The Mobile Web vs. Mobile Apps: It’s All in the Family

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Right off the top, a confession: I am not an apps guy. I have never designed an app, nor have I developed an app. I’m a web guy. Yet, I’ll not let that deter me from offering some opinions and observations about apps, motivated in large part by the “web is dead” debate. (I dealt with this from a different perspective in my last blog post.)

While I’m at it, a second confession: I am not a huge user of apps. Most of my time with apps is spent reading news (sorry, NYT home page) or playing games.

Back to the article. This article will focus on a particular subset of the “web is dead” debate, which is “the web is dead, long live apps.” I think the dilemma of apps versus the web can be especially confusing for small businesses, who have limited marketing budgets and resources. Under those limitations, and with the pressure that SMBs feel to get the most bang for their buck, the decision of where to invest can become difficult.

And, back to my undeterred opinions and observations. My essential argument will be that the two sides of mobile marketing, mobile apps and the mobile web, serve different purposes. Neither side precludes the other. We’re one big, happy family. And, I will start by looking at the ways in which apps have been implemented by some small businesses in my local market.

A Brief Survey of Local Business Apps

Following is a quick and informal survey of how mobile apps are being implemented by various local businesses. To “protect the innocent,” I refrain from using company names, and refer only to the kind of business they have. All of the apps listed below are free downloads.

Additionally, I take the well-intentioned liberty of singling-out two apps: one that I think really “got it”, listed below as The Star, and another that I think really did not “get it”, listed below as The Fail.

Beauty Salon

This bare-bones app is almost nothing more than a stripped down version of a bare-bones website. The main features of the app are:

  • Contact us
  • Hours of operation
  • Book an appointment
  • Receive push notifications with beauty tips

This app received no user ratings or reviews. I don’t see a compelling reason for people to use this app, as it does not provide much for engagement, and the salon’s website offers a more compelling experience and more content.

Hot Dog Joint

This app is also bare-bones, but offers a few more perks for customer engagement:

  • Menu
  • Specials
  • Rewards
  • Coupons
  • A few additional items

This app received no user ratings or reviews. The intent of the app is rather different than that of the company website, and is clearly aimed at customer retention.


Like the “hot dog joint,” this pizzeria was more promising for engaging their customers:

  • Menu
  • Coupons
  • Rewards
  • Specials

This app received no user ratings or reviews. The company’s website offers much more varied content, and the intent of the app is clearly for customer retention.

Another Pizzeria

The sole function of this app appeared to be order-placing, i.e., selecting ingredients, and choosing pick-up or delivery. Using the app might be a little more convenient than placing a phone call, but it offered nothing further for engagement. The app also received no user ratings or reviews.

Limo Service

I this app offered the most utility of all the apps examined so far. The main features were:

  • Book a ride
  • Track your ride
  • Select a driver (VIP service)
  • Pay for your ride.

This app received no user ratings or reviews and, again, seems aimed at customer engagement and retention.

Heating/Cooling Company

This app appears to fall a little short of offering what it might have, especially compared to a similar app for a construction company (examined below). The main features are:

  • Schedule service
  • Set reminders (e.g., change filter)
  • Ask a question
  • iDiagnose

This app received no user ratings or reviews.

Credit Union

For what is essentially a bank, this app seemed very limited in what it offered for its customers:

  • Find a location
  • See account balances
  • See interested rates
  • Messages

This app received no user ratings or reviews. As with any banking app, this is clearly for those who already have an account, so functions for customer retention.

A Regional Grocery Chain

This app offered some features that ought to be very useful for conscientious shoppers, features which also should function well for engagement and retention:

  • Product search
  • Shopping list
  • Specials
  • Coupons
  • Watch list
  • Watched items on sale

This app received no user ratings or reviews.

The Star App: A Construction Company

This app seemed to offer the best options for customer engagement, though that could reflect the quality of their service. The main features were:

  • View accounts
  • Apply for financing
  • Request an estimate
  • Sign up for maintenance programs
  • Get your questions answered
  • Photo gallery

This app received 10 five-star reviews. Most of the reviews raved about the app, though a couple raved about the company and their work.

The Fail App: A Regional Grocery Chain

This app received 11 reviews… all one-star, all negative, and all for the same reason: complete disappointment with what the app offered. The app, named only after the store’s name, was exclusively aimed at recruiting, for hiring at the chain’s many recently-opened locations. Even though screen shots of the app suggested that it was focused on hiring, users apparently didn’t understand that -the app’s name was simply the brand name – and were expecting deals and coupons. Big oops.

So, Finally, the Verdict…

The point of the above survey was to show that the majority apps used by businesses are aimed at customer engagement and retention. And this makes total sense. Despite ongoing efforts at promoting app downloads, there are significant barriers to this for most small businesses. In most cases, users are not likely to download the app of a company they’ve never heard of, or one whose real-world product or service they’ve never tried. Yes, it is possible for an SMB to come up with an app, e.g., a tool of some kind, that will intrigue users enough to try it. But, I don’t see that as very likely for most small businesses. So…

The Mobile Web is for Discovery, Mobile Apps are for Retention

And this brings us back to the “web is dead” debate mentioned at the start of the article. The web is most definitely still alive and kicking, and this article at Quartz agrees with that assessment. Yes, time spent on mobile is on the rise, and mobile app usage is indisputably also rising. But the mobile web still has its place in online marketing. Most small businesses will not get discovered through their mobile app. Discovery is still going to take place on the web, even if a mobile app like Facebook is the initial gateway. A Facebook post must still link through to content, and this content is likely to reside on owned media, such as a website and/or blog.

The mobile web versus apps debate strikes me as being something like sibling rivalry: close relatives competing for space at the table. And I think it is an unnecessary rivalry. Digital marketing will continue to be a mix of related technologies and channels, each one functioning in its unique way toward the goal of acquiring new customers, and then keeping them.

You may be interested in my related article, The Web is Dead, the Paperless Office, Jet Packs, and Other Prognostications.