Top line – what’s the difference ?
If your main objective is marketing your goods and services to the widest possible audiences, with content that’s accessible via search engines and shareable by users, then a mobile site is the answer. It offers better reach, cost effectiveness and immediate compatibility, and there are no barriers to entry.
In contrast, apps cater for a more specific set of needs, and are built with certain, narrow purposes in mind. Apps are a better solution if you need functionality more akin to a computer program than to a regular website.
So in most cases, a mobile optimised website is the first and most beneficial step when considering a mobile presence. We’ve summarised the main advantages here…
Mobile Sites 1, Apps 0 ?
Instant access – optimised sites are available straightaway
Mobile websites are immediately accessible to consumers through their web browser of choice – regardless of device. A single optimised site renders perfectly on iPhone, iPad, Android, BlackBerry, Nexus etc. Before app content can be viewed, users are required to visit a store, purchase, download and install, and in some cases register details. This represents several extra steps for users, and is an obstacle to direct engagement and conversion. It may even involve a cost to them.
A single process that includes everyone
Because an app restricts your mobile customer base to owners of compatible smartphones, to reach all of your audiences effectively means building an app for each platform and device. That’s multiple development costs to deliver the same content. Why pay out, over and over again? Mobile websites are quicker, easier and cheaper to build. And crucially, they don’t exclude any of your user groups.
Pay once – and avoid killer future costs
Mobile optimisation is a one-off cost, with no developer fees beyond that. You can manage updates in-house. On the contrary, the costs of app development don’t end when you’re ready to launch it. The inevitable support and development that apps require – upgrades, bug fixing, testing, marketplace fees, compatibility checks, and different versions for next month’s new device launch – far exceeds the cost of sustaining a website.
Instant updates via your own CMS
A mobile website can use the same Content Management System as your main website. This puts you in complete control of future updates. Because sites are browser based, updates go live straight away – you only do it once, and if you opt to manage the CMS yourself, then it’s free, with no constraints on your content. That way it’s more flexible when compared to an app – updates are subject to App Store consent before they’re released. If approved, those changes have to be sent to each device, with updates pushed to users who then need to download the new content. (Phew!).
Unmatched reach – mobile sites are easy to find
All told, the reach of mobiles far exceeds that of apps. App availability is limited to (exclusive) stores such as Android Marketplace and The App Store. In contrast, mobile websites are simple to find because Google searches identify them as regular results, just like desktop sites. Similarly, mobile sites are also listed in traditional business directories. And thanks to device detection, visitors are spontaneously directed to the optimised website when using a tactile device.
Linking and sharing beats a dead end
Apps don’t use hyperlinks. As anyone who uses apps will know, when you’re in one, you can’t link to and from the web without exiting the app first. Mobile sites are part of the web. They enable content to be shared as easily as on desktop – links to product pages, Twitter posts, news articles or blogs. Apps are a cul de sac by comparison – content and URLs simply can’t be shared in the same way.
A website is for life. An app is for Christmas
Research tells us that the life-cycle of an app is a short one. Mobile websites are everywhere and always there – consumers can’t delete them. Apps certainly have a place, but unless they address specific, niche requirements, they may be deleted pretty soon. But you don’t really need stats to prove it; just ask yourself, how many of yours do you still use, and how many have you binned?
So what’s the answer?
In the majority of cases, a mobile website, offering accessible content to the widest possible audience, makes the most sense. It’s the quickest, most manageable, flexible and cost-effective option. It’s immediate and measurable. Unlike an app, you know it’ll always be there, and it won’t keep demanding more resource from you.
“Let’s make an app” remains a common cry. And while having an app doesn’t mean you have a mobile strategy, in the right context, the best ones are slick and a lot of fun. They’re certainly the way to go if the required functionality can’t be delivered via a robust mobile site. However, thanks largely to the recent fashionable (and arguably irrational) explosion of apps, it’s tempting to jump in that direction without proof the investment can ever be returned, or whether they’re even meaningful to your customers. (And once you have a mobile app you’ve raised the bar; your customers are going to be pretty disappointed when they land on your non-mobilised site!)
Of course, if cost isn’t an issue, then having both options in place would be great. Alas, few businesses operate in an ideal world. Until that day comes, it’s safe to conclude that it rarely makes sense to develop an app without already having your mobile website in place.