What web managers wish for in 2013

Apps are already last year’s thing to online corporate communications teams. In the new year they aim to unwrap something smarter, Scott Payton reports.

Featured sites

BASF (mobile) m.basf.com Siemens (mobile) m.siemens.com
Nestlé (mobile) www.nestle.com Mashable
The Boston Globe

The corporate app bandwagon is grinding to a halt, as the majority of online teams push mobile-optimised websites to the top of their agendas for 2013.
Why, according to the headline finding from a Bowen Craggs survey of web managers conducted at the beginning of December**, is interest in corporate apps waning? What sorts of mobile sites do companies plan to build? And what lessons can be learned from those who have already made their corporate content more smartphone and small-tablet friendly?

App apathy

Our survey findings are stark. Today, in December 2012, more companies represented in our poll have a corporate app than have a mobile-optimised corporate website (35 per cent have a corporate app against 29 per cent with a mobile-optimised corporate site). Yet by this time next year 81 per cent of companies hope to have a mobile-optimised site up and running – while the proportion with a corporate app is set to rise to just 46 per cent.
In other words, the number of companies with a mobile corporate site is projected to rise 179 per cent during 2013, while the number with a corporate app is set to increase by just 31 per cent.
Why? Web managers have three compelling reasons for preferring mobile-optimised corporate sites over corporate apps, according to those attending a Bowen Craggs Web Effectiveness Network meeting hosted by medical equipment multinational Smith & Nephew in London last week.
p((. Broadband ubiquity One of the much-vaunted benefits of apps is that they can be used offline. So analysts can download a results presentation via a corporate app while they have an internet connection, then read it on their smartphone or tablet when they don’t – on a plane, for instance. Yet many planes, like a growing number of other locations, now offer wi-fi. As broadband coverage grows, apps’ comparative advantage of offline usability diminishes – making mobile sites an increasingly attractive alternative.
p((. Lack of appeal to occasional visitors An app might be worth downloading for regular consumers of corporate content – journalists and investors, for example. But the idea of taking the trouble to find and download an app just doesn’t make sense for the large number of people with one-off or rare reasons to consume a company’s online content. A mobile site, by contrast, is a hassle-free resource for all kinds of visitor.
p((. Need to customise for multiple devices and platforms The pioneers of corporate apps quickly discovered that it’s necessary to build separate apps for users of iPhones, iPads and Android devices. There are two reasons for this. First, people expect tablet apps to look beautiful on their large high-resolution screens, whereas smartphone users are more interested in simple functionality. Second, Android devices have different physical navigation buttons to Apple devices: a good app needs to be tailored to these different buttons. Building and maintaining bespoke versions of a corporate app for multiple devices can be costly. In contrast, users do not expect mobile-optimised sites to be tailored so tightly to their own type of device.

Changed preference

As an executive of a multinational company with a long-established media and investor app put it: “If we were weighing up the pros and cons of launching the app now, we wouldn’t bother to go ahead with it because we’d focus on the mobile version of the website instead.”
Our survey shows that a growing number of web managers share this view. Indeed, when survey participants were asked which was a higher corporate communications priority for their company, corporate apps or a mobile-optimised corporate site, 87 per cent indicated a mobile-optimised site.
This is not to say that every web manager has gone off the idea of apps completely. There were some in the meeting who felt that their investor/media apps continued to provide a valuable service – and who planned to invest in apps further during the coming months. But this now seems a minority view – and one that is held by web managers who are also investing heavily in their mobile-optimised corporate websites.

Mobile plans

Survey respondents were also asked which sorts of corporate mobile site their company had now (as well as whether they had a mobile site at all) and which type they planned to launch in the next 12 months. Again, the results told a clear story of shifting priorities among web managers.
Almost twice as many companies represented in our survey have a separate mobile site (for example m.companyname.com) as have a responsive site (one that automatically reconfigures design and layout according to the user’s screen size). Almost one in five (19 per cent) has a separate mobile site, while only one in ten has a responsive site.
However, when it comes to plans for 2013, the tables turn. While one third of those companies surveyed that do not have a separate mobile site plan to launch one in the next 12 months, more than half of companies – 53 per cent – that don’t yet have a responsive site plan to launch one during the same period. (Only 19 per cent of web managers surveyed said they neither had a mobile site nor planned to launch one within the next year.)
In other words, responsive corporate sites are eclipsing separate mobile sites as web managers’ preferred channel for serving the growing number of online visitors using smartphones and other small devices.

Separate or responsive?

What, then, are the comparative pros and cons of a responsive site versus a separate mobile site?
p(. Separate mobile sites have two big advantages
p((. They don’t require an overhaul of the main corporate site. Companies including BASF, Siemens and Nestlé have launched separate mobile sites alongside their existing ‘full’ websites.
p((. They can be tailored easily to the needs of mobile users – by providing large navigation buttons, simple menus and cut-down, targeted content, for example.
p(. Responsive sites have, in theory, more advantages.
p(. For example…

p((. They can adapt to all screen sizes not just pre-specified ones.
p((. They allow users to view all content, rather than the cut-down choice offered by most separate mobile sites.
Indeed, several news-based websites, including the technology-focused Mashable (which launched a responsive site last week) and the Boston Globe (which launched one in September 2011), are using responsive design to deliver an effective online service for users of all devices – including desktop computers, tablets and smartphones.
For web managers asking ‘where’s the catch with responsive design?’ – it’s this: corporate websites are not as easy to get right using responsive design as news sites. Why? Because news sites do a single and simple job: they provide visitors with news stories. It is relatively easy to create a responsive site that does this job well on all sizes of screen.
Corporate sites have a broader remit and more varied (as well as deeper) content. It is more difficult to create a responsive site that serves all a corporate site’s audiences well, with all levels of content, on all sizes of screen. Not impossible – but difficult. Indeed, no company with a large corporate website has managed to get it completely right. Problems include navigation devices such breadcrumb trails that are fiddly to use in their ‘collapsed’ mobile-screen-sized form and content-heavy pages that require extensive scrolling on small screens.

Third way

For me, the elements of responsive design will only reach their full potential within a corporate website if they are used to deliver not just reconfigured but sometimes completely new navigation menus, layouts and – where appropriate – content tailored to different devices. There is a name in web design circles for this idea: ‘adaptive design’.
By taking this ‘adaptive’ approach, web managers can tailor the corporate site so it doesn’t just look good on different screen sizes, but also works as effectively as it possibly can on different devices.
The ‘responsive’ bandwagon may be gathering pace, but I suspect that our survey of web managers in December 2013 will see the ‘adaptive’ one gaining the most traction.
**The survey sample consisted of 68 web managers from some of the world’s largest organisations. Responses were provided between 2 and 6 December 2012.

First published 12 December, 2012
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