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Mobile App or Mobile Website? Before you invest in mobile marketing consider your audience and the startup costs.

By John Arnold Edited by Dan Bova

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

NBC reported 58.2 million page views of its Winter Olympics programming on the mobile web and iPhone app through the first 11 days of coverage.

If the thought of your prospects fixing their attention on your company anytime and anywhere through their mobile phones sounds appealing, you'll be happy to know that the options for reaching consumers on mobile devices are growing broader and less expensive.

Two of the most engaging options in the mobile marketing bag of tricks are mobile apps and mobile websites. A year ago, the two options were very different, and choosing the right one for your business might have been a bit of a no-brainer. Now mobile apps and mobile websites are more similar in the features and user experience they provide to marketers and consumers, and the decision to build an app or a mobile website--or both--involves more thoughtful consideration.

Mass Market or Niche Appeal?
Apps only work on the phones they are designed for. Mobile websites, on the other hand, can be designed to work on any device with a web browser. In fact, the iPhone, the Palm, the new BlackBerry, and Google's Android phones all support an open source framework. If you're interested in mass market appeal for your content, mobile websites are the way to go. If you're only interested in reaching a niche market represented by usage of a particular device and operating system, a mobile app is a good choice.

What User Experience Do You Want to Provide?
The next thing to consider when choosing between an app and a mobile website is your desired end-user experience. Mobile apps can provide more feature-rich functionality--at least for now--because apps can work seamlessly with a device's native applications in more complex ways, and apps don't necessarily require a connection to the internet to function. This means that apps are better for utilities and games. For example, a banking application that allows users to find ATMs via GPS data native to the phone offers a better user experience than asking the same users to go to a mobile website, type in a zip code and navigate through one or more pages.

Mobile websites are better choices for delivering content, catalogs and shopping functions since that content is accessible by search engines. It's also easier to drive advertising traffic to a mobile landing page than it is to drive traffic to an app store to complete a download before visitors are able to interact with your content.

Since the number of mobile phone browsers that support richer versions of HTML is increasing rapidly, expect mobile website functionality to rival app functionality in the near future.

Starting Costs and ROI
Mobile websites are available on a number of do-it-yourself platforms, including mobisitegalore.com, wapple.net, and movitas.com. Sites like wordpress.com and drupal.com have mobile capabilities and plug-ins for mobile enhancements to existing websites on those platforms. More professional-grade mobile website platforms are available from netbiscuits.com and iloopmobile.com.

There aren't any do-it-yourself options for mobile apps (unless you're an expert programmer with extensive device experience and knowledge).

Mobile apps and mobile websites can both be expensive to develop from scratch, and aside from the DIY options, there's another key difference in startup costs. With mobile apps, you need to develop a new app for every type of device you want to reach, while just one mobile website can reach anyone with a device that has web browsing. So if you have mass marketing goals, developing an app could be the more expensive choice.

Lastly, mobile websites tend to cost less to maintain over time. That's because to change an app you (probably) have to hire a programmer, and you need approval from the app store. Plus, every time a particular device is updated, you'll need to change your app accordingly.

If you're just beginning to create your mobile marketing footprint, most experts agree that it's better to start with a mobile website. That's because well-designed mobile sites can easily be turned into apps later. If you just have to reach iPhone users, find a programmer with a good reputation, multiple deployments and good ratings from users.

John Arnold

Marketing consultant and author

John Arnold is a marketing strategist and author offering practical marketing tips and advice to B2B companies. Connect with him at JohnArnold.com. 

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