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Mind the app: Native apps vs web apps for engagement

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18th Jul 2011
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Customers are app happy, says John Fernell, but brands need to be aware of the pros and cons of native apps vs web apps. 

Read any article on mobile technology recently and you could be forgiven for thinking that the app has taken over the world. While marketing spend is heavily invested in creating applications that customers can download from various app stores, many are overlooking the benefits of investing in a more straightforward and targeted approach to mobile engagement.
The emerging generation of information consumers will automatically reach for their handset and search on Google, Bing or Yahoo when researching, and this will have a huge impact on the approach that marketers need to take to engage with their customers.
With search now the first port of call for most users, brands need to invest time and budget optimising their website for mobile and thinking strategically about how it is used. It should come as no surprise that users prefer to browse from their mobile device through one browser rather than multiple applications.
According to Forrester research, more than 75 million mobile users will access the internet through a mobile device in 2011. This will grow to nearly 117 million by 2015, and more than a quarter of these users will own smartphones. Forrester also found that while branded applications were a hot trend in 2010, the majority of customers were left unimpressed, with most applications deleted soon after being downloaded, or never used again. This demonstrates the importance of providing relevant and engaging content to your audience, otherwise they will become disengaged.
Customer engagement
Recent research by Alterian has also found that users highly appreciate mobile web and web applications that can be accessed from any smartphone or tablet and expect the same experience regardless of the device. This is backed up by Forrester’s Q2 2010 Global eBusiness and Channel Strategy Professional Online Survey which also found the top three priorities for brands include increasing customer engagement, improving customer satisfaction and building brand loyalty. The importance of engaging with consumers through their preferred medium has never been more important to marketers.
As customer engagement is top priority for most organisations, not only must they listen to what consumers want to get out of their experience with the brand, they must react accordingly. With mobile web, organisations can develop their business by reaching more audiences who use mobile devices. In order to encourage attachment to your brand through mobile devices, organisations must invest in mobile web optimisation to meet the current and future browsing habits of their consumers.
This trend is not limited to the UK. Research from Jumptap has also shown that the majority of US mobile web users spend more time engaging with content through their mobile device’s browser than mobile applications, particularly those that are ad-supported. With mobile web applications, organisations can be certain that consumers have access to the most targeted and most up-to-date content at all times, which offers a new chance for businesses.
Cause for concern?
Not only do mobile web applications provide a more engaging medium for marketers, they are easier to use, can be updated automatically and are less likely to have a negative impact on the brand due to failure. One of the major complaints from customers of native apps is the failure or length of time it takes to install or update the app. Alterian’s research of online discussions relating to native applications found that crashing at startup is a major cause for concern and can lead to the mobile device becoming unresponsive.  
Sluggish performance, slow loading and high system resource demands are also cause for negative criticism in online discussions. The developer community has reacted to this trend and, according to Alterian’s online research, is moving its focus towards mobile web and web applications over native apps as there are more opportunities in this sector.
Not only can native app development be a costly and time-consuming affair with complex coding, they have further delays and costs involved when they reach the app store. App stores require all applications to be approved, and will then take a cut of any profits that could be made from the application.
Native apps are not designed to run on multiple platforms, requiring multiple variations and approvals through app stores to reach the majority of smart phone and mobile devices and even on the same platform, fragmentation of different hardware is going to give app developers another hurdle to climb.
While many brands have embraced the world of applications they need to ensure that they take a blended approach to guarantee that they get the most for their brand and their investment, and don’t provide a siloed encounter for their customer. 
By focussing on providing their customers with the most integrated and engaging experience possible brands will not become clouded by the need to innovate.
Infographic
We are not suggesting for one moment that apps are dead, but as with all technologies it's wiser to acknowledge the range of possibilities available. The future will undoubtedly be mobile web focused but if you're thinking about developing a mobile app and investing £25k+ then looking at a content management system that supports mobile web for any mobile or tablet device would be worth a look.

Take a look at our mobile infographic which illustrates the quickest way for you to get mobile.

John Fennell is executive vice president Web Content Management at Alterian.

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