How and When to Build a Mobile Website

Mobile technology experts discuss which enterprises need a mobile presence, the important questions to ask when developing a mobile website, what pitfalls to avoid and what to expect to pay.

As of November 2011, 91.4 million people in the United States owned smartphones, according to comScore. That was an 8 percent increase over just a few months before. And if the trend continues, as most analysts and smartphone vendors believe it will, the number of individuals in the United States with a smartphone will be close to, if not exceed, 100 million by March 2012 — that's nearly one out of three Americans. And that's not including the number of people using iPads and tablet PCs, which was well over 15 million as of June 2011, per CTIA, the Wireless Association.

Who are these people and what are they doing with these mobile devices? They are your customers, your employees and your partners — and more than 40 percent of them are using their mobile devices to browse the web (and shop online) and download apps. And that percentage is expected to increase. However, a majority of businesses have failed to "mobilize," that is, create a mobile version of their website, or a mobile app.

Does that mean that every business or organization needs a mobile website? No. But if you currently have a B2C or B2B digital presence and/or the people you do business with are mobile, it's time you had a mobile strategy.

Do You Need a Mobile Website?

According to Ted Schadler, a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research who covers enterprise issues, you can determine if your organization needs a mobile website by asking the following questions.

  1. Does the organization currently have a website that is regularly used by customers?
  2. Do the people you are trying to reach use smartphones or tablets on a regular basis?
  3. Can mobile provide opportunities that a traditional web presence — or other channels — can't or doesn't do as well?
  4. Would customers (or employees or partners) benefit from having information at the moment of decision?

If you answered "yes" to two or more of these questions, you should probably (if not definitely) have a mobile presence (either a mobile website or a native app, or possibly both).

Think of mobile as "a system of engagement," as a way to improve the way you engage with customers, employees and partners, explained Schadler. For example, let's say you run a real estate company, or are a developer. Prior to mobile, if a customer wanted information about a house, she'd have to call the real estate agency or developer or look up the information on her computer. With mobile, however, you can provide prospective buyers with the information they need on their smartphones, when they are right in front of the house.

What to Look for in a Mobile Solution Provider

When selecting a mobile solution provider, "you should go through the same vetting and RFP process as you would for any other type of software," says John Epperson, the CEO of Ruxter, a mobile marketing company. And part of the vetting process should include viewing and testing out several mobile websites (or apps) the mobile solution provider developed - on a variety of smartphones and tablets (not just the iPhone and/or the iPad).

"How is the user experience?" says Mike Craig, the co-founder and vice president of marketing at Ruxter. Does it have a good user interface (UI)? Are pages quick to load? Is the site easy to navigate? In addition, Craig recommended reaching out to organizations with mobile websites and/or apps you like and asking how many people visit the site — or have downloaded the app — and what the analytics are.

Equally if not more important, find out if the mobile solution provider can help you develop a mobile strategy, as opposed to just a mobile splash page or basic app, says Dan Liliedahl, the chief technology officer at TandemSeven, a mobile solution provider and user experience expert. Do they have both the front-end (i.e., design, user experience) and back-end (i.e., integration) expertise to make mobile truly successful for your enterprise?

How to Develop a Mobile Strategy

One of the biggest — if not the biggest — mistakes organizations make when developing a mobile website or app is making it a standalone project, say Schadler, Epperson, Craig, and Liliedahl. That is, not integrating your mobile website or app — i.e., your mobile strategy — into your broader marketing, sales and customer (or CRM) strategy.

Instead of just thinking mobile, "think in terms of multi-channel," Liliedahl says, "where mobile is just one channel."

That said, when developing a mobile website or app, "you need to understand your customers' goals — and what devices they are using," Schadler says. What looks good on a large monitor is not going to work on a smartphone. Similarly, don't assume that what looks good on an iPad is going to look the same on an Android device or a BlackBerry.

Which leads to another critical point about mobile: Despite what Apple may tell you, it's no longer an iPhone/iPad world. Indeed, as of November 2011, Google had nearly 20 percent more subscribers than Apple did, per comScore. So when creating your mobile website or app, make sure it looks good and is easy to navigate across a variety of mobile platforms (Google/Android, Apple/iOS, RIM/BlackBerry and Windows).

Unlike traditional websites, with mobile it's all about streamlining information. So "figure out what are the five or six items that are the most vital to your customers," advises Craig, and get rid of all the extraneous stuff that could slow them down or distract them (e.g., Flash, large graphics or pictures, audio).

Finally, make sure to test your mobile website or app before you release it publicly.

How Long It Will Take and What Will It Cost?

Depending on the amount of work that needs to done, and what you already have in place, it will likely take three to nine months to develop a good mobile website or native app. Three months if your enterprise already has a good service-oriented architecture in place and the mobile website or app is not too complex — "we're talking a straight build out, HTML5 with a wrapped app," Liliedahl says; nine months if there's no real infrastructure in place — that is, you need to build a service-oriented architecture.

As for the cost, while there are sites out there that allow you to create free iPhone apps, expect to pay at least $20,000 to design and deploy a professional-looking, customized, native iPhone app, say both Liliedahl and Craig. Similarly, you can find designers who will create a basic mobile website, with a few pages, for a few hundred dollars. But if you want to create a multi-platform mobile presence that not only looks good on the front-end, but provides a positive user experience and integrates with and leverages your back end systems, expect to pay upwards of $200,000.

While $200,000 may seem like a lot of money, when you consider that there are more than 100 million smartphone and tablet users in the United States alone, and that that number is growing, the ROI can make mobile well worth it. Also, you don't have to do everything at once. "Start with a small project," Epperson suggests. "Find out how people are consuming your data." Then build from there.

Jennifer Lonoff Schiff is a contributor to CIO.com and runs a marketing communications firm focused on helping organizations better interact with their customers and partners.

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