Mobile-Optimized Website vs. Mobile Application...or Both?
POSTED : September 24, 2009
BY : PK

With all of the hype around mobile applications and the success of the iPhone Appstore,  we’ve had a number of our clients ask us how they should approach mobility.  What’s encouraging to me is that they know they need to engage current and potential customers when on-the-go,  but the challenge is, they aren’t sure how.  Should they build a mobile-optimized website, a mobile application or both?  I have my ideas that I’ll outline below, but I’d also like to hear from you.  Please comment on this with your own theories and experiences.

In my opinion,  the first step before you do anything is to set your mobility strategy and determine exactly what experiences you want your mobile customers to have and how that would differ from a typical web experience.  For a number of reasons, they shouldn’t be exactly the same.  I know the actions I take and the information I seek is very different when I’m mobile than when I’m sitting at a PC.  Here’s the recipe I’d follow to set my mobility strategy:

  1. What would be the common scenarios for why a customer would come to my mobile website or use my mobile application?  (e.g. if I’m a retail business I may want a store locator)
  2. What value can I add to my customers’ experience leveraging the mobile ecosystem (e.g. can I offer them something unique based on knowing their location?)
  3. Once I have their mobile attention how would I  integrate their experience back into my PC and offline customer experience?  For example, if my goal is to introduce them to new products they may not want to purchase immediately via phone.  How would I ”hand-off” that information for further use by sales and marketing?

Once you have your strategy set, it should be fairly easy to determine what you want to do.  I believe that you always need a mobile-optimized website.  The standard web experience is getting fatter and fatter as video, flash, etc. are added so you’ll need to come up with a relevant skinnied-down version that loads quickly (given current network constraints).  Here are a few pros and cons.

Pros

  • A mobile-optimized site will likely reach a broader audience then a mobile application alone
  • It doesn’t require a customer to download a new version every time you update the site.
  • It can be cheaper to develop as you don’t need to port it across various OEM operating systems (e.g. Apple, Android, MSFT, PalmPre)
  • By keeping the experience “in-house” you can gather a variety of metrics and determine ROI on your efforts.

However, there are some drawbacks to keep in mind.

Cons

  • It’s difficult and costly to maintain an experience that is mobile-optimized across the plethora of devices and operating systems in the market.
  • Don’t try to please everyone – the experience on a small, candy bar phone is going to be poor regardless of the optimization so I’d shoot to optimize for smartphones.

Check out how Toyota and Lexus are using mobile advertisements to drive potential customers to a mobile-optimized experience.  Kudos to this one.  It’s valuable, it’s unique and it’s tied into their other sales and marketing efforts.

They narrowed down your experience to really 2 things you made do when mobile.  1) Gather more information about a product and 2) find a dealer near you.  Click deeper into the experience and I think you’ll agree that this is really well executed

So why would I build an application then?

Primarily, I think an application should be a supplemental effort to your mobility strategy that allows you do something valuable for your customers that you can’t easily do on your site. It should not just be a repeat of your web experience.  CNN’s mobility site and their iPhone application are virtually identical so I question why I’d use one over the other.  They must have thought the same as I just discovered the iPhone app is nowhere to be found (only CNN Money).

Here are a few thoughts on the pros and cons of building an application

Pros

  • Relatively inexpensive to build and maintain given only one OS is involved
  • The application can leverage features of the mobile device including the camera, GPS and voice.  Try that with your website
  • The applications run on the device and still work even if network connectivity is an issue (assuming the app is self-contained)

Cons

  • You have a smaller addressable audience for any application.  Even if you target the iPhone platform which has millions of users, you likely get lost in the shuffle of 65,000+ other applications
  • Applications need to be updated which can degrade your customers’ experience
  • Should you decide to expand your audience, it can be very costly to port an application to other platforms.
  • You can’t get any solid metrics on application usage (at least to my knowledge)

A company that has done an incredibly good job with their iPhone Application is Amazon’s Store App.

Not only does it let you shop from your phone, but it leverages the iPhone to enhance your experience.  You can take a picture of any product and send it to them.  Within a minute they will send you back similar sample products for sale in their store and let you purchase them on the spot.  Very cool!

Tags: , ,