Pelland Blog

SmartPhone Apps or a Mobile-Friendly Site?

February 15th, 2012

There has been a growing debate recently among small businesses attempting to choose between the development of SmartPhone apps and mobile-friendly websites. Let me try to cut through the clutter with a bit of common sense.

Let’s start with a few statistics. At the end of 2011, there were 140 million SmartPhone subscriptions in the United States alone. This represents over 50% of mobile phone customers, and well over 50% of the users of handheld devices access the Internet using those devices on a daily basis. According to a study conducted on behalf of Morgan Stanley, it is projected that the volume of mobile Web access will overcome conventional desktop access by 2015 (if not sooner)!

According to some of the “strange, but true” statistics compiled by the Mobile Marketing Association, there are more people – worldwide – who own a cellphone than who own a toothbrush. Here are some perhaps more meaningful statistics provided by the same organization:

  • 70% of all mobile searches result in action within 1 hour.
  • Mobile coupons realize 10 times the redemption rate of conventional coupons.
  • Although it takes the average person 90 minutes to respond to a typical e-mail, the same person responds to a text message within 90 seconds.

SmartPhone Usage Is All About Here and Now

Although the typical website provides a wealth of information that is carefully organized to be highly persuasive and carefully orchestrated to lead to a buying decision, SmartPhone users begin their search for information much further along in the decision-making process. SmartPhone users are dealing with a compact display screen and want to make a quick decision. It is not time to try to sell them (or force them to read) the Encyclopedia Britannica! You need a mobile website that is clean and gets to the point. It should be optimized for a small display and stripped of any non-essential text and graphics.

To start, look at your current website on your own SmartPhone. (If you are the last holdout on the planet who has not yet embraced the technology, ask a friend to show you your site on his or her phone.) Almost all websites will work on a handheld device, but some work much more effectively than others. Certain features are best avoided, such as the use of Flash (particularly in navigation), since that format is not supported by iPhones and iPads. You should also avoid framed content (generally sound advice for any website), streaming video, mouse-overs, and high-resolution graphics. In some instances, the amount of data on a page can exceed a phone’s memory capacity and prevent a page from loading. Sadly, a recent study has shown that 50% of small business owners have not taken the time to view their website on a handheld device, even though their Google Analytics may be showing that 10% of their visitors are accessing their website on a handheld device.

Now that you have viewed your website on a SmartPhone or other handheld device, what do you see? Chances are that you are seeing a totally functional website that is simply not doing its best to capitalize upon the characteristics of these devices. It doesn’t take long for a visitor to tire of the “pinch and zoom” style of surfing the Web, when they have to zoom in and scroll to read small text, and zoom out to navigate and to view graphics. Complicating matters, our thumbs are not nearly as precise as a computer mouse or our fingers on a keyboard. The bottom line is that a frustrated and inconvenienced visitor better really want what you have to offer because he is otherwise highly unlikely to become a customer. Your site is probably among the 97% of websites that were not considered mobile-friendly in early 2011.

The fact than only 3% of websites are mobile-friendly is not particularly surprising. In the overall scope of small businesses struggling to define their social media strategies, developing a mobile website is secondary in importance to the development of more pressing social media content such as a company’s Facebook business page. That said, an effective mobile presence is a very important secondary step for most small businesses. Going back to the statistic that 70% of all mobile searches result in action within 1 hour, it should be clear that you need to be an active player. The question involves which way to go.

For Most Small Businesses, the Answer is a
Mobile-friendly Version of their Primary Website

Here’s why. An app must have a practical use if you expect people to download it and then use it more than once. By far, the most popular apps are games, followed by mobile versions of established online services such as Facebook, Twitter, Skype, and Google Maps. Keep in mind that app development costs are significant. Although more than 10 billion apps were downloaded through 2010 – an average of 60 apps installed on each device – over a quarter of those are used only once. Users are also expected to download and install frequent updates, a non-issue with a mobile website that simply presents content that is updated on the server side, as needed. Beyond the development costs, plan on spending a tidy sum of money just to persuade people to download that app that they may use either infrequently or only once. The question you must ask is why users would use your app. An app makes perfect sense for businesses such as local television stations and newspapers, where they can present breaking news stories, weather forecasts, and sports scores. They also have the resources to promote downloads of their app. On the other hand, the “breaking news” of a more typical business might be better presented on Twitter or Facebook (which have their own SmartPhone apps).

Applications in the Campground Industry

My company is a major supplier of Web development services to the family camping industry, and many state campground associations are considering the development of both mobile-friendly sites and SmartPhone apps. I believe that a mobile-friendly site makes perfect sense; however, the development of dedicated apps for these associations makes little sense as I see it. I have already cited the expense of development (and don’t forget to double that expense because you will need to develop your app for both the iPhone and Android platforms) and the expense of promotion. Before one of these organizations takes that expensive plunge, there had better be a sound objective that will generate usage.

According to the recently released Special Report on Camping 2011, compiled by the Outdoor Foundation, over 50 percent of summer campers make their decisions more than a month in advance. Those making reservations for those trips book an average of 77 days in advance. Combine these statistics with the fact 70% of all mobile searches result in action within 1 hour, and you will begin to see the disconnect. SmartPhone users are generally looking to make a last-minute decision on where to camp this weekend, not weeks or months in advance. In the travel segment, this explains why some of the most popular mobile apps include Priceline, Kayak, TripAdvisor, Southwest Airlines, and Restaurant Finder. All of these apps are designed to alert flexible consumers of last-minute travel bargains. Of course, a campground association could present last-minute “unsold inventory” on their app, listing campsite and cabin vacancies prior to a holiday weekend, but the appeal will be limited. Most campers are loyal to a familiar campground or are at least looking to camp in a specific region of a state. Just because a site is available 100 miles away from their planned destination will not lead most people to be willing to make such a drastic change in their plans and preferences.

Regardless of your business or industry, before investing in a mobile app, give the concept a more careful analysis. Unlike that toy or power tool that you thought you couldn’t do without, but then ended up doing nothing more than taking up space in your garage, you are not going to be able to sell your SmartPhone apps at a yard sale or flea market. Unless there is a clear path to monetizing your investment, spend your money more wisely on something else.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

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