Marrying Apps with the Mobile Web

It's time to move past the native app versus mobile web debate.

A lot of digital ink has been spilled over the mobile web versus native app debate, but it's time to call a truce. The question is not which will win, but rather, how can businesses leverage both environments to provide a frictionless user experience centered on value?

It's unquestionable that consumers have embraced mobile apps. In 2015, mobile devices accounted for 62 percent of digital media time spent, according to comScore. Mobile apps on their own drove the majority of mobile usage at 54 percent. And app users are a loyal group. User activity is concentrated within a handful of an individual's most-frequented apps. Nearly 50 percent of all time spent on apps occurs within a user's most commonly used app. And about 8 out of every 9 minutes is spent among that user's top five apps.

If app users are selective and dedicated; mobile web audiences are the casual daters. Mobile web audiences are growing twice as fast as mobile app audiences, but as the size of the mobile web audience rises, the depth of engagement declines, comScore reports.

Savvy publishers understand that they can't approach apps and the mobile web as an either/or proposition. Both environments serve different needs. Instead, companies should "understand the context of what the customers' needs are and deliver the right content wherever the customer is, whether that's on an app or the web," notes Ray Wang, principal analyst and founder at Constellation Research.

The Dating Game
Amanda Richardson, vice president of product at Hotel Tonight, compares the mobile web and apps to dating. In 2010, Hotel Tonight launched a travel app that helps users find discounted hotel accommodations. While the app quickly gained traction, the company realized that to continue driving adoption rates, it also needed to reach consumers on mobile browsers.

"We launched a mobile web version last year because not everyone wants to immediately download an app and so this was a way for people to 'date us' before deciding if they wanted to commit to putting our app on their phone," Richardson explains.

Most visitors who find Hotel Tonight through the mobile browser are first-time users. They can browse through hotel listings and book a reservation on a mobile optimized site. But the company reserves advanced features such as a 24-7 chat feature with a travel concierge for its app. "We want to give people a reason to download our app especially since app users tend to be more engaged," Richardson says. "But the mobile web definitely plays an important role in reach and discovery."

Strive for Seamless Interactions
It's important to remember that most consumers "don't think in terms of whether they're using a mobile browser or an app-they just want it to work," says Phil Barrett, senior vice president at Purch, a technology content and commerce company that owns platforms like ShopSavvy.

However, the mobile web tends to get crippled by ads that slow down load times and clog up the user experience in comparison to an app's controlled environment. It's not a surprise that the mobile web has been bypassed by apps and companies like Apple and Facebook, whichhave built their own versions of the web with proprietary publishing tools inside their platforms.

But advances in technology are closing the gap between apps and the mobile web. Google, for instance, recently launched Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP), an open-source project that is designed to speed up the mobile web.

Google claims that pages built with AMP will load approximately four times faster and use 10 times less data than non-AMP pages. AMP pages load content first, followed by the ads, and the pages that publishers create for AMP are preloaded on Google's AMP Cache servers to further reduce lag time. Additionally, AMP limits advertising and analytics to give users a better reading experience, according to Google.

Barrett agreed that delivering content faster on the mobile web "could be good for everyone" but more work is need to provide a truly seamless experience that links apps with the mobile web. "Recognizing users across the web and an app is still difficult to do unless that user registers with you," Barrett notes. "From there you can personalize the experience and create more value for the user, but getting over that first hump of having people register can be challenging."

Making it clear "what's in it for them" in exchange for creating an online account with your company is important, Barrett says. Offering additional perks like discounts, customized offers, and being able to check on the status of your order, can help drive registrants, for example.

Listen to the Customer
Web experiences increasingly go hand-in-hand with mobile, agrees Nancy Hua, co-founder and CEO of Apptimize, a mobile app optimization firm whose clients include Hotel Tonight. At the same time, companies shouldn't assume that they have to do everything at the same time. A smarter approach is to clarify their objectives and then match their mobile marketing strategies to those objectives.

"Deciding whether to focus on an app or web experience depends on your priorities," Hua says. "Do you want to retain the customer for a while and drive reengagement? Then you should invest in the mobile app experience. But if you just want to create an entry point to your brand and have people read articles, for example, you're better off working on the web experience."

Indeed, focusing on the customer relationship is essential, adds Leeyen Rogers, vice president of marketing at JotForm, which offers digital form-building tools. Founded in 2006, one of the lessons that the company learned was the importance of growing with its customers, Rogers says. Understanding what customers are looking for helps determine how quickly the company needs to move in adding new features or channels to its user experience.

"Once you've built an engaging mobile Web experience, the next step is usually to provide dedicated users with more features and services through an app," Rogers notes. "But don't build an app until you have a customer base that's ready for it. Creating excitement for the app with upcoming announcements and sneak peeks can also increase your app's success."

Although mobile experiences are a critical part of many businesses, there isn't one right way to create an experience that drives greater ROI and customer retention. But starting with the customers' expectations and needs will help ensure companies are on the right track.