Going Mobile - Websites vs Apps

This post also appears as part of the Arts Marketing Blog Salon hosted by Americans for the Arts.

During last week's Arts Marketing Blog Salon, Mary Trudel advocated connecting with audiences via mobile technology. CTIA, the international association for the wireless telecommunications industry, recently revealed that mobile phone market penetration in the United States reached 93% for the nation’s total population in June 2010. With usage numbers like that, there is no doubt that arts organizations should be investing in mobile engagement.

Amazon can afford to have both an app and a mobile site.  But which should choose if your budget is more limited?
Amazon can afford to have both an app and a mobile site. But which should you choose if your budget is more limited?

The dilemma lies in whether to invest in a mobile website or a mobile application. If your organization’s budget allows you to invest in both, then you need not read any further. Congrats! However, if your organization’s budget dictates that you choose between investing in a mobile website or a mobile app, then here are some things to consider.

User base: While 93% of U.S. residents have mobile phones, the U.S. market penetration for smartphones is 31%. This means that 62% of the U.S. population uses mobile phones for which they cannot download mobile applications.

Connectivity: Whereas mobile websites require users to be connected to the internet, many mobile applications do not require an internet connection once they have been downloaded to your smartphone. This may be important for patrons who are trying to engage with your organization but are in an area where wireless service is not available.

Platforms: Mobile websites are accessible from all types of mobile devices. Mobile apps, however, are tied to specific types of devices.  For example, a patron with an Android smartphone cannot use a mobile app designed for an iPhone.  Now, you may be saying to yourself, “Yes, but iPhones are the most popular smartphones on the market, so we should just design apps for iPhones.”  If so, then you will be surprised to learn that Blackberry has 31% of the U.S. smartphone market share compared to the iPhone’s 28% and Android’s 19% according to The Nielsen Company.

Price: Mobile websites are less expensive than mobile apps, because they usually lack the design elements and functionality that make mobile apps interactive and appealing.

Expectations: What do your patrons want from their mobile experience? Have you asked them? If your patrons simply want information (hours, directions, descriptions of work, etc.), then a mobile website is entirely sufficient. If you are looking to provide your patrons with an interactive, one-of-a-kind mobile experience, then you’ll need an app for that.

In a recent New York Times article, Edward Rothstein took a look at a number of mobile apps developed by museums and concluded:

I have used museum apps to help me navigate museums. But I have generally felt used along the way, forced into rigid paths, looking at minimalist text bites, glimpsing possibilities while being thwarted by realities… It is best to consider all these apps flawed works in progress.

In a response to Rothstein’s article, Brooklyn Museum’s Chief Technology Officer Shelley Bernstein shared:

I had mixed feelings about the article – I mostly agree that these apps all leave much to be desired, but I disagree that we shouldn’t be trying. Experimentation without perfection is a good thing…Each and every visitor walking in our doors is likely to expect something different from an app, and every visitor is going to respond differently to what we provide. My point is that it is our responsibility, collectively, to try new approaches and provide as many entry points into content and the museum as possible.

So, mobile website or mobile app? Personally, I believe that a mobile website should be phase one in any arts organization’s mobile engagement plan. Okay, I hear you asking, “Why? Won’t the phone’s browser just show my desktop website?” The best way to answer that question is to try it.

Go ahead. Take out your phone. Go to the menu, and select the internet option. At the prompt, enter your organization’s web address. Try it on several different devices. You will quickly notice that your standard website looks unusable on every phone. The one exception to this may be an iPhone, but even it will require the user to point, pinch and slide their way to your information.

<em>Even if you have an iPhone, standard websites are not as user-friendly as mobile sites.</em>
Even if you have an iPhone, standard websites are not as easy to navigate as mobile sites.

Mobile websites are designed and optimized with the mobile user in mind. They cut to the chase and present content that is relevant for mobile users. They present the content in a way that is optimized for mobile phone screens. But most importantly, mobile websites allow your patrons to access pertinent web content from any mobile device – not just an iPhone.

Still not convinced that your arts organization needs a mobile website? Morgan Stanley’s global technology research team recently released a report projecting that mobile internet usage will surpass desktop internet usage in 2014. If you do not have a mobile website, then the steadily increasing number of internet users who attempt to access your information via mobile devices will get the wrong content, presented in the wrong order, with a slow and costly download, and with an ill-adapted layout.

Don’t let this happen to your patrons. Even if you do not have room in your budget for a custom-designed mobile site, there are a number of resources available for converting your current website into a mobile-friendly site.