Apps Continue to Battle, But the Mobile Web May Be Catching Up

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It is time to revisit the apps versus mobile web debate.

At the TAP 2016 conference a couple weeks ago, I got the distinct impression that there was a movement away from apps toward mobile websites — and keep in mind that this was at a mobile conference hosted by Button, a company that was invented to make it easier to link content and commerce apps. Don’t worry, Button is on-trend; it now offers its technology in support of one-click links from mobile pages to transaction apps, as well.

Some stats:

  • For the past three years, the average number of smartphone apps used monthly by U.S. adults has been flat to down, going from 29.0 in 2014 to 27.6 this May. At the same time, the average number of sites visited on a smartphone has increased steadily from 36.3 to 43.8. PC sites are down, but still higher than mobile at 54.9, and tablet apps are flat at 13.5. TV channels are a little bit down at 19.8. (Source: Nielsen Total Audience Report Q2 2016)
  • Yes, smartphone time is dominated by apps. That’s what app vendors all quote. App usage consumed 88% of the time spent on smartphones in the U.S, versus 12% by mobile websites. It’s not much different for tablets. In fact, smartphone apps soaked up 49% of digital media time overall, making them the plurality platform combination over the PC, which accounted for 33%. (Source: comScore’s 2016 U.S. Mobile App Report)
  • But consider which apps dominate the smartphone. ComScore’s report notes that social networks, music, games, video, and messaging apps made up 60% of all the time spent on smartphones. And for any given individual user, their top 4 apps consumed 80% of their time. They spent 45% of their time on their number one app – usually Facebook.
  • ComScore has a similar figure for the number of apps used by the average smartphone user to that of Nielsen, and comScore says the average user downloads 3.5 apps a month. Even accounting for upgrades, that means there is significant churn on the homescreen.

The debate is no longer a distraction. If you’re not Facebook, YouTube, a messaging app, Uber, a map, or a game, you should make your mobile-first strategy mobile-web first. Sure, everyday local consumables such as Starbucks can pull it off, and someone — if not Apple, Google, or Facebook — will establish a cross-brand loyalty program. But most retailers should focus on the web, even if they have cool location-based functionality they built for an app, or clever ways of using apps to drive traffic into stores.

While an emphasis on the mobile web reinforces the walled-garden platforms from Apple, Facebook, and Google — and, at least in Asia, a handful of messaging apps — in the long run it may be a good thing. App discovery is already challenging within the mobile app stores, and mobile app download ads are getting costlier as major advertisers spend more and more of their digital budgets on mobile. At the conference, panelists bemoaned mobile clutter, talked about TV campaigns (Jet) and referrals (Uber) to encourage downloads, and also described how they had to use e-mail and newsletter campaigns to remind customers to use apps they’d downloaded (BT, Jet).

With a shift to mobile websites, most mobile marketing dynamics will remain, although implementation for sites versus apps will be more than nuanced. Mobile search is already undergoing shifts, and listings management must take into account the role of the mobile platforms, maps, and, probably, Amazon. Agencies and advertisers will have to reevaluate mobile measurement and data providers. Cross-media promotion and engagement tactics – like that e-mail example – still demand attention.

In the U.S., I expect maps and Uber will be a bigger requirement for local retailers and marketers than emerging “virtual assistants” and messaging-based bots, at least initially. “Bots are the new apps” may be an exciting rallying cry, but it seems premature. Early results from our Street Fight executive survey suggest bots aren’t seeing a whole lot of investment focus from vendors right now, and might even be a fading hot topic. We’ll show those results at the Street Fight Summit, and in an accompanying report. But let me know what you think about apps and bots in the comments section.

David Card is Street Fight’s director of research.