Native App Vs. Mobile Web: Not A Simple Choice

Unless your app truly is a special snowflake, think long and hard about adding it to the pile -- lest it get buried.
In e-business, one of the most critical strategy decisions involves making the most of customers' mobile devices. Depending on your industry, it's likely you'll see as much or more traffic from smartphones and tablets as you will from PCs, so getting this right is important.

How high are the stakes? InformationWeek recently polled almost 900 people involved in their organizations' mobile commerce strategies about business benefits and heard about everything from ability to engage customers via fine-tuned marketing to reaching new demographics to opening entirely new channels, like "flash" sale sites.

Unfortunately, people seem convinced that the only way to grab these benefits is to go build a native app. In the m-commerce survey, 52% have smartphone apps and 41% have tablet apps, but only 33% maintain mobile-specific e-commerce sites.

You should think long and hard before you follow that path. Specifically, there had better be something substantial in it for customers or they won't use your app, regardless of how shiny it is or how much you want them to.

Even back in mid-2011, a Pew study found that people had a lot of apps they never used clogging up their mobile devices. It also found that a good number of folks simply don't download apps. Maybe they worry about security or being tracked or just can't be bothered. Whatever the reason, if you pin all of your mobile hopes on an app, you'll by design cut yourself off from at least some potential users.

And the fate of apps is just as precarious for heavy-duty users of mobile devices as for people who don't download for whatever reason. When iOS 7 came out, it needed 5 GB to install itself. If you're a big hoarder of apps, pictures, music or video, chances are your iPhone or iPad didn't have a free 5 GB. My iPad didn't. So what do you do? Not delete your pictures or music, cloud backups notwithstanding. You start dumping all the space-hogging apps that you rarely use. In my case, I even ended up discarding some apps I did use, just because they took a lot of space and I knew I could use the mobile website just as easily.

The moral of the story, at least to this point, is that even if you have a mobile app strategy, it can't be a substitute for a mobile website strategy. I promise you that a good number of your potential customers will eschew your app for your website, and if that experience isn't good -- well, some competitor will be willing to offer a better one.

So just how high should the bar be set for when to create a mobile app? If you can't offer the user a truly meaningful advantage with an app, stick to the Web. Walgreens struggled with its mobile app until it hit on using the mobile device's camera to capture bar codes on prescriptions to simplify refills. Likewise, Bank of America reduced the need for trips to the ATM by allowing customers to deposit checks simply by photographing the front and back of the check with a mobile device. What will you do for me?

One big mobile content provider that decided to veer away from the app route is the BBC. It has an app that's extremely popular in Britain, accounting for as much as 50% of the mobile video downloads there. But after piloting apps in 16 other countries (not including the U.S.), the company decided to stick to a mobile Web strategy as part of its new 200 million pound ($320 million) investment in premium content that calls for making the single digital route to all BBC content. Its reasoning? With YouTube on one side as a path to free content and Netflix on the other delivering premium content, it saw little room for its own app.

Why spend all that money on what would amount to a bit player outside of Britain?

Not only does the BBC think it will get more viewers by eschewing the app route, it sees a single digital path as a benefit for advertisers, which will gain a more straightforward view of BBC advertising options.

So before commissioning an app, ask, what's the showstopping differentiating feature that's going to keep our app front and center for users? Here's a hint: If most of your traffic comes from Google Search or Google News (or Bing or Yahoo), creating an app for your e-business is probably exactly the wrong thing to do.