March 7th, 2010 | 7 MIN READ

Mobile Application or Mobile Website or Both?

Written by Dennis Newel

As a business analyst and ecommerce consultant at Elastic Path, Dennis Newel is responsible for helping Elastic Path's enterprise customers develop their ecommerce strategy and align it with their business goals. The area he’s most interested about is mobile commerce and other non-web commerce channels. When Dennis is not in front of a computer he is playing with his baby boy or enjoying the outdoor life Vancouver has to offer. Follow Dennis on Twitter @dennisnewel

With the continued popularity of smartphones, more and more retailers are launching either mobile websites or mobile applications by the day. Many who haven’t yet taken the plunge are wondering what to invest their resources in first.

Aside from “doing nothing,” retailers have 2 options when considering mobile commerce: building an application (or “app”), or creating a website specifically for mobile devices. As Graham Charlton of Econsultancy has observed in the UK, some etailers are opting to bypass the mobile optimized website and go straight to a mobile app. This post continues the conversation and examines the differences of each and how you might choose between them.

Do Not Nothing

Smartphones are built for web browsing and users will generally be able to access your web site through a mobile browser even if you do not do anything. But this is not the optimal user experience, as pages designed for the web render very poorly on small screens:

Above left: website as viewed through mobile browser. Above right: Mobile optimized website at viewed on mobile device.

While doing nothing is an option, any retailer who anticipates driving any sales through mobile devices needs either a mobile optimized version or a mobile application.

Mobile Applications

A mobile application is essentially software developed to run on mobile devices. Apps were popularized by the iPhone and Blackberry, but also may be developed for the Android, Windows Mobile and Symbian operating systems.

Mobile applications may serve as a mobile storefront, allowing in-app purchases. For example, the iPhone eBay app generated $400 million in revenue in 2009. It's a tiny bit of eBay's $59.7 billion in revenue but still impressive for an application people voluntarily install on their iPhones.

Pros & cons

Pro: User experience

The main advantage of building an app is the user experience. Most mobile browsers can’t handle JavaScript and Flash. A properly built app gives a developer control over the way text and images are displayed, as well as the use of sounds and videos. Apps can utilize the whole screen of the phone and remove other distractions from the shopper like address bars. There are also no compatibility issues when apps are dedicated to the device they were developed for. Screen size and features are consistent for all users.

Pro: Hardware features

GPS, camera and “shake” functionality can all be baked into apps. For example, a customer could add an item to cart by shaking her phone. For multichannel retailers with local stores, mobile applications can offer a GPS based store finder, or "augmented reality" where you can view a street through your iPhone's camera and it will tell you the nearest gas station or fast food restaurant.

Pro: Loyalty

A customer who actively downloads and installs an app has a pretty good chance of using it. The app on the “desktop” is top-of-mind.

Pro: Off-line usage

Even when wi-fi or 3G is unavailable, a customer can browse your catalog or other application features which do not require Internet access.

Con: Development resources

Mobile apps take longer to develop than mobile websites. Not only because the look and feel of the app will usually have to be built from scratch, but also because you will need to create multiple apps to reach a wide audience. The iPhone currently dominates the app market, but with the large amount of other devices and app stores popping up, that will not last forever. Some think that Android-based mobile phones will surpass the iPhone in market share by 2012.

Con: Adoption and usage

Before a customer can experience your app, she has to download and install it. You will mainly reach your most loyal customers who are fairly invested in your brand. Just as with PCs, most people think twice before they install an app on their phone.

Con: Nascent market

Despite all the press coverage, the app market in total is not that big. Only 13.3% of the phones sold in Q3 of 2009 were smartphones, and of those only 17.1% were iPhones. With Apple controlling the app market for now, that's a very small number of potential customers.

Mobile Optimized Website

As mentioned earlier here on Get Elastic, there are many ways to build a mobile optimized site which each have their own pros and cons.

Pro: Less required resources

Mobile sites will most likely be quicker to implement compared to building an app with a unique look and feel. Note that due to the wide variety of handsets available, you may have to optimize your website for more than one phone and/or screen size. In most cases, depending on your ecommerce platform, you should be able to reuse large parts of your existing infrastructure and focus on changing the website's look and feel so that it fits a smaller screen.

If that's not fast enough for you there are services like Usablenet and Mobile Aware that will take your existing ecommerce site and build a mobile optimized version in a few weeks without you having to lift a finger.

Pro: Accessible to all

If a user is not heavily invested in your brand chances are slim that they are willing to download an app just to be able to find the nearest store or buy the thing they've just seen an ad for. But a mobile site is accessible on any device with a mobile browser, including non-smartphones, as most of these have some form of WAP-browsing. Though WAP is fast becoming a long forgotten technology it's still worth considering depending on the customers you're trying to reach.

Con: Limited functionality

Even though all smartphones have browsers, most of them are very simplistic and cannot handle the same complexity and dynamic behavior as browsers on a PC. Flash is especially an issue, as hardly any of the smartphone browsers support it. Even some JavaScript that should be simple can be problematic.

Being confined to working with what the phone browser can handle means you cannot use any of the phone's other features such as GPS for a location-based store locator. It also means the customer must have network coverage to continue to use your website. If the connection drops for any reason you could potentially lose a sale. As mentioned previously, building an app would help you avoid these restrictions as an app has better access to other features the phone offers, as well as being able to store information locally until the phone regains network access.

Con: Customer satisfaction

A mobile optimized site may not have the same appeal for a loyal customer who might expect a greater interaction or immersion on your brand.

How do you choose?

It should be clear now that neither solution alone is perfect for reaching all your customers, and if resources were not an issue the optimal solution would be to do both. So the question really becomes "If I can't have both, how do I choose?"

The short answer is (as always): It depends on your target audience.

Apps are great when you have a segment of loyal customers who interact with you on a regular basis and want a fuller experience on their mobile. You can provide special news, content, offers etc. to these customers, leveraging the hardware of a device such as GPS, camera and “shake.” (Hint: Survey your customers through email, on-site surveys or social media like Facebook or Twitter).

In some cases, your customers are already screaming for a mobile app and are making their voices heard in online communities like the Sephora Facebook page:

Unless there is sufficient customer demand, an optimized mobile website is your best bet. It requires less commitment from a potential customer and allows access to all.

Besides considering your target audience, it’s also vital to consider the impact on your brand and how your mobile strategy in general fits with the rest of your offerings. You can still offer special content, products, offers to a select group of customers in other ways like SMS/text messages, email newsletter, physical newsletter, personal promotion codes, etc.

Dennis Newel is a business analyst and ecommerce consultant at Elastic Path Software.

Don't forget:This month we are presenting a webinar on application stores: App store - a new way to sell software, media, and anything digital where we will discuss the app store as an ecommerce platform and its business models.

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