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Mobile Apps vs the Mobile Web for B2B

TL; DR – Mobile apps are used for entertainment purposes.  If you’re a business, you should make the mobile version of your website your #1 priority.  Your mobile app can wait.

Mobile apps are getting a lot of press and buzz, and as a B2B marketer, you see lots of large corporations grumbling and making noises something to the effect of “we’ve got to get a mobile app for our business”, “gotta get an app built this year”, etc.  Why?

The Perceived Market Opportunity

It comes down to the perceived market opportunity.  Lots of people are using mobile apps, and spending lots of time in them:

number of mobile apps used and time spent per visitor

Image via Statista 

Those numbers seem really impressive.  App users use, on average, more than 20 apps per month and spend 21 – 37 hours in those apps on a monthly basis.

Other mobile app stats of interest:

  • 102B (billion) mobile apps have been downloaded by the end of 2013
  • That’s forecast to rise to 225B by 2016
  • 93% of those apps were free
  • 7% were paid

 mobile app downloads

Image via Statista

Again, those are impressive-looking numbers.  What’s missing is any discussion whatsoever of what the app using versus non-app using populations look like.

The Market Reality

Businesses should be aware of what’s happening when the media chattering classes are investing in a technology hype cycle:

garnter technology hype cycle

Image via Gartner

They are trying to get you excited, so they can get you Clicking so they can make MONEY.  The media will continue to be a fluffer for whatever topic gets clicks.  You will see them quoting big, top-line numbers like “103 billion apps downloaded in 2013.”

That seems like a lot, right? We’ll let’s take a closer look.

Consider data from comScore’s most recent Mobile App Report that shows that 2/3 of mobile users don’t download any apps on a monthly basis:

comscore app usage

Image via QZ

Digging in even further, you find that the top 7% of users account for 50% of total app downloads!

So it seems that apps are broadly not that interesting to 2/3 of the population, with a tiny fraction of users accounting for most of the app-related activity.

For the 1/3 of the population that does download apps, the usage patterns are pretty interesting.

Flurry analysis of 26,176 apps over 3 years shows that 50% of apps will lose 50% of their peak users within 3 months of launch.

Mobile App Uninstall Rates

Image via Flurry

To put an even finer point on it: 60% of downloaded apps are used 10 times or less:

app retention

Image via Localytics

And finally, you have analysis from Gartner that predicts that less than 1% of apps will be considered a financial success by the companies that develop them through 2018.

Anecdotally, app developers seem to be figuring this out as well:

So far, the data tell us that 2/3 of people aren’t very interested in apps, and most apps won’t be financially successful.  But what about those people who do use apps?

Mobile Usage Patterns

When it comes to how average mobile users are spending their time online, again mobile apps win hands-down:

  • 86% of total time spent using the Internet on a mobile device is done via apps
  • 14% is spent in a mobile browser

apps vs mobile browser

Image via Flurry

And it gets really interesting when you look at how that time is spent:

  • 37% of time spent in apps is for Gaming
  • 33% of time is spent in Social Media apps
  • 9% is spent in Entertainment

That’s means a whopping 79% of time spent in mobile apps is for entertainment.  If it is true, then, that in about 4 of 5 cases, apps are being used for entertainment, what does that indicate relative your high-level goal to “get an app built”?

The Business Case

The starting point for a mobile app should be a very well-defined set of user needs which call for a clean, mobile solution, where the mobile website experience offers too many options. Here, the business case for a mobile app can be pretty straightforward.

If you have a ton of loyal, repeat mobile customers who only need to accomplish 3 or 4 things, and these needs are recurring, you can package that into an app and get great adoption and usage.  Loyalty + limited use cases + recurring need = mobile app fit.  For B2B users, this can include access to reporting or analytics, or surfacing data to field sales teams.

But, if your visitors have more varied needs while they’re mobile, you should consider how your website renders on the mobile web.

Google recently did a survey of 1,500 consumers who use their mobile phones while shopping.  Google’s survey confirms that 65% of consumers use the mobile web to do their retail research – whether researching products; finding where products are sold; making price comparisons or finding promotional offers – rather than 35% who use mobile apps.

Google’s survey points to a strong user preference for the mobile web, but I always prefer studying analytics data of what users actually did, rather than what they say they will do.  Skava, a mobile commerce platform, recently released data that points to an even greater user preference for the mobile web after 2014’s Black Friday (emphasis mine):

“When it comes to holiday shopping, consumers have clearly voted for the convenience of the mobile Web over retailers’ applications.

In an analysis of 46 million page views from mobile devices on Skava’s clients’ mobile Web sites and apps, including Gap, Staples, Macy’s and Toys ‘R’ Us, the company found that the mobile Web accounted for 97 percent of retail sales from mobile devices on Black Friday while apps accounted for just 3 percent.”

That’s about as strong an indication of user preference as you’ll get.

Investing in Apps vs the Mobile Web

I’m a big believer in aligning marketing efforts in a way that maximizes business outcomes.  Building a mobile app for your business is not a “win” unless it results in a greater number of conversions [or insert your favorite metric here] than would have been the case had the same resources been devoted to another marketing channel.

So I tend to look at mobile apps from a utility perspective.

But there’s another way to look at mobile apps versus the mobile web.  There is deep, nerdy philosophical divide about open versus closed data architectures, and what that means for the future of the Internet. It goes something like this:

  • Open data architectures
    • Personified by:
      • The open-source software community (Linux, Apache, Hadoop, etc)
    • Characterized by:
      • Use of open-source software to create products and services findable and available on the open web
    • Controlled by:
      • Decentralized control, where any community member can change and modify code
  • Closed data architectures
    • Personified by:
      • Companies building closed ecosystems (Facebook, Apple)
    • Characterized by:
      • Software used to create products and services that are accessible only from within their own ecosystem
    • Controlled by:
      • Centralized control, where companies dictate changes to the platform

Tim O’Reilly had a debate with John Battelle a few years ago, with O’Reilly arguing on the side of open data architectures:

(I’m) surprised that you’re not more worried about the consequences of the shift from the “front end” of browser-centric computing to the “back end” of apps, closed networks and proprietary connections between massive data servers and specialized clients.

Why? Because the first defaults to open and the second defaults to closed.

But from a social, innovative, and macroeconomic perspective, open is almost always better. As Michael Wolff points out in his companion piece, it’s no surprise that media moguls (old and new) are pushing to regain control. What’s a surprise to many is that they’re getting it.”

One interesting area where this divide is playing out is in mobile apps versus the mobile web.  Apps are siloed, the web is open.

Summing Up

So, to review:

  • 60% users don’t download apps frequently
  • 80% of app usage is for entertainment purposes
  • 90%+ deliberately turn to the mobile version of your website rather than an app while making purchase decisions

With that perspective, just how sure are you that you need an app?

Consider the benefit to your business if you took those same resources, and improved any of the major metrics around your mobile website.

What would the business impact of investing that same amount of money in conversion rate optimization?

What would be the business impact of investing that same amount of money in improving your website’s performance?

The Aberdeen Group study showed that a one second delay in page load time equals:

  • 11% fewer page views
  • 16% decrease in customer satisfaction
  • 7% loss in conversions

Apps are for people who already know you and like you enough to download your app.  The mobile web is for everyone.  And that includes people who have no idea that your business exists (yet), but will use the web to find you, and become your customers.

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