Taking The Long View In The Rivalry Between Mobile Web And Apps

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the domination of apps in the battle for the time we spend with digital media. Over a recent lunch with a friend of mine who runs a company specializing in mobile marketing, I asked if he thought that mobile apps had secured a permanent advantage over mobile web.

He could not have disagreed with the notion more emphatically. In fact, he went so far as to predict that in the next three years, the era of apps could be over. In its place, he sees the rise of a more powerful mobile web.

Though current performance may make such a role reversal seem far-fetched, a close examination of apps and mobile web reveals how such a reversal might occur.

First, the app economy doesn’t exactly rest on solid bedrock. As this study shows, it’s really a mobile games economy, with a relatively small cadre of games developers getting wealthy off of polished in-app purchasing engines. At the other end of the spectrum are thousands of developers and perhaps hundreds of thousands of apps that do not meet their creators’ expectations for downloads and usage.

Second, standing between an app and its potential audience are hurdles that go a long way in explaining why so few apps and developers dominate the total market.

  • Apps can be hard to find
  • Customers have to endure several steps to download and use an app, giving them lots of opportunities to quit
  • Apps typically don’t work on every device, but instead only support a particular operating system
  • This means that developers need to create separate apps for every smartphone platform, which tends to make apps more expensive to build and maintain
  • App quality varies significantly

Third, mobile web has a lot of built-in advantages. Mobile websites tend to work on just about every smartphone. They respond well to mobile searches like Bing and Google, making their content easier to discover. Lots of people possess the technical skills needed to create mobile websites. By comparison, fewer people have the chops needed to create apps for each smartphone operating system.

All this means the barriers to establishing a relatively ubiquitous mobile presence are lower with the mobile web than they are with apps.

Fourth, the native app’s advantages over mobile web in measurability and performance are likely to diminish over time.

My friend could be wrong. Apps may never relinquish their edge. Either way, if you’re a marketer charged with developing and executing a strategy that includes mobile, you need to think through the advantages and disadvantages of each alternative before you start making investments. To help you make better decisions, here are some topics to discuss with your colleagues in the office of the CIO or CTO, who likely would build either a mobile app or website:

  • Who am I trying to reach? E.g. demographics, behavioral segmentation, etc.
  • What devices do they tend to use?
  • What are my goals for these customers and how will I know if I’m succeeding?
  • Will this app carry a revenue objective?
  • How are my competitors servicing these people?
  • Do I need the power that only an app can deliver to achieve my goals?
  • If an app is the answer, what’s the cost to build and maintain for the platforms and devices my customers use?
  • What’s my plan for marketing my mobile offering to my existing customers?
  • What’s my plan for capturing mobile data and integrating that with the rest of my company’s customer data?

I’m not trying to dissuade anyone from creating an app. Rather, I want everyone to avoid a reflexive move into the category.

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