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Businesses are becoming increasingly aware of the need to establish a mobile presence. In fact, the statistics indicate that taking a business mobile may be one of the most profitable methods of customer engagement possible in the near future. But what does going mobile entail, and more basically, what does it look like? It turns out there are numerous methods to take a business mobile. In fact, most businesses have (perhaps inadvertently) baked in some elements of a mobile presence through their activities on popular social sites or other forms of customer communication.

Still, when we refer to a true mobile presence, we are implying a direct link to your business itself, not a page on Facebook or a Twitter profile. With those constraints in mind, there are really three forms of a mobile presence: A full website accessed through a mobile browser, a mobile-optimized website, and a mobile app. As you might expect, there are varying levels of value and functionality for each.

A little over a year ago we discussed three ways to establish a mobile presence. This is a closer look at each of the options, so you can get a better understanding of the differences.

The Full Website Through a Mobile Browser

This is absolutely the most basic form of a mobile presence. Essentially, this is just the same version of your website that people would access from their desktop. It is also the most “convenient” form of web presence, in the sense that you don’t have to actually do anything. Further, it would be wrong to imply that such a presence is useless. People can still access your pages and even interact with your site in basic ways.

Still, the drawbacks are present and in some cases severe. First, traditional web design is meant to be viewed on a relatively large monitor, meaning that something that looks great at full-size may look crowded, confusing or difficult to decipher on a small smartphone screen. Further, there are numerous elements regularly used in websites that just won’t work on certain mobile devices *cough* Flash on iPhones and iPads *cough*. Finally, this type of presence does not capitalize on any of the unique capabilities of smartphones. You can not send or receive direct notifications, detect motion, or leverage location-aware capabilities. Therefore, while a full website through a mobile browser is not a death sentence for your business by any stretch of the imagination, it is not a particularly effective mobile engagement tool.

The Mobile-Optimized Website

A mobile-optimized website addresses several of the user interface issues of the full-website viewed through a web browser. Most importantly, it detects when users are trying to access a website with a mobile device and automatically shifts the design to one formatted for mobile. This helps to clear up confusion and often increases both ease of navigation and aesthetic quality. Finally, the mobile-optimized website is relatively easy to “build.” Some services will even automatically render an existing website into a mobile-optimized version for a small fee.

However, a mobile-optimized site is ultimately a layer placed over an existing website to mask interface problems. This is definitely a step in the right direction, but doesn’t address a fundamental problem of relying on a browser to deliver a mobile experience: it doesn’t take full advantage of smartphone capabilities. Ultimately, a mobile-optimized website serves its purpose as a front-facing customer information channel. However, if you really want to engage with customers you are going to need more functionality.

The Mobile App

Mobile apps might appear very similar to mobile optimized websites at first glance, because they often share similar navigation and design elements. Static content, such as lists of menu items and “About Us” pages will also be almost identical. The major difference comes in the interactive elements a mobile app can afford. If you want to be able to send messages directly to customers smartphones through push notification (thus avoiding email clutter and SMS fees), facilitate the purchase of products and services right from a customer’s smartphone, and integrate with smartphone hardware such as a camera, then the mobile app is the way to go.

Of course, there are some downsides to the mobile app as well. In terms of cost and development time, apps have traditionally been much more expensive compared to mobile-optimized websites. They also require more attention from a business, as stagnant apps are likely to be deleted from customer phones. However, recent developments in software that allow you to build an app yourself do alleviate these issues a great deal, making development time and cost very competitive with the mobile-website optimization.

These are the three ways to establish a mobile presence on a customer’s phone. Clearly, the mobile app offers the greatest customer engagement and direct-sales potential, but the mobile-optimized site does offer some advantages.

Which of these options have you explored for your own business? Have you been engaging in a mobile strategy or have you been holding back?

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