Mobile Website or Mobile App. Which is Best for Rural Small Businesses?

by Joanne Steele on March 8, 2013

I have spent the past month reading everything I could find on mobile technology and here, as promised, is an overview of what I have learned.

young woman with cell phoneIn the past two years smartphone purchases have outstripped computer sales, and the result is app salesmen are hammering at us to sink our marketing money into mobile technology we barely understand.

Before taking the plunge, let’s look at the field so as to make an informed decision:

The difference between mobile website and mobile apps

Mobile app is short for mobile application.

It is like a computer program created for a specific type of smartphone or tablet. Note the word SPECIFIC. With the proliferation of mobile devices, small businesses who want to develop an app have to budget for multiple versions because an iPhone app can’t be used on an Android device or a Blackberry, and no smartphone app can be use on a tablet. It’s the Wild West out there in mobile technology land!!

Because mobile apps are actual applications, they can be built to work offline, when internet access is not available.

Mobile apps must be downloaded from an app store. Each platform has their own internet location for this purpose, and each has their own requirements that you must meet in order to have your app listed in their store.

Store is used loosely here because many apps are free. The issue here is that a person (your customer) must make an active decision to acquire your app and go to the proper store, find your app and download it.

Mobile website denotes a website that is created to show up well on a smaller screen.

I wrote a post recently at Take Control of Your Internet Marketing on responsive websites, so go there for details. Essentially a responsive website is a mobile design that adjusts to the size of the device’s screen.

Mobile websites are accessible via the internet meaning that they reach the same wide audience as traditional websites. They are indexed by search engines and are instantly available without any special applications or apps. But they do require internet access, either through a wifi, G3 or G4 connection.

Who should have a mobile app and who should have a mobile website.

And who can ignore the whole thing…

Because mobile apps require an active decision to download something to the limited space on a mobile device, it will only appeal to loyal customers. Apps are incredibly expensive to develop and maintain so for the average small local business, or even small town or rural region I suggest you don’t sink your money into an app.

Remember, unless you know that all your loyal customers use iPhones or Kindles, you’re stuck with producing multiple apps in order to reach all those loyal customers who are using different phones. And don’t forget you will need to maintain the app, updating information on each of the platforms!

So, for rural areas, who should invest in a mobile app.

Significant rural regions with a common attraction and large base of business support to absorb the cost of creation and maintenance.

I recently did a workshop on the Redwood Coast of northern California. I recommended that they consider a Redwood Coast app. Why?

  • They are internationally known – seeing the redwoods is on nearly everyone’s bucket list. There is a base of potential “loyal” customers.
  • The app could have broad appeal; hikers, bikers, surfers, birders, art glass enthusiasts etc. all whose primary interest is visiting the redwoods.
  • They have a broad base of businesses and small towns to both benefit from and support the development and maintenance.
  • They have remote areas of great appeal where people will have trouble accessing an internet connection via a mobile websiite, so having an app that doesn’t require connectivity would be extremely helpful.

If any one of these points were missing, my recommendation might be different. So, what other type of rural endeavor might benefit from a mobile app?

Regional collaborations to attract and serve the varied needs of a particular type of visitor: birders, hikers, cyclists come to mind. But to make an app possible, there has to be an organizing attraction. It must be within the sphere of influence of a national park or a national landmark, or be a recognized destination for that interest base.

Hiking trails of Podunk, USA may be regional, may have a base of business support from surrounding communities, but may lack the existing base of loyal customers willing to come, and to download the app. Apps are not marketing tools. They are communications tools to enhance and expand a relationship with a loyal existing customer.

Rural chambers of commerce should think twice about investing in an app and encouraging their members to buy into the app… unless they have covered all four points above.

And, who in rural areas should invest in a mobile website

Looking at how rural and community-based tourism and agritourism is growing worldwide, eventually the answer to this will be “everyone.”

It’s hard for many rural areas to accept this. Because rural broadband is spotty at best worldwide, we rural residents have learned to live with slow internet speeds and nonexistent access outside of our major small towns.

We may not have the intense personal relationships with our smartphones that our urban neighbors have. But those urban neighbors are our rural tourism customers! They are looking for information about us online, and they’re impatient.

Our poor access may give us valuable insight into our urban customers’ needs. We appreciate simple websites because they load faster at our slow clunky rural speeds. Our urban neighbors appreciate simple websites because they are easier to use on a smartphone even if they are not optimized for mobile! We share their frustration with fancy websites that have too much information, too many moving parts and too little white space.

Does this mean that every small local business should sink money into a mobile website right now? NO!

The technology is changing so fast, information produced on this subject just one year ago is largely out of date. Internet developers are rushing to create the next generation of mobile responsive frameworks and themes and skins. Within the next year, things will have settled down and an inexpensive alternative will have risen to the top.

For now, realize that a website update is in your future.

If you have an old clunky website that looks terrible on a smartphone, you might have more updates in your future. Take the first step to a website you can update yourself. I recommend WordPress. The new free 2012 theme is supposed to be responsive. I don’t have any experience with it, so suggest you research before using it.

The goal is to move to simplicity. Lots of moving images and text is distracting or often not viewable on a small screen.

Go for one header with an easy to see menu, one content area, one uncluttered sidebar and one footer area. Use an uncluttered font in a size easily readable on a small screen without having to pinch and zoom much.

Realize that people who access your website on their smartphone or tablet are probably looking for one of three things: Your location, your contact information or your hours. Make certain that those three things are prominent.

If you move to a responsive website now, expect that you will probably be updating again as the technology changes and improves. If you wait, be sure that what you have will work for your customers in the mean time.

If you’re not sure what your site looks like on a smartphone, go to Google’s Mobilize your site now. Go ahead and have Google assess your website, but don’t feel like you need to rush to use their service to make your website responsive this minute.

Sorry not to be more definitive, but that’s the reality of the web. Change is the only constant.



1 Gouthami March 18, 2013 at 9:32 pm

As always, extremely useful. Have taken notes and I hope that I am able to make some changes to our website over the next month.

Many thanks.

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