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Do I Need an App or a Mobile Web Site?

  |  August 6, 2009   |  Comments

Tips on deciding whether you should build a mobile Web site or an iPhone app to promote your brand.

As more money flows into mobile marketing, it becomes better understood and the results attract more brands to use it. Yet one question arises from clients frequently: should I build an app or a Web site?

My answer is an emphatic yes. Both are excellent to have in your marketing mix. But to decide which you need, review your marketing or business purpose. To figure out what that purpose is, start with the consumer behavior you're trying to address and determine what interactions you want to engage consumers in, when, and where. Once you determine and map out those behaviors and interactions, consider the relative merits and limitations of both mobile apps and mobile sites.

A Worthy Debate

Building and deploying an app for a mobile phone (e.g., iPhone, Android, etc.) is certainly hot right now; the iTunes app store alone just surpassed 1.5 billion app downloads. The functional capabilities are marvelous, and there are points gained in public relations value. But if your app counts in your ROI (define) calculations or media campaign math, it still isn't a very vast or diverse audience to invest in. IPhones are still only about 7 percent of all smartphones out there, and there are even fewer Android-powered phones.

But the number of iPhones alone has tripled in the past year, as the whole smartphone market has boomed. And the updated devices and operating systems have made them incredibly satisfying to use.

Even with the staggering increases in number of devices sold, not that many people can interact with your app even if you do an incredible job of publicizing it. So it doesn't always make sense to build one, especially as your only mobile tactic. Apps are excellent tools for many interactive purposes, but consider investing in both an app (if it solves a marketing or business problem for you) and a mobile Web site, which is accessible by a multitude of devices, operating systems, and browsers.

What's the Difference?

An app is an environment with a design generally limited to one operating system and device type. The best apps use the device's features and operating system, including GPS, accelerometer, and interface design specifications and can be engaging, wildly creative, addictive, extremely useful, and productive. And they are highly trackable; most user keystrokes (or screen touches), clicks, and actions can be recorded and analyzed.

Mobile Web sites can also be designed to perform a huge number of functions, many of which take advantage of a device's unique functions. Some major advantages include a larger audience reach, ease and speed to update and redesign, and integration with marketing campaigns and other media. This is not to say that apps can't be updated or integrated, but the requirement for apps and updates to be downloaded adds to increased costs and technical and usability complications in many cases.

But consumers can access mobile Web sites through almost any mobile browser, so it's not limited to a particular device, operating system, or manufacturer.

Not everything that can be programmed into an app can be achieved on a mobile Web site, which means they have their limits. Navigation is one thing that separates apps and sites. Apps can employ some ingenious methods of moving a user through the environment and provide access to content and tools, and mobile sites still have some limitations in their user interfaces and architectures.

Regardless of app or mobile Web site, one thing we're seeing is enormous data and functional usage of smartphones compared to the old-school mobile phones. Smartphone owners like their devices a great deal, making them huge users of the mobile Internet and mobile search engines. They also use their smartphones to shoot photos and videos and share this content and to engage with apps. Because people with smartphones typically use their devices to the fullest, they are a great audience despite their smaller numbers.

How Consumers Connect Is Also Important

Another trend is worth noting. When evaluating which tactics or delivery methods to use, consider that consumers are connecting to the Internet with their devices increasingly through Wi-Fi rather than through the cellular networks, even 3G networks. This is significant. This means that many devices -- from the iPhone to the iPod Touch to Sony PSP, Nintendo DSi, and others (though not yet the Kindle) -- are being used on high-speed Wi-Fi networks in places even more diverse than where cell coverage allows interactions. We are seeing an increasing number of connections occurring from home where Wi-Fi is common and on campuses and in public Wi-Fi locations. This means more moments when consumers will interact and get better user experiences, which keeps them active and coming back for more.

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Eric Bader

Eric Bader is a partner in BrandInHand, a full-service mobile marketing and media company that serves global brand marketers, partners with agencies, and assists emerging media companies. BrandInHand's clients span the consumer goods, financial services, technology, and retail industries.

Prior to forming BrandInHand, Bader served as managing director of digital at MediaVest Worldwide. A new media veteran, he was formerly the head of online enterprises at CSTV Networks (now CBSSports) and, prior to that, executive director of interactive marketing at Ogilvy.

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