Your mobile strategy should facilitate business over advertising it

Everyone is thinking about what they want to do with their mobile strategy these days. Most of the bleeding edge strategy in the arena is coming from the advertising/marketing side of the corporate house though instead of IT. Marketing gurus consider a mobile strategy to be akin to a web site. Just another way to expand your business and get your name out there to the masses. While they are correct, the mistake comes when the comparison is made between the effort to create a static content web site as opposed to the effort to create a functioning mobile application.

Most web sites are just static HTML pages. I like to say “marketing fluff”. They serve a great purpose by legitimizing your business and showing the general public that you are more than a few guys at a kitchen table dreaming up ideas. From a programming perspective, static web content is simple. Most programmers don’t even consider it actual code. A mobile app differs from a static web site in that it should provide users with functionality instead of eye candy. For example, you may accept orders through your mobile app, do estimations or load data from a server to keep the content fresh. All of this is functionality that requires deeper programming expertise than static HTML content. For example, on iPhone and iPads, you need an Objective C programmer and in the Android world you need a Java programmer. Objective C and Java are far more complex than HTML and are true programming languages. So, while the cutting edge thinking in mobile is done in marketing, the implementation of the app fall more into the domain of IT.

Some companies have more than static web sites out there. Take Wal-Mart for example, Wal-Mart is a traditional brick and mortar institution but has a web site that allows you to shop at home. This type of functional web site might have been designed by a marketing department but the functionality was delegated to programmers at some point. The same principal applied to the Wal-Mart web site applies to their mobile app. It facilitate their business first and advertises it second. But if you download the app, you’ll notice that it simplifies the functionality that the web site offers. The main functionality is there to shop but some of the more detailed functions are not present. Another principle of mobile development is to keep it extremely simple. Do not try to put all of your bells and whistles from the web site into the mobile app.

Usability and design are extremely important in a functional web site and they are equally important in your mobile app. It’s probably a good thing if your marketing department is leading the charge for your mobile app. This means that usually graphic designers and usability experts are working on the design and intend to hand it off to programmers for implementation. This strategy works very well and usually results in a fantastic mobile experience for the end user.

Now that I have given you a little background on the differences between a mobile app and a static web site, I would be remiss not to mention cost. Cost is the biggest issue I see when someone starts talking a mobile app. In their mind, they equate the mobile app back to marketing expenses and the cost of their “static” web site. “I paid $10,000 for my web site, so I was going to budget 75% of that for my mobile app” is something I hear quite often. Now, let’s look back at what I have said before. The static content web site took one designer to implement doing just straight HTML. Now you need a designer plus a programmer and let’s face it, designers are no less talented than programmers but programmers are more expensive, usually by another 50-100% more depending on the experience level. So based on this, you can logically deduce that your expense for your mobile app should be around 150% more than it cost to do your web site. So if you spent $10,000 for your web site, I would off the cuff estimate that your mobile app is going to be in the ballpark of $20-25,000. Now keep in mind that there are a lot of variables at play here and take my estimate with a grain of salt. I’m not saying you can’t do a mobile app for 75% of your web site costs but I am going to say with 100% accuracy that if you go that route, you won’t be happy with what you get from a functionality perspective.

I want to throw out another thing I see people rationalizing in their heads. It’s a smartphone, therefore it’s smaller, so it must be cheaper to develop for and take less code. It takes the same amount of code to do a task on the server as it does doing the same task on a smartphone 99.9% of the time. Another mistake I see people make with relation to cost is forgetting the cost of the backend support. You want your mobile app to update from the server to get fresh content and you also want it to store that data and work if the user is without access to an internet connection. This adds great amounts of complexity and multiplies the cost of the project. For one, it takes a greater level of programming expertise to integrate with services and cache/store data for offline use than just simply creating a self contained mobile app. This expertise comes at an increased cost in terms of the resource and the time of the project.

All, this being said, I want to just put a few tips out there to help you evaluate your mobile strategy so that you can make an informed decision when you get to that point.

  • Don’t do a mobile app for the sake of doing a mobile app
  • Make sure that you can’t just get by with a mobile web site strategy instead native mobile functionality
  • Remember the cost will be greater than you expect always
  • Remember that you need a programmer and a designer at least
  • Keep the functionality simpler than your web site
  • Try to plan to feed the app from the same data sources as your web site
  • Do not use an advertising firm to write your mobile app. This is the greatest advice I can give. By all means, contract them to design it and create mockups, but have it reviewed and implemented by an experienced mobile developer or architect. Most advertising firms outsource the implementation to a contractor anyway.
  • Do not exclude your IT organization from your strategy. IT and marketing should collaborate on mobile strategy