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Apps and The Mobile Web: What should you prioritise?

Both apps and mobile websites have become increasingly important ways for companies – particularly retailers – to connect with people. However, while there have been good arguments put forward for the benefits of both sides – there has been little cold hard data to really compare how many people are engaging across each channel, nor has there been much analysis of user behaviour within them. So how do mobile apps compare to the mobile web?

New research published by Nielsen is hopefully the beginning of an increase in insight into both apps and the mobile web. The data focuses on the 2011 holiday season in the US and saw that, combined, both apps and mobile websites reached nearly 60% of smartphone users – around 58m people (judging by Edison’s most recent count of the number US people with these devices).

However, looking at apps and mobile websites separately, there is a considerable difference between the penetration of each. During December, mobile websites reached 51% of smartphone users (nearly 50m people) compared to apps which topped out at 28% (around 27m people). This shows mobile websites taking quite a big lead with US shoppers buying Christmas presents, reaching almost twice as many consumers.

Judging by mobile user behaviour in the US, there is clearly more value to be attributed to focusing on mobile web rather than developing an app. After all, a well-designed website that is compatible for web can potentially reach the entire connected smartphone audience, while certain apps are developed with certain devices – such as iPhone or Android – in mind.

For developers such as ourselves, there are a growing array of tools and frameworks helping us design websites for increasingly mobile-orientated web users. Bootstrap is an open source project engineered by Twitter which has evolved to accommodate major browsers across PC, tablets and smartphones. Additionally, Skeleton is a small collection of CSS & JS files that can help us rapidly develop sites that look beautiful at any size, be it a 17″ laptop screen or an iPhone.

For businesses who are looking at campaigns which have to include one or the other, the latest word from Nielsen looks to favour developing a decent mobile website instead of an app. However, further analysis into the data reveals some interesting behavioural trends which we shouldn’t ignore, including that US men are slightly more likely to try mobile apps than women – and those who do use mobile apps spend more time browsing than those using mobile websites. Surely, the battle is not over yet, and if it’s engagement with your brand you really want to push then perhaps a fully-fledged app is still the way to go. But for reach alone, a mobile website is likely to be seen by many more potential consumers.

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