Transformation towards mobile: site or app?

If you don’t have a mobile strategy you don’t have a future strategy. In advanced countries the average household already uses an average of three or more connected devices. Mobile is not just an extension of your desktop site. People use different devices on different moments and with different purposes. On top of that, mobile devices offer many more tools to bring your brand to life, like for instance the motion sensors, the camera or the touch screen and of course the use of location based information. To make most out of mobile you need to think ‘mobile 1st’. And of course there is the question: should I build a mobile site or an app?

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In developed digital countries, households use an average of three or more connected devices

The mobile consumer
More than 80% of mobile time is spent in apps, however about two thirds of that time goes to the top ten apps. That means it is very hard to claim a place for your app within the daily routines of smartphone users. About 60% of all apps have never been downloaded and on average 95% of the downloaded apps are abandoned within one month. However, if we focus on commercial tasks (buying products and purchase orientation) only 6% of the time goes towards apps, 66% of the time goes towards websites and 28% goes towards combined use of apps and website. Based on these insights, most companies basically benefit from making a mobile site first.

What role does mobile have in your strategy?
The figure below summarizes which types of companies would be recommended to go for app first, site first or building both an app and mobile site.

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Only if you have a business model that is app centric like Uber or Hotel Tonight does it make sense to start with an app before your mobile site. Also if you really need to use capabilities that mobile sites cannot offer an app could be preferred. Examples of advantages of an app are customer loyalty (with push notifications and easier access than mobile websites), speed and ease of use (including faster load times and easier payments) an expanded functionality (for example offline access, saved credit card details, use of camera or scanner, save coupons, etcetera). Disadvantages are higher development costs (you for instance need to build one app for iOS and one for Android), risk of low repeat-usage and difficulty in updating. All changes to apps must be delivered through updates; users who do not update your app will not see any changes. To decide between those trade-offs you need to be conscious about the place mobile has in your strategy. The figure below shows examples of key objectives your mobile site or app could have.

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The transformation challenge of mobile
The figure below was taken from the 2015 report from Mary Meeker. It illustrates in compelling way that advertisers are lagging in embracing mobile, while still overinvesting in traditional print media.

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Companies often hesitate to invest substantially in their mobile site because conversions aren’t as on strong as on their desktop site. Having a mobile site is not the same as being mobile optimized though. Desktop sites have been optimized for years with ongoing A/B test, hence it is very unlikely a mobile site is gonna perform equally well after one or even a few iterations. However, companies that really invest in optimizing their mobile site often find mobile converts equal to desktop or sometimes even better.

The measurement challenge of mobile
There is also a measurement challenge for mobile: consumers often start their consumer journey on their smartphone and then may end up buying on desktop. Most measurement systems are not capable of tracking conversions across screens. Because of that the role of smartphones in driving conversions is structurally underestimated. Developments are moving fast though. Universal Analytics is an upgrade from Google Analytics and offers more capabilities for cross device measurement by allowing an advertiser to provide their own unique identifier that can help tracking behavior across devices. That can for instance be achieved by getting visitors to log in on your site. If users log in on your site and you implement that identifier in Universal Analytics you’ll have access to more advanced cross device reporting like for instance the cross-device-path-reporting. Given the importance of cross screen behavior, cross screen measurement is likely to become better over time. For now however, you’ll need to accept the fact that cross device measurement isn’t as perfect as you’d like and instead of that focus on the fact that consumers are going mobile fast and that they need to have a strong cross screen experience if you are to win the future.

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Cross-Device Path Reporting in Google Universal Analytics

If you want to get started to get the basics right in designing your site for mobile, check out the mobile playbook from Google:

This blog is based on the book “Online Brand Identity: the ultimate guide to designing your (digital) branding strategy” by Joris Merks-Benjaminsen, ( The book covers various topics related to this article, including:

  • Making most out of mobile for branding
  • Thinking mobile first
  • Cross screen measurement