Mobile-First or Web-First: The Debate Resurfaces

The debate between mobile and web has resurfaced – and it is undeniably growing, as companies struggle to determine a side for their marketing and operations strategies. Over the past few years the web, which had led the tech market for decades, began to trickle out as the mobile market accelerated quickly. Mobile – having evolved technically, strategically and financially – has helped companies to revive their business. Countless major enterprises, which had previously built their business strategies on desktop and web platforms, have abandoned their web efforts to become ‘mobile-first’. The post “Mobile Drives Bottom Line Growth for Businesses Worldwide” covers eBay, Go Daddy, Dunkin Brands and Google’s march to a mobile-first business model and their major successes from making the switch.

However, there is a new pattern emerging that cannot be ignored. Despite mobile’s acceleration, could companies pivot back towards a web-first business model? Vibhu Norby, Co-Founder of Everyme and Origami Labs (YC S11), says it is likely. Norby, like countless other companies entering the market during this time of transition, has tried two mobile-first free social products. However, he is boldly going web-first for his next product.

In a recent post Norby explains that the reason for his pivot back towards the web lies in the struggle to retain mobile users and keep them engaged:

“Let me share with you some rough numbers from our mobile-first startup. Out of 300,000+ downloads and 250,000 unique website visitors, 200,000 people have signed up. So right away, chop off 60% of your audience whom are just window-shopping. As an aside, I have heard privately from an app maker with a 100m+ downloads that 50% of people don’t even open their app after downloading. And that’s not counting people who can’t find your app in the store or decide not to download it after seeing your app rating (4.5 stars, in our case).

We used to have a screen where users could input their phone numbers and emails to help other users find them better. Out of 200,000, chop off 25% who don’t have the patience for that or are scared that we will sell their phone number. We also used to have a social network sign-in screen to automatically create groups for our users. Another 25% don’t want to sign-in to a social network, don’t see the skip button, or get bored by this time. We have since removed those two steps, but it took us a while to get there because we had to re-engineer how onboarding worked.

So that takes our original 550,000 eyeballs + people to 100,000 users. Now that the user is in our app and has an account, we want them to create a group and add their friends or family to the group. 25% of users won’t create a group and another 25% won’t add anybody to the group they created. Now we need them to share something to those people. Then the people they share with need to see the value, understand what is going on, and go through most of the steps above.

At best, we retain 5% of users through the entire onboarding process. Attempts to fix it have raised it only nominally. We are not alone on that count even amongst apps with much better onboarding and many more app versions than our own.

No business wants to lose a percentage of their users after onboarding, and Norby believes user retention is the primary reason that mobile is failing. Norby concludes that with the web his company will have a better chance of success:

“We want to place our chips where we believe we have the best chance of succeeding based on our theories and data. For us, mobile is not that place, which is why our new product is going to be launching web-first in the next couple months, with mobile as a companion app. We are taking a big bet on the web and the Internet in general, as you’ll see by how it functions. We are also going revenue-first because we believe in privacy and we’re willing to trade a smaller, slower-growing audience for it. Our new product will cost you money, so you can be assured that it doesn’t cost you something else.

In conclusion, I want to say that I don’t think mobile is going to stop growing. We are not going web-first because people use the web more than mobile. I use my phone more than anything else. I just don’t think that an entrepreneur who wants a real shot at success should start their business there. The Android and iOS platform set us up to fail by attracting us with the veneer of users, but in reality you are going to fight harder for them than is worthwhile to your business.”

While Norby does admit he believes mobile will continue to grow, Molly Wood of CNet predicts there is a post-mobile future ahead:

“But the reality is very different, and moving quickly. Yes, smartphones and tablets dominate the landscape–for now. And these devices have already begun to pave the way toward a remarkable future. Already, you can use a phone or tablet to control the temperature in your house, call a taxi that already knows your location, video chat with anyone in the world, lock or unlock the door of your house, start your car, augment reality, or access nearly all the world’s information in seconds.

What comes next? All that and more. According to Cisco, one trillion devices will be connected to the Internet in 2013. As SmartThings CTO Jeff Hagins put it during a recent presentation at Le Web in Paris, ‘the entire world is becoming programmable.’ It’s a trend that has the potential to do nothing less than ‘change almost everything,’ according to Forbes.

Ultimately, this connected future comes down to increasingly inexpensive sensors, wireless broadband networks, and imagination.”

There is no doubt that the growing mobile matrix and the future connected devices will bring a world of opportunity to businesses worldwide. But for now, there is no definitive “right answer” between mobile or web. To thrive in today’s competitive landscape businesses need both a mobile app and a web presence. There are a few rare exclusively mobile companies that have been successful – Instagram or Shazam, for example. Yet, for most having a well-tested duel presence is the key to a successful business model. Companies that pour all their effort into one and leave behind the other are at risk for failure. If your a company that wants to put more effort into one tech presence, don’t lose sight of the other.

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