By the close of 2015, the amount of time adults spent consuming digital media on mobile devices had significantly surpassed desktop time: 51 percent of total digital media time today is spent via mobile compared to 42 percent via desktop.
With smartphone use expanding exponentially, plenty of experts have been sounding the death knell of the traditional desktop website for some time. But as Americans’ digital habits continue to evolve, questions remain about which mobile-first platform is more important for businesses: the mobile app, or the mobile website?
App Popularity vs. App Use: There’s a Difference
Broadly, apps earn a lot more play in the public consciousness than mobile websites – in part because almost 90 percent of mobile internet time is spent in apps. Yet while some reports say that consumers use mobile apps six times more than the mobile web, data suggests otherwise.
Morgan Stanley research has characterized the browser as the “ultimate mobile app.” According to its analysis of comScore data, “U.S. mobile browser audiences are two times larger than app audiences across the top 50 mobile web properties and have grown 1.2 times faster over the past three years.”
In addition, Morgan Stanely’s findings show that only 12 of the top 50 mobile properties have more traffic coming from apps than a web browser. That aligns with other trends: 2014 comScore research showed that Americans now download less than a single app per month. A 2015 report found that users spend four out of five smartphone minutes in their top three apps alone. More recently, even highly popular apps like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Instagram saw a 20% decline in downloads in May 2016 compared to the year prior.
Too Many Apps? Or Too Little Value?
The rise of mobile web consumption seems to be consumers’ response to the glut in mobile apps. As Walt Mossberg has written in the Verge, “people have app fatigue” now that we’ve reached the era of “peak app.”
Does that mean apps on the way out? Hardly. Rather, it seems the shift is about value: Does a consumer find the services of an app worthwhile enough download and use it consistently? For many brands, the answer is no.
Mobile device users always gravitate first to their favorite, most useful mobile apps – making it difficult for new apps to stand out and earn consistent traffic if they provide only low-value features. Alternatively, it’s easier for brands to build large audiences on the mobile web. Apps apps earn (on average) 3.3 million monthly unique visitors and mobile sites earn 8.9 million.
Bottom line: Apps are About Utility, Engagement, Relevance
All that said, apps remain highly valuable for brands that are inherently capable of driving meaningful, frequent interactions with their users. Apps must deliver engaging experiences that differ from the value provided on their other platforms. As blogger Luke Wroblewski puts it, “the web is for audience reach” whereas “native apps are for rich experiences.”
Which mobile platform is most important for your business? Consider the nature of your business-customer relationships across several different elements.
Frequency: How often do your most valuable mobile customers engage with your brand? The answer may gauge how important the app is to your end consumer. A frequent exerciser may interact almost daily with her gym or fitness studio, but she’ll likely interact far less with the mobile properties of the brand where she buys her workout gear (and likely wouldn’t feel the need to have the retailer’s app on her phone as much as the other, even though she’s a high-value customer of both).
Benefit: The retailer’s app might be much more valuable to a gym-goer if it provided unique benefits to its mobile web property. That’s where personalization comes into play; if an app delivers the end user promotions based on usage, preferences, or cross-marketing opportunities that are unavailable elsewhere, it’s more likely to see action.
Connectivity: If you need to provide offline access to your brand’s content or deliver functions to your users instantaneously (even when they aren’t connected to the internet), an app is a must-have. But if more of your traffic is driven through clicks from other websites, you may be wise to prioritize the delivery of an excellent mobile web experience.