Ten years ago, debates raged over whether or not small businesses needed websites. These days, an online presence is a given, and the heat is on to provide an intuitive mobile experience. However, optimizing your website for smartphones is only half the battle. Depending on the product or service your business provides, a standalone mobile app may be more functional than a website.

 
The Differences between a Mobile Site and an App
 
A mobile-optimized site is a website like any other that’s accessed from a mobile Web browser, but it’s typically optimized for a smaller screen with limited bandwidth and designed to be navigated with just one thumb.
 
A mobile app is a native program that runs on a user’s mobile device. Unlike a mobile website, an app can leverage all the functions and sensors on a user’s smartphone, including location services, the camera, the accelerometer, and push notifications. Mobile apps typically run faster, too, because there’s more limited and optimized interaction between the server and the device.
 
While a mobile app certainly has advantages, it isn’t the best choice for every small business. If you’re unsure which you need, ask yourself the following questions:
 
How Do Your Customers Interact?
 
When deciding whether you need to create a mobile site or an app, consider how your customers want to interact with your business. Customers may only visit your website to find basic information (such as an address or phone number), or they may want to access their account or check an order status.
 
A mobile-optimized site works well for a restaurant that simply wants to showcase its menu online, and listings on third-party review sites, such as Yelp, can provide more value than a branded app. But if you want to provide something unique, such as an interactive menu with the ability to purchase recipes to make at home, an app may be a better option.
 
Will You See a Return on Investment?
 
Web design isn’t cheap, but it’s much less expensive to build a mobile-optimized site than to build, test, launch, and market an app. Consider what functionality you really need, as well as the return on investment you’ll see.
 
Although it would be nice if customers could upload a picture of their insurance information through your shop’s mobile app when making an appointment, building a working app that actually connects to each device’s camera or GPS can be a complicated (and pricey) endeavor. If an app doesn’t improve your brand by bringing in customers or revenue, a mobile-friendly site may be a better option.
 
Does an App Deliver Value?
 
Keep in mind that you’re always selling yourself and your brand to customers and potential customers. If you’re releasing a glitch-ridden app, it will reflect poorly on your business. You may be the best lumberyard in the business, but if your app doesn’t make it easy for contractors to browse your inventory and place an order, what incentive do they have to download it? A native app should deliver some unique value to customers that cannot be easily delivered in a mobile website.
 
Marketing Costs Money
 
Apps can be a great form of marketing, but they’re also products that need marketing. Promoting an app in an app store ecosystem is different than optimizing a website for search; major search engines like Google and Bing follow the same general protocol, while platforms like Apple’s App Store and Google Play all have unique requirements and challenges. Not only will an app need to be developed and maintained for each platform, but the marketing costs expand. If you don’t have the capital and resources available to properly launch an app, a mobile site may be the way to go.
 
The decision between a mobile-friendly website and an app is one every business faces these days. Selecting the best approach is important because your customer’s experience on your website translates to your brand. A poor mobile experience is a poor experience with your business, while a fun, easy, and helpful mobile site or app will make your customers more likely to return.
 
Is your business using a mobile app in a unique way?
 

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