Mobile app versus mobile site? What’s right for me?

mobile apps versus mobile sitesAndrea Leo writes: “I am hoping you can settle this for us.  We’ve had FIVE (five too many, I might add!) mobile consultants here in the past three months and they all have different opinions on what we should do – develop our own app or build a mobile site.   We put a lot of money in our mobile budget this year and I am afraid we’ll never be able to spend it as we just can’t get anyone to agree what is the right course of action for us.  What do you think?  What questions should we be asking?  I think we’re going to need to bag the ‘experts’ and figure it out on our own.”

Andrea.  Andrea.  Andrea.  You don’t have to be a math genius to know that five consultants equates to at least 17 different responses.  

Here’s the thing…  Like most everything else, everyone has their own opinions on this.  Unfortunately, most of those are based on what the consultant is selling (or making a commission from, as the case may be.)

If you are looking at a 2011 foray into mobile (which everyone should be), you essentially have four choices:

  1. Enhance your regular site
  2. Build out an optimized site
  3. Develop a mobile native application
  4. Do one or more of the above

 How do you pick the one that’s best for you?

First, look at what your users are currently doing (you can get this from your stats.)  Then, ask them.  (Surveys about mobile experiences are often very effective, especially if you can use Facebook/Twitter as a driver.)

I’m one of those people who doesn’t count the iPad as a mobile device.  I know a lot of folks do.  I just don’t think it’s appropriate based on the conversion levels I am seeing.  (Currently, iPad experiences are performing better, as a percentage, than regular sites pretty much across the board for non-Flash sites.) 

Look at what devices your user is using.  There is a big difference between a Droid, a BlackBerry and an iPhone.  You need to know what your customers favor – this is critical and a lot of folks underestimate it.  (I recently saw a B2B company spend a boatload on an iPhone app only to find out a couple of months later that 75% of their biggest customers have BlackBerries.)

Look at what networks your users are on.  AT&T on an iPhone isn’t at all like browsing on a Bold using T-Mobile.

Find out what your users are doing on their phones.  Are they spontaneously going to your site or are your e-mails and text message programs driving them?  There’s a big difference between a user who’s being driven by your marketing versus someone who ends up at your site all on their own.  This is especially applicable if you’re getting a lot of traffic from social media.  For example, if your average user is coming from your Facebook account, the last thing they’re going to want to do is find your app, download your app and then start using it.

What is your user doing (or going to do) on your mobile site/app?  Research? Price comparisons? Read reviews?  Look at videos?  Entertainment?  Customer Service?  Look up account/order status? Order?  Find a store?

How many third-party applications are you using?  Performance is a HUGE issue when it comes to mobile – much greater than a desktop experience – and all of those handy add-ons you’ve added to your site over the past couple years (reviews, recommendations, analytics, A/B split testing, specialized shopping carts and platforms, affiliate programs, image builders, etc.)  have an impact on your mobile experience. 

How much Flash and Ajax are you currently using?  Most smart/feature phones don’t support Flash or Ajax applications well.

What are your competitors doing?  What are other companies who are selling to your consumer (even if it’s a different product) doing? 

How much functionality do you need?  Right now, it’s often easier to get a lot of whiz-bang technological showmanship from an app.  (Long-term, that won’t be the case.)  You can also design an app that doesn’t require internet connection.

What’s your timeline?  Apps tend to take longer (there are exceptions to this but generally speaking) to develop.  Plus, you need to get approval.

There are zillions of other questions but the ones above should point you in the right direction.  (By the way, when you are looking at your stats – you need to look at several different metrics to get a good handle on what’s working for you, including screen size, browser, network, referring URL, etc. – mobile stats just aren’t all that great yet.)

I will go over the pluses and minuses of apps and mobile sites in the next couple weeks.  In the meantime, the questions above should keep you busy. 

Have a question you think should be added?  Please put it in the comments below. 


  1. says

    Clear, concise & focused, as usual. From what we’ve observed, most of customers (at least the one’s that admit to some sort of mCommerce activity) have yet to figure out what they want. Glad we’re not primarily B2C. We’re lucky to have a bit of time to see how models develop for our hybrid B2B&C. Our best performing segments shop like consumers but buy like businesses.
    Have Fun!

    • says

      Thanks for the comment Dave! You are right about mobile commmerce users not knowing what they want — usability experiences shows us that a little more than half of them don’t. The other half of the folks know exactly what they want, you just don’t give it to them! It’s, well, complicated!

  2. says

    I’ve been asking myself questions along the outline above, and doing a bit of “woman in the street” testing with several of my websites (you’ll may say that’s too limited, but maybe not…..).

    When asked something relating to one of my blogs or websites, I suggest the person should check it out then and there on their phone. Or I may mention something and the person goes to the big G to find the site I am talking about……. even before I suggest it (often). So what I am observing is that just about everyone wants to check things out immediately (instant gratification?), and since my sites are usually graphically rich (as you know;-) the next response is, I’ll check this out on my computer later ~ I want to see this in more detail.

    So that tells me I have to keep the essence of my ‘design for mobile’ very true to branding image of the website and not downplay it; in contrast, I have seen people reconfigure their otherwise OK websites info into plain text (fugly!). This may be OK if it’s a ferry schedule; but not for a restaurant or business that wants to showcase lifestyle as well as their food. What is important is quick loading time, with your brand image showcased in your mobile version. Remember, mobile may be the ONLY place people look at your website these days; at the least it may be the initial introduction and ‘hook’ that pulls people to your website, to spend more time there.

    BTW five people in the street might have been more productive than five consultants!


    • says

      Your comment was spot on & is worth repeating. (“Remember, mobile may be the ONLY place people look at your website these days; at the least it may be the initial introduction and ‘hook’ that pulls people to your website, to spend more time there.”)

  3. says

    As a gal addicted to her Blackberry, I am always clicking on links from my phone. I admit, if the site is not mobile friendly from the get-go, my interest in returning the web site once I get back to my computer wanes. That’s my consumer POV. As B2B/C business owner and app developer, I’m constantly checking how my sites look on mobile devices (note the plural – I test on more than just my own BB).

    Now that I’m reflecting on this, I’m wondering what can businesses do as a “quick fix” so they don’t lose customers like me just because their site is not mobile friendly? Amy — what do you suggest?

    • says

      Good question Kelly. A lot of companies that are behind the 8-ball on mobile develop just one page to tide them over. The page will often have an e-mail address capture box, 4-6 jumplinks and a phone number. It’s not the best but it works. Studies have shown most mobile customers are very forgiving –but they want to see effort.

      Thanks for writing. As the owner of a small company, you’ve done more with mobile than a lot of the big guys I know. It’s very impressive!

  4. says

    Great post Amy! I look forward to following you on Twitter.

    Can I throw out a third option? I have helped a few companies with mobile marketing and one of the best starting points I’ve found for B2C companies, especially if they use media, is good old text messaging (SMS). It’s very cost-effective and the increase in sales is almost immediate. It’s also a great way to build a database that can be used to drive traffic to a mobile site or app download. If they’re lucky enough to have a captive audience (restaurants, entertainment venues, retail, etc.) they can start gathering subscribers on-site with just a few signs.


    • says

      Hi Justin —

      Thanks for your comment. Nice to have you here.

      I don’t count text as a third option as I feel texting is a “must do” and not really an option so to speak. It’s kind of like e-mail — you shouldn’t really choose e-mail over one type of site or another, you need both and e-mail is a “must do” as well.

      With that said, all your benefits about SMS are right on the money!

  5. says

    As a software developer myself, I am looking into getting some experience with mobile phone apps, i.e., Android for now.

    It seems to me that there are lot of public facing businesses (B2C companies) just would do mobile site, rather than smartphone app. As the app costs a lot to build and also need to be maintained and targeted for different phones.

    So, that in mind, I guess from a software developer’s job/career perspective, one could dabble with app development but don’t need to be worried about the whole Internet growing on the app front alone.

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