The rise of the smartphone has initiated nothing short of a media revolution. As stated in Content Science Review’s 2016 Mobile Fact Sheet, more than 64% of American adults own a smartphone. And when we’re on our smartphones, apps are taking more of our attention, accounting for 89% of Americans’ mobile media time.

As user experience professionals, we’ve worked hard to argue for the importance of prioritizing digital channels—specifically websites—to our traditional organizations. Then, as responsive web technologies became more prominent, we lectured our peers and stakeholders on building websites to be “mobile-first,” or responsive.

Keeping in mind that responsive sites are still a goal for many organizations, mobile apps have us and our co-workers asking an important new question: Should our organization build a mobile app?

This conundrum can puzzle even user experience and content professionals. The reality is that, while all organizations need a responsive site, not all need a mobile app. But in those cases when a mobile app makes sense, it can be a super-effective way to engage users.

Let’s take a closer look at the reasons to build a responsive website and a mobile app.

Responsive Website: The Front Door of Your Brand

A responsive website automatically adjusts its content to fit the user’s device. The Nielsen-Norman Group points out that with a responsive site, “the same content may be displayed in a three-column format on a desktop, two-column format on a tablet, and one-column format on a smartphone.”

We can confidently state that today, every brand or product should be represented on a responsive website. Why? Just think about the first thing you do when you encounter an unfamiliar brand and want to learn more: you Google it. And whether the Googling happens on the desktop or a phone, the responsive website is typically the first digital representation of the brand that you access.

You may find some outdated articles on the web stating that, while a responsive website is findable in Google, a mobile app isn’t. That hasn’t been true since 2013, as I recently wrote in an article detailing how to get your mobile app content indexed by Google.

But even if an app and a website both appear on your Google search results page, if you’re unfamiliar with the brand, which would you choose first? You’d likely visit the responsive website long before you commit any of your precious smartphone memory to downloading the unfamiliar brand’s app.

In Content Science’s Q&A with The Home Depot’s Senior Manager for Media Strategy & Mobile Erin Everhart, for example, Erin describes a typical user’s journey from search engine to website. Only after the user is in The Home Depot store does the mobile app come into play as a valuable shopping aid.

As another example, let’s look at a hypothetical user journey for a movie theater.



A movie theater customer typically first encounters the brand online through its website.

The customer goes from a Google search to the theater website, where she books a ticket. Only after that point does the user (perhaps incentivized by a loyalty program or easy smartphone features like the ability to text a ticket image to a friend) download the app.

This brings us to the reasons to build a mobile app.

Mobile App: An Aid for Loyalty and Ongoing Engagement

A smartphone app gives you access to a ton of features that responsive websites either can’t or typically don’t take advantage of:

  • Location and navigation
  • Camera
  • Microphone
  • Haptic feedback (the “buzzy” vibration that your phone makes)
  • Directional sensors, like a compass or motion sensor

If you’re creating a product and you’re not sure whether it should reside on a responsive site or a mobile app and it uses one of the features listed above, then a mobile app certainly makes sense.

But what if you don’t need these features? Can building a mobile app still make sense?

One area where a mobile app really shines is by enabling ongoing engagement with your existing customer base. There are three reasons for this:

  1. Push notifications boost engagement—particularly when personalized
  2. Apps provide continuity for accessing content behind a login
  3. Apps can handle complex interactions more effectively on a smartphone

1. Push Notifications Boost Engagement—Particularly When Personalized

Although websites are starting to experiment with push notifications, mobile apps have a long track record of engaging users on smartphones using push.

Before you groan or roll your eyes, you should know that those irrelevant push notifications that bug you in the middle of dinner are examples of poor implementations of push. Urban Airship, which makes a software platform for publishing push notifications, found in their research that apps that sent no push notifications retained only about 5% of their users after 90 days. In contrast, apps that did send push notifications saw retention rates up to 10 times higher.

The secret to turbocharging app retention with push notifications? Personalization. The right software platform allows you to tailor push notifications for your audience based on their location, buying history, preferences, and more. These customized messages see much higher engagement, as Sellbrite notes on their blog.


The notification that shows an item waiting in the user’s cart generated a click-through rate of 28%, compared to 3% for a generic promotional message. Source: Sellbrite.

When done well, push notifications can really fuel engagement with your app and, by extension, your brand.

2. Apps Provide Continuity for Accessing Content Behind a Login

Do you use your phone’s browser to access your bank account? If so, do you stay authenticated, or logged in, all the time? Probably not—most banking websites log you out automatically after a timeout period. Even if they didn’t, you would probably log out just to keep your data secure.

When it comes to accessing content that requires authentication, mobile apps are more likely to stay logged in, providing a more continuous experience.

On my phone, I’m currently logged in to the Amazon and Kindle apps. On my mobile browser, I’m logged in to neither. The ease of staying logged in to an app, coupled with the fact that I take my phone everywhere, makes using a mobile app for shopping or banking the path of least resistance.

3. Apps Handle Complex Interactions More Effectively on a Smartphone

In comparing responsive sites to other platforms, the Nielsen-Norman Group points out that with responsive sites, “complex spreadsheets, comparison tables, and visualizations are often difficult to rescale well on small mobile screens.”

In addition, a well built native mobile app provides a much smoother smartphone experience for complex user flows. To see how, let’s return to the movie theater example above: Last week, I used a well built movie theater app that provides a seamless in-app ticket purchase process allowing me to select my seats, text a ticket to a friend (along with showtime and location), and scan my ticket once I’ve arrived at the theater.

Not only that, but this particular app also keeps track of my loyalty account, so I don’t need to carry a separate loyalty card in my purse. I can scan a code from my phone to receive points and rewards as I purchase popcorn.

This custom-built app integrates at least five separate functions—only three of which (purchase, seat selection, and ticket scan) a responsive site could perform—into a smooth digital process that removes much of the friction from the customer’s overall experience with the brand.

Site or App? You May Need Both

When deciding whether to build a responsive website or a mobile app, keep in mind that you may very well need both! As we saw above, every brand and product should be represented, at minimum, on a responsive site.

The question of whether to build a mobile app as well is more complex. Do you need the specialized location, tactile, or other features that you get with an app? If so, consider building one.

If not, how does your content strategy approach retaining your users during the loyalty phase of their journey with your brand? If you can see your users benefitting from push notifications, continuous access to content that lives behind a login, or complex data or user flows, a mobile app could become a crucial tool in the battle to keep your existing user base engaged.

The Author

In her role as Senior Content Strategist at mobile agency WillowTree, Melanie Seibert draws on over 17 years of experience planning and delivering content for interfaces. She has worked for companies that include Razorfish, Rackspace, and Crutchfield, and has taught an introduction to content strategy class at General Assembly. Follow Melanie on Twitter @melanie_seibert, or read her blog.

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