Mobile Web May Be More Widely Used, But Apps Can Do What The Web Can't

That delicate mobile-commerce balance between apps and the mobile Web became a little clearer on Monday (March 12), when a new Nielsen study found that almost 60 percent of smartphone users connected with the top five E-tailers during the peak holiday selling season, and the mobile Web was twice as popular as apps. But most of those customers used either apps or the mobile Web—not both.

It's more evidence that customers use apps and the mobile Web differently. And if you don't leverage that difference, you could lose a sizable portion of your M-Commerce customers.

The Nielsen survey, which involved metering the smartphones of 5,000 volunteers, tracked whether those participants connected with Amazon, eBay, Wal-Mart, Best Buy and Target. Not surprisingly, both app and mobile Web use went up in November, peaked in December at 59 percent, and then fell back in January to 52 percent.

The mobile Web was used by about twice as many people as apps for connecting with E-tailers, which caused Nielsen's analysts to declare that smartphone owners "prefer retailers' mobile Web sites over mobile apps."

But the reality is more complicated, according to Nielsen's numbers. About 7 or 8 percent of smartphone users are die-hard app users—they apparently don't use the mobile Web at all. Another roughly 30 percent only use the mobile Web. Only about 18 percent use both apps and the Web.

That suggests E-tailers still haven't figured out that apps and mobile Web sites should let customers do different things. An app shouldn't just package the Web site experience in a box—what's the point of that? It should be designed to do something well that the mobile Web site can't do as well—or can't do at all.

Some big E-tailers seem to have backed into that without realizing it. Amazon's iPhone app, for example, is fine for making purchases, but only if a customer knows exactly what he wants to buy. But when it's time to search for a product, that's easier to do in a mobile Web browser.

That explains why a customer might use both apps and the Web. But why so many Web-only users? One reason is that the Web comes free—no iTunes, no downloads, no complications (at least as long as the mobile site renders correctly on the mobile browser). That means a single site (with the obligatory tweaks for each major browser) can reach virtually all mobile users.

Another reason: Sites are inevitably easier to upgrade than apps.Another reason: Sites are inevitably easier to upgrade than apps. A Web site fix or improvement just has to be developed and tested, and then go live. An app, on the other hand, has to be developed, tested, and then sent to the app store, where it may be vetted by the store's owner, could be rejected and will go live on an unpredictable schedule. Then it has to be downloaded by customers, who may or may not get around to it.

And all that extra work has to be done for each version of the app. No wonder BlackBerry and Windows Mobile users are stuck with the Web, and apps that merely mirror what a Web site does are always a generation behind the current site.

But for retailers, an app naturally does at least one thing better than the Web: It blocks out the competition. The mobile Web makes it easy for customers to jump around and visit the competition—it's like being in a mall on roller skates. A retailer's app, on the other hand, puts a customer firmly in a single store, and the retailer can control the customer experience almost completely. That may explain why Nielsen found app users spent more time at each store. In an app, there are fewer distractions.

That's probably not enough differentiation to make apps worth the trouble for most users, though. An app really needs to do something that makes it worth the trouble. Pizza chains have figured that out—they've made a priority of putting ordering capability into apps. You can order a pizza through the mobile site, but the app makes it much easier.

But purchasing isn't the only function apps might deliver on better than mobile Web sites. With ever-increasing processor power in smartphones, a walk-through virtual store becomes practical. That's never going to be as smooth and effective on a mobile site as it is within an app that is completely under the retailer's control.

Or maybe the app could leverage its ability to tap into the phone's location, motion sensors and camera—things a Web site can't count on being there—to provide in-store-like makeovers or, in the case of chains with lots of locations, make use of geofencing for coupons that are good for very limited periods. (Related story: Gap's Geofencing Trial Merely The Appetizer Before The Purchase History Entrée)

Of course, if there's really nothing special your app can do, it's probably not worth the trouble. Remember, only about 8 percent of those Nielsen smartphone users were app-only users. The rest used the mobile Web at least some of the time.

But pulling customers in and blocking out the competition is what apps do best. And as long as you can find something compelling that the app can do, it's likely to be worth the effort.