like much, but this presents a significant barrier between initial engagement and action.
A single mobile website can reach users across different mobile devices, whereas apps generally require development of a native version for each type of device. A mobile website (for the most part) will be a “design once, deploy everywhere” solution.
A mobile website is much more dynamic than an app in terms of pure flexibility to update content. If you want to change the design or content of a mobile website you simply publish the edit once, and the changes are immediately visible. Updating an app requires the updates to be pushed to users, which then must be downloaded in order to update the app on each type of device.
Because they are more easily discovered by search engines and can be listed in industry-specific directories, mobile websites make it easy for qualified visitors to find you. In contrast, apps are largely restricted to app stores—which can also make them less easy to discover.
Last but certainly not least, mobile website development is considerably more time and cost-effective than development of native applications. This holds especially true if you want your app to have a presence on different platforms.
Keep in mind that the investment considerations of a mobile website or application don’t end with the initial launch. Upgrades, testing, compatibility issues and ongoing development are much less expensive for a website than for an app, especially over longer periods of time.
Use Cases – Mobile App
Despite the many benefits of the mobile web, apps are still very popular, and there are a number of use scenarios where an app is a better fit for what you want to accomplish. Generally speaking, the following needs would be better fulfilled by an app:
If users are going to be using your app in a personalized fashion on a regular basis—think OneNote or Mint—then an app will provide a great way to do that. An app can deploy push notifications and custom alerts tailored to user preferences, which makes the user experience much more personalized than that of a mobile website.
Native Functionality Required
Mobile web browsers are getting much better at accessing certain mobile-specific functions like click-to-call, messaging and GPS. But if you want the ability to access a user’s camera, processing power, or send push notifications, integration of specific phones features are easier to develop within in an app.
No Connection Required
If your app’s primary functionalities don’t require internet access, then an app makes the most sense.
This one is obvious. If you’re developing a game like Angry Birds or Clash of Clans, it’s easier for users to download an application to their phones rather than accessing it through a mobile browser. The ultimate goal when developing an app is to receive an optimal return on your investment. You should avoid wasting precious time and money building an app to do something basic that ultimately can be achieved with a mobile website.
Where Do I Go From Here?
Figure out what’s most important. Do you want to develop a mobile web presence? Is the goal to reach a broader audience? Or do you simply want to extend the user experience with an application? Once you know the purpose of your mobile initiative, the rest will fall into place.