Mobile Web vs. Mobile Apps: Which strategy is best?

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Many companies are investigating ways to establish a mobile presence for their business, brand or product, but the solution is not always straightforward. Some businesses rely on users navigating to their standard desktop website via a device's native search client. Others invest in special websites, optimized for mobile phones. Still others create specialized mobile apps. And some companies invest in a combination, which can be costly to maintain, especially for smaller companies.

Thus, the question becomes: When is it vital to have a mobile-optimized site versus a native app? Does one result in a greater ROI? Can a brand remain competitive without investing in a mobile presence?

What is the difference?

The Domino's Pizza app allows the user to pay for food without leaving the app.

The first step in determining which is a better fit for a business or brand involves making sure the company understands the various options. A mobile app will be downloaded by users onto their devices. It could be offered for free or come at a premium. An app is capable of handling more complex graphics and can make use of a device's native capabilities.

A mobile website, on the other hand, features much of the content of a standard website, but it is organized to be viewed on a smaller screen. A mobile website is significantly cheaper to build than a mobile app, which needs to be optimized for each mobile operating system (iOS, Android, Blackberry and the like). Further, mobile websites are easier to maintain than apps, since vendors like Apple must first approve app updates and then, second, users must update the apps on their phones in order to effect changes.

"If you are updating one mobile site you are paying for that and launching it. You are not waiting for an outside process [like Apple's App Store] to approve updates," said Jason Brewer, CEO and founder of Brolik Productions, a company specializing in web and mobile app design, in an interview with FierceMobileContent.

Essentially, this means that in addition to the cost of designing and maintaining the apps themselves, the company or brand will need to factor in the cost of submitting the apps to various app stores as well as the time needed to have them approved. A mobile website can be launched immediately, while most app stores will require time before apps are approved.

A mobile website, however, will not be able to display the same level of graphics or use other native functionalities of a device, like its camera. But mobile websites also require the user to have access to an Internet connection and are more difficult to personalize. A mobile app is better equipped to handle interactive games or other image-heavy content. A banking or finance app, for example, stores personal information and may need to display charts of the user's balance. Thus, an app may be better suited than a website for banking because it can securely store a user's information and more quickly calculate financial statements for the user.

Consider your size

A larger organization may need to invest in both an app and a mobile website. Domino's Pizza, for instance, has a mobile website as well as an app for smartphones including Apple's iPhone.

Since Domino's is a large chain and would like to maximize the number of pizzas sold, it makes sense for them to invest in mobile apps and in a mobile site. While the company's mobile website offers a number of functions, users of the company's app have the added benefit of being able to pay for their food within the app itself, and the app will remember the user's last order.

On the other hand, the mobile website maximizes Domino's reach, allowing it to reach customers unwilling to download the app or those who have devices incompatible with the company's app.

"Once you've optimized the experience, you can use your mobile website to graduate users to a more robust native app," wrote Kevin Nakao, COO for Whitepages.com, in a blog entry for Mashable.

A smaller company or brand, however, would not need to pursue both options. A local pizza chain is not going to have as much success with a mobile app--the app likely would get lost in iOS or Android app stores that have hundreds of thousands of app. In this case, a mobile website is a good bet because it will be easier to find by interested users through a search engine.

Flurry Chart

How will the content be used?

Mobile analytics firm Flurry found that as of June this year, mobile app usage has surpassed web consumption. The amount of time spent using apps rather than the mobile web, however, is dramatically affected by the type of app itself. Games remain the most popular type of app and represent 47 percent of users' time using mobile apps

Another trick to use is checking the demographics of the users coming to the company's existing site. Using an analytics tool, a company can discover if a large portion of its website's visitors are accessing content via their mobile phones. If they are, or if the company is attempting to attract a younger demographic, it is probably a good idea to start working on a mobile website.

All else equal, maximizing a firm's mobile presence is going to increase the likelihood that users engage with its content, whether it is for brand recognition, selling goods or sharing content. And before launching an e-commerce app, it's important to factor in the 30 percent share many app stores take from goods sold within apps. The trick, of course, is figuring out if that loss is greater than the lost revenue that a business would miss from not having a mobile presence at all.