By Kelly Drill

Given the prominence of mobile devices among today’s consumers, making your business more accessible to mobile users is a marketing no-brainer. If you’ve been thinking about investing in either a mobile website or a mobile app for your business, there are a few important things to consider before taking the plunge.

Why Go Mobile?

Since Apple introduced the iPhone, more than half of U.S. consumers have bought a smartphone. Of those, the majority regularly use their phones to access information about businesses – particularly local businesses – when they’re on the go. If your business website isn’t at least mobile-friendly, you’re likely to miss out on potential customers.

Mobile apps can benefit small businesses in other ways. Apps are primarily intended to serve your existing customers, not earn you new ones. That said, apps can be great ways to increase sales and win customer loyalty, both of which are essential to the long-term success of your business.

What’s the Difference Between a Mobile Site and an App?

There’s some confusion between mobile sites and mobile apps. If you use a smartphone, you’ve probably noticed that not all sites are created equal when it comes to using them via a mobile browser. If a site isn’t at least “optimized” for mobile devices, it will appear as just a smaller version of a desktop site. You can probably get around, but it will take some serious pinching and zooming, and complex forms will be difficult to fill out.

A mobile-optimized site is a site that’s designed specifically with mobile browsers in mind. This can be accomplished in a couple of ways: you can rebuild your desktop site using a technique called “responsive design” (a way of building websites so that they adjust for browser window size) or you can build a stand-alone mobile website. If you have a stand-alone mobile site, smartphone users are re-directed to your mobile site (usually a simplified version of your desktop site) and everyone else sees your regular site.

In contrast, an app is a piece of software that is installed on a mobile phone. Apps are downloaded via an app marketplace – either Apple’s App Store or the Google Play Store.

Which Is Best for You?

Ideally, you’d be able to afford a great mobile site for your business as well as a custom app to serve your existing customers. But since most small businesses have limited funds to invest in going mobile, you may be forced to choose one or the other. So which is right for you: a mobile-friendly website or a custom mobile app?

The answer has everything to do with your goals for your business. If you want to make it faster and simpler for mobile users to access important information – a restaurant menu, show times or contact number, for instance – a mobile site is definitely the way to go. Mobile websites are available without any extra effort on the customer’s part; there’s nothing to download, which can mean broader engagement.

On the other hand, a custom app can drive repeat sales and turn one-time customers into brand devotees. An app offers a more personalized experience and encourages regular usage (think re-ordering a favorite product or creating a wish list). And unlike a website, an app can be accessed when the user is offline.

As you consider taking your site mobile, take the time to look closely at the “why” before you setting on the “how.” Ensuring that your decision aligns closely with your short and long-term goals is the best way to ensure that you’ll get the best possible return on your investment.