Engagement on the Go: Mobile Apps or Mobile Websites?

Bean president, Layla Masri, has a feature story on the ins and outs of mobile in the August 2011 issue of the American Society of Association Executives’ Communication News.

Summary: These five questions will help you decide which to make your top priority: adapting your website to mobile devices or getting into app development. Evaluate your mobile readiness with the answers to these questions and a quick-tip checklist.

Which should you build: a mobile app or a mobile website? As the head of a web and app development firm, I am asked this question on an almost daily basis. My answer: It depends.

Yes, apps are all the rage. But while it may seem sacrilegious for an app developer to say this, it’s often easier and less expensive to adapt to the mobile web than create an app.

Why? To answer this question, it’s imperative that you first truly understand the difference between a mobile app and a mobile website. I find that most people think they get it but are confused about the inherent benefits and drawbacks of each. It gets confusing because in many cases the same organization, say, Facebook, has both a mobile app and a mobile website.

So, let’s look at five frequently asked questions that will help you understand the differences and decide how to move ahead.

What is a mobile app?

  • Apps are built and coded to be device specific. For example,an Android app works only with Android devices.
  • Apps often leverage built-in (also called native) features on phones and tablets, features such as the camera, accelerometer, and GPS. Also, apps often present more integrated and immersive experiences than mobile websites.
  • Apps may utilize features from the internet but they’re often built to run without internet access.
    Apps are usually accessed via an online app store such as Apple’s App Store, BlackBerry’s App World, or the Android Market.
  • They’re often used for doing discrete tasks, handling recurring activities, and playing games.

What is a mobile website?

  • Mobile websites work across many devices.
  • They are accessed via the browser on smartphones and so require internet access.
  • Typing the URL on the mobile browser or using a bookmark icon brings up a mobile-formatted website.
    Mobile websites can be anything from a different presentation of your desktop site (a good place to start) to a fully mobile-designed version (an ideal end game).
  • They’re often used for information gathering and lookups relevant to the viewer’s current location or needs.

Do you find that infographics are worth a thousand words? Then this visual explanation of mobile web versus mobile apps may help.

If mobile apps offer richer experiences, why might a mobile website be a better solution? Although mobile apps take advantage of native smartphone features, they are device specific. Mobile websites, on the other hand, work across all devices and can reach much larger audiences. Mobile sites are available to anyone with a smartphone browser and internet access, whereas an app must be created for each and every type of device-one for Apple, one for Android, one for Blackberry, and so forth. In fact, given the vastly different screen sizes and features of devices, often it’s even necessary to have one iPhone app and a completely separate iPad app as well.

Benefits of Mobile Websites

You can build once and deploy anywhere. Apps must be built using specialized software development kits (SDKs) and specific programming languages per platform. For example, Apple iOS (iPhone and iPad) is programmed in Objective-C, but Android uses Java. There is no simple way to “convert” one to another; apps must be recoded in each language.

But once you build a mobile website, you don’t need new coding to reach new devices-it will render on any smartphone browser unless the site uses Flash, which iOS devices don’t support. That means you can likely launch a lot faster, too.

You can do the things you normally do on the web on your phone. Although it’s certainly true that an app can do some things a mobile site cannot, most anything you do on your desktop website can be done on a mobile website. That includes tapping into back-end tools such as your association management system member data, logins, and e-commerce. These tasks can be a lot more complex and expensive to perform with an app.

Maintenance is less complex. If you use a content management system, you can update your desktop and mobile site seamlessly. In contrast, updating an app requires planning and preparation, such as pulling in RSS feeds and external data. Unless you built these features into the app from the beginning, updating requires new coding and resubmission to app stores before changes become visible to the public.

A related app drawback: Someone must continually keep the code updated for all these platforms as each one evolves.

Mobile sites may cost less to build. As you can imagine, there are cost implications to building separate apps for each device. It is often impossible to find all the talent in-house to produce separate apps, so you’ll need specialized developers who know the different coding languages needed. Fragmentation is a costly long-term strategy.

What are some tips for creating an optimal mobile website? The main one is this: Keep it simple, small, and speedy.

  • Think about what your visitors want on the go and curate your mobile content and features accordingly. Case in point: Does anyone really need to read the fine print of your bylaws on their phone?
  • Keep usability in mind with a simplified design and single-column layout.
  • Optimize the scalability of your site to different screen sizes by using mobile-friendly XHTML and modern standards like HTML5 and CSS3.
  • Implement “sniffer” code to redirect mobile users to your mobile website (such as mobile.yoursitename.com or m.yoursitename.com.
  • View and test your site on a variety of mobile devices and emulators to ensure ideal usability on small screens.
  • Avoid proprietary technologies and plug-ins, such as Flash and Silverlight.

In a fully integrated web strategy, mobile web and mobile apps play complementary roles. There’s a growing expectation that the content we seek will follow us seamlessly from device to device. So it’s a no brainer that you should build for the web.

But by all means, don’t limit yourself to a mobile site. The decision is not an either/or proposition; consider doing both. Just be sure to spend time before getting started to ensure that what you’re building truly meets your audience needs and satisfies your communication goals.

Evaluate Your Mobile Readiness

Is a mobile website right for you? More important, is a mobile website right for your members? When planning for a mobile web experience, be sure to think about your user, not for your user. Here’s a checklist of steps to help ensure you’re truly maximizing your mobile investment.

Know your audience. It may sound elementary, but do you really know…

  • What mobile devices they use? (iPhone, Android, Windows Phone, Blackberry, Symbian) And what about tablets?
  • Whether your users enjoy being on mobile devices or feel tethered to work when using them?
  • Which technologies they feel comfortable using?

Understand how mobile-site users want to interact on the go with your organization. Not all website functions or content should go mobile.

Substantiate the return on investment. Just like any other marketing initiative, you need to establish clear goals and metrics for what mobile success means.

Without a doubt, mobile offerings are sexy! But remember, they are really just another communication tool in your arsenal, so proper planning and strategy are essential.

Layla Masri is president of Bean Creative, an Alexandria, Virginia, studio of digital developers who have built apps for PBS KIDS, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Random House, and recording star “Weird Al” Yankovic. Masri presented a version of this material at ASAE’s Marketing, Membership, and Communications Conference in Washington, DC, in April 2011.



Layla Masri

About Layla Masri

Layla is a co-founder of Bean Creative. She leverages her ad agency background and 15-plus years as a marketing and web copywriter to maximize interactive impact for strategic planning, usability/accessibility, and digital promotion.
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