Should you build a mobile app first or a mobile friendly website?


This article was originally published on NCrypted.

Internet entrepreneurs know by now that the future of the web is mobile. But, that does not mean web is dead, and mobile simply does not mean only mobile applications as well. Is it better to get started first with a mobile optimized website or a mobile app rather? The debate, in most cases, is rhetorical.

But, what is right? What comes first? A mobile app or a mobile website?

The answer lies in your requirement and the type of audience and market you want to target your business to rather than going with vox populi.

Before we dig more into this, you may first want to check out this blog post on what is a mobile friendly website to understand what we mean when we say a mobile site and a mobile app.

Speed and Accessibility

A mobile app is faster, more interactive and can interact with all kinds of other phone features like accessing phone contacts, location services, camera etc which a website cannot. But the app must be installed to be of any use at all, while a good mobile site can simply be navigated from a mobile browser.

While the mobile app is comparatively faster, it has accessibility issues as it has to be installed first. Not only that, you will have to develop mobile applications for all popular mobile operating platforms such as iOS, Android, Windows, Blackberry and Symbian as just one app will get you limited accessibility.

On the other hand, a native mobile app can be accessed offline (without internet) as well while a mobile site always requires internet access.

What is more cost effective – mobile app or mobile site?

It’s typically cheaper to build or upgrade to a mobile site or a responsive website compared to building a mobile application. Not just that, mobile apps have platform dependency, so if you are talking about a mobile app, you will first need to decide whether you want an iOS app (for iPhone and iPad), an Android app, a Windows Mobile app, a Blackberry app or a Symbian app? If your budget is right, you will want to go with all of them just to make sure you don’t leave out users on other platforms.

But, in case you are having a budget constraint, launch your mobile site first.

Which one is more user friendly?

Mobile websites have static, navigational user interface while mobile apps can have interactive user interface. While responsive web design (RWD) approach on the other hand addresses and resolves much of the usability issues for a mobile-friendly website, mobile app definitely has an edge here as it is a native application and has better leverage.

This is the reason why there are better interactive games being developed as mobile apps rather than a web app. So if your startup is an interactive game, you would definitely want to launch it as a mobile app first.

Marketing point of view

Mobile site is a clear winner from marketing point of view as well and especially when you have systematic investment plan for your startup business. Let us look at some of the very fundamental marketing channels available today for your startup and see whether they make sense for your mobile app or mobile website:

  • Search Engine Optimization (A ‘go’ for a mobile site but not possible or doesn’t make sense for a mobile app, so the biggest ‘free’ platform of search engine traffic is available to you if you have a mobile website)
  • Search Engine Marketing – Paid (Again, doesn’t make sense to start marketing on Google Adwords about your mobile app, does it?)
  • Affiliate & Referral Marketing (Websites can leverage this channel better than mobile apps)
  • App Store (Consumers search on app stores on mobile devices so having a mobile app can be an advantage for this purpose, but again the odds are there in getting your app ranked for the ‘desired’ keywords)
  • Traditional Mass Media such as television, radio, newspaper etc. (Works for both the website and mobile app only if you have big pockets!)

So it turns out that a mobile-friendly website is a clear winner from marketing point of view as well unless you have sound marketing and advertising budget.

You get the ball rolling first with launching your website and then you can rely upon viral marketing once you’ve got word of mouth to launch your mobile app.

Understanding your project, your audience and target market segment first!

It is vital to understand your audience and target market first before anything else. For a mobile only startup such as WhatApp, Line, WeChat, it made sense to come up with just the mobile app for different mobile platforms. The reason was clear as these apps interact with other mobile features such as your phone contacts, dialer and in some cases, location services which is not possible for a website to do. A website, mobile-friendly or not, cannot interact with such phone’s in-built features.

On the other hand, for a corporate website of a company such as of IBM’s or Intel’s, it makes more sense to come up with a mobile-friendly website only and not a mobile app. Why would someone download your company’s app if they don’t have anything to do with it on a daily basis? A mobile app’s basic purpose is user interaction while leveraging phone features. So, a good idea would be to stay away from developing your mobile app if you don’t need to leverage any of the phone features with your mobile app in plan. Now, I mean to say, you don’t ‘need’ to and not ‘want’ to because you will, in most case, ‘want’ to do it anyway even if that doesn’t make sense! But then it would be a waste of your time and money.

The Conclusion – Website first or mobile app?

Well, unless you are a mobile-only startup, website first is the way to go! There are successful startups and businesses that have done this – they first launched their website (mobile-friendly, of course) and then came up with mobile apps on different platforms. There are many examples such as Google, Amazon, Flipkart, Alibaba, Airbnb etc. E-commerce websites and startups want to follow this strategy. Online marketplaces want to adapt this strategy as well. And if you are one of them, so do you.

Update: As per the recent news, Myntra, the first e-commerce site to go app-only, pilots to a mobile site now as their strategy to go app-only backfired!

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Kunal Pandya

Kunal is a serial entrepreneur, angel investor and startup evangelist. He has helped build and scale up several businesses and products from the ground up. Apart from NCrypted, he serves as an advisory and is on the board of several of our client companies that we partner with.

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