Choosing between a responsive website or a native app is more a business call than going into the technical capabilities of what each platform has to offer. The reason is that the same set of customers that access your business through a desktop could potentially connect with your brand on the go through their smartphones.
For companies, apps are another medium to reach out to customers, just like a website or an advertisement. There is no debate about one vs. another. The fact is, you need both, to get to your customers who are browsing on their desktops or on the go. The app can engage them so they keep coming back to your brand for more.
There could be instances, though, where you may choose to build one platform first, instead of both at the same time.
Building a platform-first product. If you have a non-tech business delivered through technology (such as AirBnB and Uber), it could be a tough choice whether to go for a website or an app first. The answer may lie in your understanding of your target audience.
How best do you think you can reach out to them? How are they currently performing the tasks that you wish to simplify? Answers to this will help you determine whether your product merits a web-first or a mobile-first strategy.
Unless, of course, you’re building a productivity or utility tool that is of an on-the-go nature, such as a to-do list app, or in instances where you do not require Internet connectivity for the app to work.
Even if you were to build for one platform first, you simply cannot ignore the other. The other platform becomes your value add. A good example is Instagram, which was a mobile-first product that built its responsive web interface at a later stage.
Experimenting with an idea across mobile platforms. There’s iOS and then there’s Android. When you’re not sure which mobile platform you want to build for first (because building for both at the same time is more expensive and makes the iterative process tedious), a responsive website can come to the rescue.
A responsive website enables both Android, iOS and any other mobile OS users to interact with your brand with a similar experience. You build only once and get your desktop and all mobile platforms covered. This helps you in validating your source of traffic.
You should build your product with analytics integrated at this stage to get a sense of the traffic flowing from different devices. Once you realize which devices your customers are using the most to access your responsive website, you can then build a customized native app solution for them.
A brand showcase. A website makes more sense for information dissemination, which educates the customers about the brand and its offerings. A responsive website helps kill two birds with the same stone. You get the attention of the desktop surfer as well as those who are browsing or researching about on the go.
While you will build a responsive website, which is the natural choice to inform your target audience about your brand, you can further engage your prospective and existing customers through a mobile app.
You could build an app that enhances your brand value, such as what Coca-Cola did with its fun iOS app. There are also apps such as those by airlines or banks that let you perform many tasks quickly and on the go.
There isn't really a debate between responsive website and a native mobile app. When you're building a website, it has to be mobile or tablet enabled (responsive). If you don't have a mobile app already, you're missing out on a huge potential audience.
Related: You Don't Need an App for That