I hear this question a lot from business owners and SMB marketers. Several companies have recently started offering mobile application development services for small businesses. While the quality of the app design and experiences appears to widely differ, one thing that is constant is that nearly all of these solutions create a mobile website that is then wrapped inside of a native app. This approach is generally referred to as a hybrid app. There are a lot of pros and cons associated with this type of mobile development, but that is for another day. Today I will focus on the key differentiator between mobile web sites and native mobile applications that someone concerned about marketing for a SMB should consider; Discoverability.
In order to better understand the concept of mobile discovery, we need to think about how we search for things on our smartphones. If you are like most people, the first time you search for something on your smartphone you enter the query into the search field on your device’ s browser. You may use a mobile app or site like Google or Superpages, but most people simply search from their mobile browser. Most smartphone owners search for local information and nearly all of those called visited or somehow engaged with what they found within 24 hours.
Search engines, like Google and Bing, have specific bots for crawling over content designed for viewing on mobile phones. Mobile websites can be crawled, and indexed, by search engines for content authority. So, many of the same principles in SEO and SEM my colleagues Keith Brown and Jonathan Larkin blog about apply here.
Mobile Applications, on the other hand, are discovered while browsing inside their respective app markets. With over 650,000 apps in the iTunes App store and an estimated 600,000 in the Google Play store it is nearly impossible for all but large brands app to get noticed. In other words in such a crowed market only the people searching for that specific app would probably be able to find and download it.
Initial mobile discovery is the primary advantage a mobile site has over an application at this time. Once a business has a good mobile site in place, then a business could consider adding an app to their marketing mix. However, I recommend that the application needs to offer unique features, beyond the mobile site experience, that drives deeper levels of consumer engagement with the business.
From a development point of view here is a nice infographic on the topic.
In summary, I recommend a 1-2 approach:
Mobile Sites for Discovery then Mobile Apps for Engagement