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App vs. Mobile Site: When to Focus on Each

With over five billion unique mobile users worldwide as of 2019, we know mobile is an extremely relevant and fast-growing marketing channel. But, when users are on their phones and click through an email or notification, they’re usually sent to one of two places—your mobile site or your mobile app. 

We wanted to better understand if there’s a situation in which sending users to a mobile site is better than an app, or vice versa. Why do some brands pick one over the other? Why do some brands have both? 

It’s important you look at both mediums as potential engagement tools, see when each is applicable to your brand, and understand how you can optimize each to create a seamless customer experience.

How Do Users Access an App vs. Mobile Site?

One of the biggest differences in an app vs. mobile site is how users are accessing each. 

Mobile sites are accessed using a web browser (Chrome, Safari, etc.) on a mobile device. These sites are (hopefully) built using responsive design—a web page layout that is formatted to adjust to a variety of screen sizes. So, if the user were to switch from desktop to tablet to smartphone, the site may show a different amount of information, depending on the screen size. 

Mobile apps, on the other hand, are built specifically for mobile devices. Users download them from “app stores” and the applications are then installed on their smartphones, tablets, etc. Responsive design isn’t required because the applications are built specifically for certain screen sizes with the intention that they’ll be accessed from one location.

App vs. Mobile Site: Target

This image shows Target’s 1) app, 2) mobile site, and 3) desktop site. Source: 5 Ways to Improve Mobile App Engagement.

In the example above, from Target, you can see the information on all three locations is the same, but how users access each version of this information is different.

Why Apps Are Effective

Apps are killing it. In 2020 alone there were 218 billion mobile app downloads, a 7% increase from 2019. As the industry continues to grow, more and more brands have turned towards mobile apps to engage their audiences. Plus having your logo living on customers’ homes screens creates stickiness and familiarity with new or existing users.

Through an app, users can create an account, select their communication preferences, and, if it’s an ecommerce app, choose their shopping preferences. Then, because the application lives on their device, users can access their accounts without having to repeatedly sign in, removing friction for the user.

Plus, brands can use this account data, combined with app engagement metrics, to serve their audience unique, custom content. Apps improve customer engagement by allowing brands to easily collect data to segment users and deliver unique content and experiences based on those segments.

Not only is access to customer data made easier via a mobile app, but it widens the array of capabilities your brand has access to. When a user has a mobile app (and opts-in to notifications), you can send personalized push notifications and in-app messaging, which you wouldn’t be able to do if users were only accessing a mobile site. Plus, mobile apps open the door to the integration of native mobile functions like cameras, microphones, and GPS.

In addition to data collection and hardware integration, another reason apps are becoming increasingly popular is the difference in functionality, outside of what a mobile site can do. Wishlists, for example, are saved and revisited by users within an app and therefore lead to an average of 27.7 sessions per user. When combined with an additional feature, stories (short form, real-time videos that combine user-generated content and brand content), this increases to 32.4 sessions per user.

Mobile apps seem to take care of the needs of both the brand and the customer, so when should a brand use a mobile site?

When to Use Mobile Sites

Yes, mobile apps are becoming more popular, but mobile sites are far from dead. Remember, to use a mobile app, a user has to actively find the app in an app store and install it, while a mobile site can be accessed through a browser that’s likely already installed on a user’s device. There’s less friction when it comes to accessing a brand’s content through a mobile site, but more friction when it comes to checking out because of unsaved data. 

So, it boils down to how users will be using your content once they access it. If your goal isn’t ecommerce, a mobile site could suffice. For example, if you’re only looking to share content, you probably wouldn’t need a mobile app. In fact, because in-app content isn’t easily crawlable by browsers, it wouldn’t show up in search results. This a big deal considering mobile devices account for 63% of all Google searches

In addition to ease of access and SEO, mobile site maintenance and budgetary factors are considerably lighter than those of an app, requiring less time and resources of your development and marketing teams.

There are different use-cases for mobile apps vs. mobile sites. The combination, however, could prove to be the most beneficial.

The Best of Both Worlds

Marketing is grounded in the ability to make sense of customer behavior, so your marketing team should take a flexible approach when it comes to mobile engagement. We’ve established that with a wider reach across a variety of platforms, mobile sites can generate more traffic at a lower cost. We’ve also noted that ecommerce brands looking to convert mobile users may want to use a mobile app to collect customer data. 

Ultimately, however, the two can work together to create a cross-channel experience that drives both growth and engagement at scale in meaningful ways for your brand. Mobile sites are great for distributing top-of-funnel traffic. This could be users Googling your brand for the first time or conducting initial research. Apps, on the other hand, are for mid- and bottom-of-the-funnel content. Users are more likely to convert through a mobile app vs. mobile site because of the data that’s saved within the app. 

At the end of the day, the focus shifts from mobile app vs. mobile site to how users are engaging with your brand. Once customer needs are established, the choice between a mobile channel, or launching both a mobile site and mobile app, should become more clear. 

To learn more about how to create a cross-channel mobile experience using both a mobile app and a mobile site, schedule an Iterable demo today.

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