Editor’s Take: The Apps vs. Browser Debate Is a Distraction

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The venerable apps vs. mobile web debate continues to rage on, the fires stoked anew by a recent comScore report that showed time spent with apps has grown at a far faster rate over the past three years than time spent with either the desktop or mobile web. It also showed both the mobile web and the desktop have much larger total audiences than apps, even if engagement rates are lower, making the situation that much murkier.

Much about this ongoing debate rings false. The near-term probability of media usage being (or becoming) a zero-sum game is slim. We’ve been in a transitional multiscreen, multi-device phase for a while, and it’s likely we’ll continue on that course for some time. The hierarchy of our screens may shift (with mobile poised to shed its second- or third-screen moniker), some may fade in importance, but they won’t fade away completely. There is no definitive media experience; consumers enjoy many different media experiences. Suggesting that apps and browsers are or should be the same creates a false equivalency. They serve different needs and appeal differently to users. As Greg Sterling noted in Marketing Land:

It’s important to be clear that mobile apps aren’t appropriate for every merchant or marketer. The apps vs. mobile browser discussion is really about audience segmentation and user behavior patterns. As a crude generalization, the browser is for more casual audiences and apps are for more frequent and loyal customers.

Rendering the debate in stark either/or terms oversimplifies the realities of both the digital marketing landscape and the variegated ways consumers navigate that landscape. Doing so does a particular disservice to the local business owner, adding more confusion where more clarity is needed.

From our executive survey, we have a window into the technology, marketing and logistical challenges involved in making the connected local economy more connected. We’ve also seen the main challenges merchants face: They have limited time, budgets, and, in most cases, marketing and technology expertise. That puts them at a disadvantage in the face of an already complex marketing ecosystem. Merchants need to know how and where to marshal those limited resources to the best effect for their business.

All things being equal, most businesses should have an app, but at the local level, all things aren’t equal. The stock-in-trade of most local businesses is generating foot traffic — a very different kind of engagement than what’s increasing with apps.

Given consumers’ patterns of interactions with local businesses, a website is going to be their first port of call. Depending on the focus and the vertical, going all-in on apps at the expense of creating a well-developed, mobile-optimized site and engaging in all the accompanying tactics (SEO, listings management, social media, reputation management, etc.) is likely to do the local business more harm than good. Local merchants do need help with mobile, as Street Fight’s The Local Merchant 2015 report found, but there is a long list of basic channels and tactics that come first.

There are many larger issues at play in the apps vs. browser debate, some technology- and user experience-related, others linked to competing visions of digital giants (Apple, Google, et al). But for local merchants, the debate is largely a distraction. Business owners do need to understand the changing media landscape to make the most effective possible use of their limited marketing budgets, but their time and their dollars are better spent on marketing fundamentals rather than investing in the increasingly difficult and crowded race to acquire, retain, and monetize app users.

Noah Elkin is Street Fight’s managing editor.