Do Consumers Really Prefer The Mobile Web To Apps?

mobile web smartphoneYesterday Nielsen wrote a blog post that looked at apps and mobile web usage in the retail segment. The post carried the headline, “Retailer Mobile Websites Beat Apps among US Smartphone Owners.” Several media outlets picked up on the headline and the finding, which was reported as follows: “Nielsen’s detailed analysis of smartphone usage reveals that retail websites are more popular than retail apps, and that Amazon’s is the most popular retail mobile website of all.”

The headline and the post are somewhat misleading and suggest that consumers have a preference for mobile websites and may be consciously choosing the mobile web over apps for shopping. That’s not the finding. However it plays into “the mobile web will eventually destroy mobile apps” meme that parallels and is in a way a reflection of the iOS vs. Android debate.

When I saw the post I asked Nielsen for more context and clarification. What I was told in email was the following:

[F]or the purpose of this report preference is based on actual usage (rather than a consumer’s stated preference) and comes from measurement in our Smartphone Analytics panel. In this case usage was measured by the active reach, meaning the number of smartphone users who visited mobile sites compared to those who used the mobile apps for retailers.  So as used in this article we compared the number of visitors/users with the amount of time spent using apps vs visiting mobile sites.

What this means is that Nielsen found the mobile web has greater reach for shopping in the aggregate than mobile apps. In other words, more people are visiting retailer sites via the mobile web than using retailer mobile apps. For those using retail apps Nielsen reported, “[C]onsumers who use retailers’ mobile apps tend to spend more time on them.”

To come up with these findings Nielsen metered the smartphones of 5,000 US adults and observed their behavior in Q4 2011, during the holiday shopping season. The most important part of the Nielsen post is that mobile shopping (apps + web) is now a mainstream phenomenon among smartphone users. The “apps vs. mobile web” discussion is more attention-getting and “sexy,” however.

According to comScore apps and the mobile web have generally the same reach across the US mobile population.

The overall trend is toward app adoption and usage, not away from it. However as the chart above suggests people will use both mobile websites and apps. And while people download lots of apps, they only regularly use a small number.

Reasons that smartphone owners may not be using retail mobile apps as much as the mobile web include the following:

  • There is no retailer app in the particular case (many have not yet created them)
  • The consumer is not aware of the retailer app (poor marketing)
  • There’s not enough retailer loyalty or other incentive for the user to download the app
  • Inconvenient to wait for app download at the time

Indeed, several recent studies have shown that retailers (despite the surge in mobile shopping) have failed to keep pace and create apps and optimized mobile sites.

Most of the time consumer behavior data is more “accurate” than consumer survey data. However in this instance it would have been good to ask consumers whether they had an actual preference for the mobile web or retail apps. We simply don’t know from the Nielsen data (that’s been exposed) whether these consumers actually prefer mobile websites or whether one or more of the list of reasons above explains the findings.

Retailers and others can’t expect consumers to automatically download their apps — especially if they don’t know about them. Beyond this the “build it and they will come” mentality doesn’t work. If you want a consumer to download your app it has to be “kick ass,” as they say.

As a basic matter retailers must have HTML5, mobile-optimized sites. They should also have apps as well. Apps increase loyalty and engagement and they can have a positive impact on brand perception.

For retailers the answer to the question, “Should we build a mobile website or an app?” is “both.” The mobile website is primary because it’s cross-platform. Companies should then build iOS apps (including for the iPad) first, Android second. But do it all simultaneously if you can.

Related Entries

Related Topics: Apple: iOS | Channel: Strategy | Features & Analysis | Google: Android | Statistics: Mobile Marketing | Statistics: Online Behavior | Top News


About The Author: is a Contributing Editor at Search Engine Land. He writes a personal blog Screenwerk, about SoLoMo issues and connecting the dots between online and offline. He also posts at Internet2Go, which is focused on the mobile Internet. Follow him @gsterling.

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  • Rush Libraughl

    Interesting article but I’d note that some retail apps (Banana Republic for iOS) for example actually uses their mobile website within the app to give the appearance of a completely native application.

    I’m not sure if such techniques are considered in this study and how those kinds of apps land on the mobile web or mobile app scale.

  • Luis Galarza

    I read a mobile marketing report the other day that said that only 35% of those people who download apps actually use them… This make you think before investing in your next mobile application.

  • iWebSquare

    Both have their own importance and usage. I prefer a mobile web than Apps. Mobile Web can be compatible to all mobile phone devices while apps is specific to device.

  • Mosaic Technology

    I personally prefer to have the option of choosing
    between an app and mobile web. Not all retailers have the means to have both available,
    but consumer choice is definitely a plus. I prefer to use a mobile app for
    stores I use frequently, whereas I would prefer a mobile website for a retailer
    I seldom use.



    Mosaic Technology

  • Jeff Downer Indianapolis IN

    I’m an Android user and memory space for apps is an issue.  Until I can move any app I want to to a SD card (a size  of my choosing), I will use the mobile website instead of cluttering my phone with rarely used apps.

  • Sergey Olkhovoy

    I prefer to use a one application to access all social websites I need.
    But as for me for shops it’s more comfortable to use web browser

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