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Mobile site or mobile app: Which is best for your business?

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20th Aug 2012
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When formulating your mobile strategy, is it better to invest in a mobile-ready site or a fashionable app? MyCustomer.com talks to industry experts to examine which approach is best. 

Everyone’s mad about mobile apps. ComScore MobiLens research from July revealed the consumer love affair withthe browser is over as more mobile users downloaded content via apps (51.1%) than through a browser (49.8%). And according to Ovum, it’s not just a phase of the tech-hungry West with mobile application adoption expected to increase sharply from 2013 across developing countries. So it’s unsurprising that, if not done so already, firms are rushing to get their corporate icon splashed across a smartphone home screen.

But building a mobile app isn’t the same thing as building a mobile strategy. In fact, creating an app isn’t necessarily the best way to engage your customers at all. As Gartner’s Johan Jacobs said at the research firm’s Customer Strategies and Technology Summit last year: “Apps aren’t everything!”

Mobile strategy

Speaking to MyCustomer more recently, Jacobs explained that of the three definitions of mobile – web, browser and apps – apps is currently the more fashionable approach and the one that organisations most commonly take when starting out on the mobile path. “One of the benefits of apps is that if you only want the customer to do one thing or two things you can program those in the mobile app and the customer won't have access to other stuff that might clutter the screen,” he says.

“However, as time goes by and organisations’ mobile strategy matures we often see a move away from mobile applications to a more mobile web-based approach.”

A web-based mobile strategy, whereby customers access a company’s website via a mobile browser and view content reformatted depending on their device, provides a functionally rich application environment, says Jacobs. Additionally, changes can be made to all the various mobile platforms – such as RIM, iOS, Android – on the backend without inconveniencing the customer. With mobile browser, however, consumers can use their mobile to browse a website exactly as they would do on a PC, but without any content reformatted for the mobile device.

Deciding which mobile strategy to implement of the three isn’t the same for every organisation. Factors may depend on the type of functionalities you intend to carry out, content you intend to deliver and customer mobile usage, among others. A recent study from Webcredible found consumers are most likely to browse on their phone using mobile sites whilst apps are used either for entertainment or to carry out short, useful tasks.

“As a business, you have to base your evaluation of whether you build an app or an m-site on the consumer's perspective of what they expect from you. If they wish to have a stronger and more interactive relationship with you then building an application is the likely route, whereas if they simply want you to provide a service then an m-site is the most effective route,” explains Mick Rigby, MD of digital advertising agency YodelMobile.

Customer engagement

Understanding what keeps your customers engaged is a key factor in determining which, if not both, to implement. Moreover, a poor mobile strategy resulting in poor customer experience could result in a customer's decision to ditch a brand. Experience design agency Foolproof found that 47% of consumers have ceased dealing with a brand completely as a direct consequence of its mobile service or app not being good enough, labelling them unprofessional, poorly managed and out of touch with customers.

Simon Norris, CEO of digital agency Nomensa believes that user experience is ultimately what the consumer will judge an app by. “A well-built app with a poor user experience by breaking established app design patterns and conventions is no different to a website with lots of great content that is hard to navigate,” he says.

But Mike Ricci from Webtrends believes that the conventional wisdom that apps provide greater engagement than mobile websites is no longer as true as it once was.

He says: “The advent of HTML5 as a development language has meant that developers now have a tool for creating a mobile website that is virtually indistinguishable from an application. So, that gap is closing quickly and brands are opting to develop their sites using HTML5 because it addresses some of the shortcomings for apps. In effect, you can develop one code base and have it render to a variety of smartphones. This cuts the total cost of ownership and allows developers to have a richer end-user experience.”

Multichannel approach

So how can businesses decide which approach to implement? Should they take the comScore research as gospel and pursue a mobile app strategy over a web-based mobile strategy, or look to implement both at once?

Norris explains that a multi-channel approach is best. “Once you have worked out what to put into an app or how to present your mobile site, you are better equipped to create a cross-channel ecology that covers the total user experience,” he says.

Martin Smith, head of UK marketing at Neolane, agrees: “Whether your mobile strategy involves building an app, a site or both, you must consider how you’ll integrate things within your overall cross-channel communications strategy.

“Too many brands invest in ensuring message consistency and laser focused targeting in traditional customer communications activity, then go and launch new initiatives in mobile or through apps that step backwards to mass push messaging, bearing no consistency whatever with conversations the customer is having with the brand in other channels. The result is often customer frustration.”

Future mobile strategies

Jacobs agrees that there’s no single right answer or specific choice for businesses setting upon the path of mobile. Looking ahead to changing trends for both brands and consumers, he predicts that whilst apps will remain the primary procurement for the next few years they will begin to have less functionality and instead become more of a user interface (UI).

“I see the merger of the app and the mobile web where the app will just merely be a front UI through which you access mobile content on the server in the backend,” he says.

“So as we move forward into the future we will see a merger of those two with less capabilities in place in the app except for using the app as a channel, an access portal almost, to the content on the backend.”

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