This article will help you learn the difference between a mobile website and a mobile application, and help you determine whether a mobile app makes sense to build for your business.
On nearly every website I've worked on, mobile traffic has continued to grow massively year-over-year. In fact, on the largest website, more than half of traffic to the home page is on the mobile version of the page. Smartphone owners made up the majority of mobile phone users for the first time in 2012, according to Nielsen, and not surprisingly, mobile app usage continued to grow along with it. With this huge boom in mobile device traffic, the growing consumer savviness about smartphones, and the increasing number of headlines touting mobile apps as "imperative in order to be seen as a legitimate small business", it's no wonder more and more clients are asking whether they should be developing mobile apps.
I firmly believe that an excellent mobile experience is imperative to provide the best possible service to your customers, but I must respectfully disagree with the claim that a mobile app is a crucial investment for every business. Much like blogging, I think mobile applications can be a very valuable, profitable tool when executed well - but I don't think a mobile app is for everyone.
Difference Between a Mobile Site and Mobile App
First let's discuss the difference between a mobile website and a mobile application. What they both have in common is that they should provide a quick, simple, on-the-go experience to mobile device users. Both should be able to be accessed by mobile devices such as smartphones (Androids, iPhones, Blackberries, etc.) and tablets (iPads, Google Nexus, Microsoft Surface, etc.)
A mobile website is a pared down version of your website, and just like your website, it is a bunch of pages linked together and accessible to anyone who has internet access on their mobile device. A mobile website is designed for smaller screens than a standard computer, and it typically simplifies the on your website for a fast, easy-to-use browsing experience on these much smaller devices. Just like your main website, users can access text, images, videos and other content on your web pages. Mobile websites are generally compatible across multiple types of mobile device. Updates to mobile websites can be made instantly on the pages and the next time the user clicks through to your website, they'll see the changes.
A mobile application is software that can be downloaded and installed on mobile devices. A user must visit thee app store for their mobile operating system - that could be Apple's App Store, the Android Market or Google Play Store, or Blackberry App World. It requires the user to download the software and install it on their compatible phone. Some are free, and some require a small fee to download. The most popular apps tend to be e-mail clients like Gmail or Yahoo! Mail, banking apps, social networks like Facebook and Twitter, navigational tools like Maps and Navigation, and other entertainment apps like YouTube, Hulu, ESPN, mobile games, and so on. Mobile applications are typically built to be compatible with each individual device separately (i.e. an iPhone app, an Android app, etc.). Updates to mobile apps must be made and then pushed out to users to update their app software.
Questions to Ask Yourself
- Do I already have a mobile website? I rarely recommend investing in a mobile app build until you have a mobile website easily accessible to customers on the web. A high-quality, fast mobile website experience is essential to being found by mobile searchers who want information quickly, and they're not going to go to an app store to download your mobile app if they've never heard of you. If you don't have a mobile version of your website yet, stop reading this article and focus on that instead for now.
- What's my goal for building a mobile app? What are you trying to achieve here? Is it branding and promotion just to get your business's name in front of a wider audience? Is it to drive more traffic to your website? Is it to make it easier for customers to make a purchase on-the-go? Is it to provide a unique, valuable tool or service to your customers that isn't already provided, or isn't already done well, elsewhere? Decide what challenge you're really trying to solve here, and then determine whether a mobile app really is the answer to that challenge.
- What exactly would the mobile app do? I really urge you to ask yourself this question regardless of what marketing initiative you're considering, but building a mobile application really is a great example. Like any good website, a mobile application should have a singular primary focus in mind. And as with everything in the mobile space, less is more. To justify a mobile app build, you need to be able to concisely say in one sentence, "My mobile application does ________." Your mobile application needs to serve a unique and useful purpose that someone could benefit from long-term. Otherwise, your app will likely be forgotten or deleted from their mobile device in a matter of weeks.
- What could a mobile app accomplish that my mobile website couldn't? As much as I love a great mobile app, it's hard to justify the time, energy and financial investment in a mobile app if the free, easily accessible mobile version of your website already fulfills the purpose of the app. Unless the purpose your mobile site already fills is exceptionally useful and deserves to be broken out and put on everyone's phone to be used anywhere, chances are your mobile website could do the trick just fine. Or alternatively, maybe you should think about making this most valuable service more prominent and easy to find on your mobile site.
- If I were a customer, would I download and use this app? Be brutally honest with yourself now. If you were a customer or potential customer, would you honestly go to the app store, search for this tool, possibly pay a fee to download it, go through the trouble of downloading and installing it and taking up limited space on your phone, and use this app regularly? Think of the apps I mentioned above that people return to regularly and use all the time - social networking, banking, maps and navigation, news and headlines, entertainment. They come back to these apps frequently because they are useful time and again.
When Do Mobile Apps Make Sense for Businesses
Businesses that want to provide an interactive activity or game experience would likely want to lean toward an app over a mobile website. If it provides a regular service that a user would frequently return to and log in with their personal credentials - like banking, e-mail, social networking - then an app may make sense over a mobile website, though the business's mobile website should probably also offer this service so one is not required to download the app to access the service. If it's something you'd like to provide offline access to, and not require the user to be connected to the web, a mobile app might make sense for you. If it's something that requires access to a smartphone's GPS, camera or other tools, a mobile app might make sense - and might require special language in the terms of service when the user downloads it.
So yes, mobile apps are très cool, but so are mobile websites. So if you are thinking about whether you should bother investing your business's precious time, money and resources into building a great mobile app, work through these questions and determine whether you are maximizing your website's broad mobile experience, if you already have something that serves the purpose you have in mind, or whether your brand can bring something truly new, unique and useful to the market that people would go out of their way to download.
If after working through this list of questions you decide your business is ready to build a mobile application, I'm rooting for you! Go forth and prosper! But if you decide that maybe focusing on optimizing your mobile site comes first, that's ok too. I commend you for taking an honest look at your business and prioritizing what's really important.
Need help deciding whether your business should build a mobile site or mobile app? Contact me. I love to help!