Should you build a responsive website or a mobile app?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock in a wifi-coldspot for the last few years, you’ve probably caught wind of the Mobile vs. Desktop marketing saga, relating to customers actually buying products online.

Well, when 4 out of 5 consumers shop on their smartphones and 40% of these will abandon a website if it is not mobile-friendly, it seems that this battle may be in its final round. Google also weighed in earlier this year, with the announcement that mobile-friendly sites would achieve a better ranking in search results than non-responsive pages.

The bell may not have rung on desktop just yet, but the odds are firmly in the pocket-sized opponent’s corner, and although mobile may have its eyes set firmly on the title, it only leads on to the next debate …

Native App vs. Responsive Website.

Which one do you choose? The ideal answer to this question is both, because each strategy can be extremely beneficial in different ways, if implemented correctly. Of course, this is not always a viable option, whether for financial reasons or in terms of workload, and cutting corners could hinder what you set out to do.

This leads us to an equally unpopular answer, which is that it depends entirely on what your mobile strategy needs to achieve.

So let’s consider how these two worthy adversaries weigh in on some of the key components of any campaign …


If attracting new customers is the main aim of your efforts, a responsive website may be the more attractive option.

SEO opportunities and links will take potential customers directly to your site, no problem, whereas the marketing you employ for an app may not be directly connected and mostly centred on directing customers to an app store where they can choose to download it.

A responsive website is accessible by all mobile users without the need to download, and this is particularly important for start-ups and companies that are still growing their customer base.

If your mobile site is nothing more than a link and instruction to download an app, this could turn off customers who have not heard of your company before – installing an app is a commitment and users need a good amount of knowledge or reason to give up those megabytes.

We all know how much travel consumers in particular like to shop around and there’s a competitor with a responsive website just around the corner!

While apps take a whopping 80% slice of our overall mobile usage (social networks and games alone accounting for around 50%), it can be argued that a web search will deliver richer results and information than an app store search can.


If developing and maintaining a loyal base of existing customers is where it’s at for you, the native app is not without its merits.

The consumer makes the choice to adopt your app and is therefore already engaged with your message, making them much more open to marketing communication and upselling.

The user may allow you a space on their mobile home-screen because they have used your service previously and had a good experience or perhaps you have a particularly attractive feature that is only accessible via the app. It could also be argued that app strategies succeed more for the larger, well-known brands, as consumers to an extent will know what to expect.

However you get your app in front of customers and prospects is only half the struggle though, next is how you make sure your app doesn’t lay dormant amongst the other forgotten digital toys.

An exciting feature in apps is the ability to send push notifications, if the user opts-in that is, which are arguably much more direct than, for example, e-marketing that is signed up to via a website. The user does not have to click on to their email app and open the message – it is shot directly to their home screen in a short tantalising burst.

Apps are also able to provide a lot of data on how customers are using it, which paves the way for creating personalised offers and communication. For example, if the user has searched for trips with two adults and two children on your travel booking app, they may be more inclined to act upon notifications about family packages.

That’s not to say that websites cannot collect data or personalise the consumer experience, but a downloaded app likely has less barriers to the user and requires less action.

It’s reported that 50% of app users will opt-in for push notifications, so be sure your personalised push notifications are targeting the right half!

User Experience

Again, the native app champions from a User Experience (UX) point of view, largely due to the fact that rather than being built to adapt to the mobile operating system, it is created specifically for it. This provides many advantages for the consumer …

The native app does not have to rely on third party apps to be accessed; it is, in effect, its own browser. This eliminates the worry of slow-loading pages brought on by out-of-date browsers struggling to process a wealth of information.

The real knockout in the UX ring, however, is the fact that the native app can integrate mobile assets and link to other native apps – something a responsive website simply cannot do. The user can allow the app to access things such as camera, their location, saved files, microphone, and social media apps, which paves the way for your team be really creative with the special features you develop.

While the ability to utilise mobile assets is attractive, it’s important to keep in mind how useful this would be to your company – social media and sharing apps benefit hugely from these capabilities, but does your “easy travel booking” app really need to access the user’s microphone? It’s unlikely.

Development and maintenance

Development and maintenance are key considerations when you enter any sort of technical project and that very much applies when choosing between a native app and a mobile optimised website. The latter takes this round on both scores.

Upgrading your website to a responsive design is likely to cost significantly less than building an application from scratch and the development time will be less too. Furthermore, the native app may require specialist developers or different teams for each operating system and device it needs to run on.

Maintenance of an app will also be essential and could prove costly. If the platforms and devices that the app runs on undergo significant updates, you will likely have to update your app too in order for it to carry on working correctly on the relevant devices. Maintenance of responsive websites, though still requiring a technical team, would be much simpler.


When it comes to retail and travel booking apps, the deciding round comes down to which will generate more actual sales.

Though there are a wealth of other considerations, such as target audience and whether it is a returning or new customer, recent research suggests that consumers favour mobile websites over native apps when making purchases. Though small ‘in-app’ purchases do have a place in native app development.

This may be surprising for some, however when we consider that smartphone users dedicate only 5% of their overall usage to shopping, it starts to make a little more sense. Device memory space is precious and if an app is not being used regularly, it is likely to be discarded in favour of social or entertainment apps.

The only definitive answer here is that you need to have a mobile medium or you risk losing out considerably.

A responsive website is the best place to start and particularly valuable in the travel industry, where consumers are notorious for shopping around and less able to justify the permanence of an app.

It’s true that a mobile app can help to bring back existing customers and is more exciting on a superficial level, but it also requires considerably more resources and creativity. Optimising your website for mobile is more cost-effective and an app is a risky investment if you are just getting started in the mobile arena.

The native app may be the new kid on the block but the responsive website is by no means out for the count – ensure your homepage is optimised first!

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