The Great (And Pointless) App-Versus-Mobile-Web Debate

To which channel does the future belong: mobile apps or the mobile Web?

It’s the great debate of our age -- and, well, a complete waste of time.

“The app-versus-mobile-Web debate is pointless,” Forrester analysts Julie Ask and Nicole Dvorak write in a new report. “Consumers rely on both nearly equally.”

The fact is that consumers prefer mobile apps when shopping -- because, on average, they think it provides a superior user experience than then mobile Web. For that reason, they’re also more likely to make the majority of their purchases in-app -- but the margins are slim.

As it stands, however, too few retail, travel, and financial services companies sufficiently differentiate app experiences from Web ones, the Forrester team found.

What’s more, there are obvious barriers to app usage, when you consider that consumers have to download and install the things.

More to the point, consumers consistently spend more on the mobile Web. The majority of U.S. smartphone owners that Forrester surveyed who have made an online purchase using their smartphone in the past three months disagreed with the statement “I spend more money in apps.” In fact, only 18% agreed with the statement.

Why is this? Among other reasons, not all brands have mobile apps, and consumers are still more likely to use the mobile Web in the discovery phase or to check prices and product reviews. Oh, and the mobile Web better serves the long tail of customers: that is, those who don’t shop much.

Of course, mobile apps and Web sites have their respective edges.

The mobile Web works better for consistency of experience across devices, for example, while mobile apps shine in serving consumers on the go by tapping into contextual information like location.

Likewise, owning mobile moments in apps trumps mobile moments on Web sites, because apps can tap into more context -- like location and sensor data -- and offer more tools for proactive engagement.

Additionally, brands can watch what consumers do in apps and use those insights to drive ongoing engagement through functionality like push notifications or in-app messaging.

Yet, the majority of U.S. smartphone owners surveyed by Forrester (73%) reported using mobile Web sites for browsing and searching.

Translation: Apps and the Web are both here to stay, so marketers had better factor both channels into their mobile strategies.

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