Mobile Site vs. Mobile App: What You Need to Know About Going Mobile

By Wednesday March 2nd, 2011

As an agency executive, marketer or business decision maker, you’re constantly considering your mobile marketing strategy and how much time and attention you’re devoting to mobile products and initiatives. The debate is no longer “should we” create a mobile site or optimize for mobile users, it’s now “how should we?”

As an agency executive, marketer or business decision maker, you’re probably considering your mobile marketing strategy and how much time and attention you’re devoting to mobile products and initiatives. The debate is no longer “should we” create a mobile site or optimize for mobile users, it’s now “how should we?”

Let’s start by looking at the options when it comes to mobile marketing, and clearly define the differences between each. (You may be surprised how often people confuse them.) I sat down with Chuck Sacco, VP of Client Strategy at Movitas to help shed some light on mobile technology and what you need to know.

Know Your Options
Standard Website – Built for a desktop computer that can be accessed from a mobile device. The developer didn’t take mobile devices into account when building. (This will help to differentiate it from the mobile website).

Mobile Website – A browser-based website that is developed specifically for a fast and efficient experience on mobile devices. Traditionally, the content is in a list form, pages load quickly, and heavy visuals are simplified, but that is changing as technology advances. Chuck added, “Newer mobile optimized sites can be quite sophisticated. Take a look at for example. It’s also important to remember that the complexity of the features depends upon the type of device. These mobile sites can detect your device and deliver the appropriate experience based on the device capabilities.”

Mobile Application – This is a native application sold through an app store. This application is not readily available to the public like a website, and is usually purchased through an app store and then downloaded onto the user’s mobile device.

The State of Mobile
Ok, now let’s move on to some hard numbers. ComScore reported that smartphone usage escalated in the US in 2010 to 1 in 4 subscribers, up from about 1 in 10 in 2008. A common misconception is that smartphone users are more willing to use the common web browser more than download an app. Comscore’s November 2010 report shows that the numbers are actually very similar, with about 35% of smartphone users accessing a browser on their device, and about 33% downloading apps.  In what may be the most daring of all smartphone predictions, The Mobile Marketing Association expects smartphones will represent more than 50% of the market by Q3 2011.

Chuck emphasized the importance of considering the industry you’re in. “The stats show substantial growth for mobile web and native apps, but before choosing one or the other on a whim, it’s important to note that certain verticals are better fit for one experience over the other. Finance, retail and restaurant verticals show enormous growth in mobile web advertising, but aren’t growing as quickly as other verticals in launching successful native apps.”

The mobile optimized website is undeniably the first step into mobile for most businesses who have survived with a traditional website for many years but are now seeing many of their customers using smartphones to access their site. Although mobile browsing makes up only about 3.5% of total web browsing according to NetMarketShare, this number is growing quickly, up from about 1.6% one year ago. The other thing to note is that this growth in mobile web browsing is replacing desktop browsing to some extent, as we see desktop browser use dropping almost 2% during 2010. In this report published by mobile search company Taptu, they present their expectations for the future describing the move to “the Mobile Touch Web,” which they define as: “Web sites created for mobile touchscreen devices, with finger-friendly layouts and lightweight pages that are fast to load over cellular networks.” In their original report Taptu predicted over 1 million mobile optimized (browser-based) websites popping up by the end of 2011. Four months later they amended their projection to come much earlier, at the end of 2010, based on how quickly the mobile optimized sites were popping up.

Pros and Cons
Even with a burgeoning touchscreen smartphone market and so much marketing for Apple’s App Store, native apps are actually growing at a much slower pace than the mobile optimized market.

We should also note the differences in development costs, delivery and maintenance for each. A mobile optimized website can be developed for less than a native app and launched much more quickly without the need to pass it through an app store approval process. Mobile optimized websites can be updated and enhanced quickly by the developer while native applications force the developer to re-submit, get approval from the app store, and require the user to download an app update.

Also, unlike the mobile optimized site that can be developed to be compatible for multiple devices, native apps must be developed for each device and submitted separately to each device’s proprietary app store. This makes a native app a much more expensive route.

Decide What Your Goals Are
If the goal of your application is to provide a mobile destination for marketing efforts, developing a native app may be the wrong approach. Consider the potential to drive users to a mobile website with one touch of the screen through traditional marketing, social media or QR codes. A native application requires a user to download an app before they can access info and learn about your product or services. Chuck agreed and noted, “Understanding the context of use and being clear on the goals of a mobile deployment are an extremely critical part of the process. Where and when are consumers most likely to be exposed to a mobile site or app?  In the travel industry, it’s often about in-location information.  Context of use becomes a key driver for how a business may want to influence behavior.  For example, a well-placed QR code can drive new behaviors tied to a specific marketing goal.”

Know Your Business
Deciding whether your company should launch a native mobile app in addition to a mobile website also comes down to your industry, products and services. Do you have customers that shop frequently? Do you have continuously changing products and information? Will your customers need or want to use your app daily or at least weekly? If the answer is “yes”, maybe a native app is for you. If the answer is “no”, you’re probably wasting your time/money and the user’s mobile screen real estate with an app that is rarely used.

So When Do You Develop A Native Application?
As Kevin Nakeo writes in this Mashable Mobile article, “Once you’ve optimized the experience, you can use your mobile website to graduate users to a more robust native app.” Even though a native app may be more attractive than the mobile optimized site because you have the ability to make money through user downloads, Kevin also explains the challenge with launching a successful app: “One of the most important differences between a popular app and the thousands you’ve never heard of is the merchandising from the iTunes App chart. Hitting the Top 4 on the Free App chart drove over 250,000 downloads for [our] WhitePages Mobile App. Download volume and positive ratings are important factors needed to get onto the chart…It helps to think of the mobile web as a beta, and the app as gold.”

So You’re Ready For An App…
New app developers and development platforms are popping up everyday. These resources give you a jumping-off point for creating a native or web app that can be within your resources and budget. If you’re wondering where to get started, Giles Goodwin of Widgetbox mentions some tips and tools to consider when approaching app development in this article.

No matter your approach, the point is that you know your options and are taking mobile technology seriously. There’s no doubt that your customers and users are, and that upsurge will continue for years to come.

Chuck Sacco
VP of Client Strategy at Movitas
President of Mobile Monday Mid-Atlantic

More Reading:
Awesome mobile websites –

Why you need to optimize a mobile site, not just redirect –

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About the Author

Jason is co-founder and CEO of Brolik, a digital agency in Philadelphia. As an entrepreneur, Jason is passionate about helping other business owners navigate the complicated journey of owning a business and developing marketing strategies to grow their brand.
Follow @jaybrew on Twitter or connect with Jason on LinkedIn or Google+