Mobile Sites and Mobile Apps: What’s the Difference?

Written by  //  November 22, 2013  //  Church Mobile  //  10 Comments

Do you notice people checking their phones during services? In one hour, people usually check their phones nine times. That’s once every 6.5 minutes! In a church service, that number probably ramps up even higher, because attendees are taking notes, reading their Bibles, tweeting meaningful passages, and checking their calendars. Mobile, for churches, is a communication channel flowing with milk and honey.

A common stumbling block for churches on their trek to the “Promise Land” of mobile is misconceptions about mobile apps and mobile websites. What is the difference between the two? Which is more important?

A Sermon vs A Small Group Meeting

The difference between a mobile website and a mobile app is comparable to the difference between giving a sermon and holding a small group meeting. Both are important, but have different functions. Mobile sites are one-stop spots for finding information and quick facts, such as service times or the church address. Like a sermon, mobile site uses one method of communication to reach a large audience and is primarily one-way. Mobile sites “talk at” their users, and, while they provide valuable information, they are accessed infrequently.

Mobile apps provide these services as well, but a mobile app also allows for a very tailored interaction with the members of the congregation. Like a small group meeting, mobile apps provide a means to learn through repeated engagement and two-way communication. Mobile apps provide you with a platform to host videos, news updates, prayer requests, and bulletins. A well-designed mobile app is easier to navigate and feels more natural than a typical mobile website, and it is much easier to access.

From a technical perspective, mobile apps are downloaded directly to your phone. Although they use internet connectivity to update, they run natively in your phone’s operating system and can seamlessly integrate a variety of news and media from your church. Since data connectivity is not required and apps generally load faster than sites, they feel fluid and personal, like a conversation with a friend.

Which is More Important?

By 2017, over half of all Internet traffic will come through wireless and mobile devices. A good mobile site is a necessity for a church, because many looking for information about your church might be doing so at red lights on their way to the service! If your church is looking to better their mobile site, each your web developer or marketing agency is the first place to start.

Mobile apps, however, account for 80% of time spent on mobile devices, and are exponentially more effective for tailored communication and interaction with church-goers. The chart below offers a comparison of mobile sites and mobile apps.

Mobile Apps vs Sites

How does a church build an effective mobile site if their current site isn’t great?

A church’s best bet is to contact their existing site provider. Responsive design is quickly becoming the standard for web, as it intelligently re-formats your existing website when it’s accessed on a mobile device. If you try building an effective mobile set while keeping your current site the same, you’re going to end up making all of your updates in two places. That’s just not something most church administrators have time for.

Additionally, if you’re unhappy with your web provider—which, if you don’t have a mobile-optimized site by now, you probably should be—these providers build great sites using responsive design:

Are You Ready for a Mobile App?

The best way to gauge if your church is ready for an app is through how frequently people are accessing content. Mobile sites are geared toward quick, one-time information seekers. These people are in need of service times or directions, both of which are vital to getting people through the doors, but only require one visit to the site. Mobile apps are optimized for “tap happy” repetitive content users. These people frequent sermon podcasts, event schedules, and bulletin updates to not only walk into the church on Sunday mornings, but to stay engaged with church happenings throughout the week.

Ask yourself two questions:

  • Do a good percentage of our members and guests use smartphones?
  • Do I want to engage and empower those members and guests on a regular basis?

If both answers are yes, it might be time to look into an app. At Bluebridge ChurchApps, we hold a 1-hour “App Assessment” to determine whether or not a church is ready to have their own app. By the end of that meeting, it is usually clear whether a church still has work to do or if it’s time to move to an app.

When choosing an app provider, a church should be sure to ask:

1. What kind of technical support and regular updates the company offers with their app

2. What branding and church personalization features included

3. The possibilities for multi-campus churches

4. The availability of push notifications within the app

5. What are all of the costs involved with developing and maintaining the app

6. What the timeline for an app looks like, from start to launch

Mobile is the new “Promised Land” of church communication and technology. Like the combination of Sunday morning sermons and weekly small group meetings make for a connected church body, both mobile apps and mobile sites are important to a comprehensive communication strategy. Each serve different functions within the church, but are most powerful when used in conjunction with each other. If you haven’t already, start a conversation about your church’s mobile presence.

How are you planning to connect with your smartphone-toting church body?

About the Author

Santiago Jaramillo is a published author, having published and guest lectured several academic papers on technology trends at Harvard University and University of Cambridge, and was named to Inc. magazine’s prestigious “30 Under 30 World’s Coolest Entrepreneurs” list in 2013. Jaramillo currently serves as the CEO of BlueBridge Digital, a mobile apps company that helps organizations like churches engage through compelling mobile apps.

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10 Comments on "Mobile Sites and Mobile Apps: What’s the Difference?"

  1. Christopher Wulff January 13, 2014 at 1:45 pm · Reply

    This entire post is nonsense designed for business promotion and badly skews reality using unattributed and unverified graphics and statistics. It is quite simply misleading about both the technology and utility of the mobile web, which is the actual promised land – free from the locked-in platforms and control of monopolies, open to free and just creation.

    Mobile sites aren’t unidirectional unless the website they draw from is unidirectional. They’re not single-use unless your website is single-use. If you have sermons, newsletters, blogs and forums on your website, they still exist on a mobile site and can have exactly the same functionality as that mobile app promises. Oh, except you already built the functionality, so you’re not paying for it again.

    Perhaps some commentary from the author on the extraordinary costs of maintaining multiple code bases for different mobile operating systems (windows, iOS, blackberry, android), while mobile sites operate on one consistent code base. Or that you’re constantly having to run updates to multiple codebases as they change (just ask android app developers how much of a pain in the ass this is), because otherwise your app will break. (Wait for the author’s explanation about how his business can solve that problem for you with their integrated blah, blah, blah…). Or why the provided graphic suggests that two-way interactivity is achieved primarily through the push notifications that many smartphone users are constantly trying to turn off. Interactivity is about more than my phone annoying me, and the forms that we use in mobile apps work just fine on mobile sites, thank you very much.

    Neither of these two questions: “Do a good percentage of our members and guests use smartphones? Do I want to engage and empower those members and guests on a regular basis?” relate to what kind of technology one might employ, and they certainly don’t privilege mobile apps over the mobile web. Members can be equally “engaged and empowered” with a mobile website as with a mobile app, it just costs less.

    The marketing intent of a mobile site vs. a mobile app aren’t categorically different. In fact, they’re typically identical. But calling it information gathering or suggesting it’s just for directions is a great way to suggest that it’s inadequate.

    “Mobile apps provide you with a platform to host videos, news updates, prayer requests, and bulletins.” Most church websites already do this, and so would a mobile optimized site. So why is the author suggesting that this is only possible with an app. And perhaps they’re simply behind the times at their company, but HTML5 local storage is rapidly negating the ‘offline’ data advantage.

    I’m also fascinated by the ten clicks they’re suggesting for getting to a site from the home screen. Given that you can save a mobile site to the home screen just as readily as an app, I’m curious why the author deliberately misleads the audience. I have numerous mobile sites on my home screen, just one click away, and not filed away in yet another folder on yet another screen of ‘mobile apps’. If you put it on the home screen it’s one click away – it doesn’t matter if it’s an app or a mobile site.

    Your website can integrate data from all kinds of varied sources in a way that your mobile app can’t – which you’ll wish you’d paid attention to when you realize you’re locked into yet another proprietary system and are paying through the nose for custom APIs, if they’re even possible.

    My favourite part though is how the author raises up how inefficient it is to set up a separate mobile site (in contrast to your website) because you’d have to maintain the same information in two places. This is why, the author rightly notes, developers are moving to responsive design (and you should too). It’s funny because they neglect to mention that in building a separate mobile app, you’re doing exactly that. Sermon archive in the mobile app, prayer requests, etc. all wind up being duplicated from your regular website, where your users are already used to accessing them – and which you have to maintain for those folks who don’t use smartphones (where is the acknowledgement about how few apps people ever really install or use – aside from the games their children play).

    You do need to be intentional about the mobile web, but it has nothing to do with mobile app vs. mobile site. It has to do with thinking of yourself as being in relationship with your audience whether they’re on a phone, on a tablet, on a desktop computer. Mobile sites and the mobile web are both the long and short term answer to that, not proprietary apps.

    This kind of misleading information is constantly being offered to churches, preying upon their desire to be good stewards and trusting in companies to be honest in their information. We depend on our advisers, like this site, to assist us in this. A little more editorial vigilance, which is the duty you owe if you want to be a resource to the Church, to not post unchallenged, unattributed and misleading assertions, would make me trust the content here more readily. But at this point, I can no longer distinguish between the advertorials and the supposedly objective content.

    • Lauren Hunter January 14, 2014 at 12:35 pm · Reply

      Hey Chris, I do appreciate your comment and feedback. I’m going to get a few people more tech savvy than me to chime in as well. Best, Lauren

    • Jeremy Smith January 15, 2014 at 2:30 pm · Reply

      Chris,

      I will agree with you that a mobile responsive website is not unilateral unless you make it that way, but he has a point about the notifications that a mobile design does not do. Level of engagement and user commitment are both opinionated and I would not agree with him on his determination. (I do not think there is a generalized answer here)

      As for the mobile app icon verses saving a link on your homepage, statistics from 2013 show that people DO NOT save links to their homepage and therefore it does take more clicks to get to the website. You are not part of the majority in doing so.

      You state and assume that mobile sites are the future, but what if the church does not have high wifi bandwidth (if any at all) and this is the best option with an app for the church? What if the elder board gets a high budget line item and push an app but does not want to have monthly costs that come with a higher level of responsive website with traffic/features/website redesign? What if the church is in a high rebranding phase towards 20-somethings and thus apps are where it is at? Maybe the church has it integrated into other parts of the phone like the camera, social media, etc and an app makes best sense?

      You seem to be pushing for only responsive-websites, but at the heart of it, that is not true either. I agree that the author could use better care with stating some opinions in the chart, but you are making rude and unnecessary comments towards the editor and author that are terribly offensive. Consider next time that you begin a dialogue with the author asking why they stated these things instead of stating such harsh toned words.

      • Lauren Hunter January 15, 2014 at 9:54 pm · Reply

        Thanks for chiming in, Jeremy. I appreciate your insight and think you added much thought to the discussion!

  2. Matt McKee January 16, 2014 at 5:07 am · Reply

    Mobile website vs Mobile app has been the topic of discussion now for over 4 years. The catalyst to this discussion was of course the iPhone. When the iPhone launched there was not an app store. The idea was that all developers could create mobile web sites or mobile web apps (not native apps) and people could then just click and save those sites to their home screen. This lead many people including myself to jailbreak the first iPhone so that we could load native apps onto the device. Yes I was running apps on my iPhone before there was an app store. Then as we all know Apple launched an App Store and let the debate begin.

    Here is where I come down on the issue and have since I started a mobile app and mobile website for churches: You need both.

    Can a mobile website for a church do everything that a church needs to do? Yes.
    Does an app give the church more functionality moving forward? Yes.

    A mobile website is for being found.
    A mobile app is for engagement.

    How do I know this? The users decided. We as technologists don’t get to pick. We get to adapt to what most user decides to do.

    This is not about selling an app to the church and if it is then shame on you and me. This is about getting the greatest message of all time into the hands of people who will interact with it.

    Here is a case study. One of our largest clients has an incredible website that is responsive. We didn’t build it. It has everything on it that the app we built for them does. Everything. They also have over 1,000,000 fans on Facebook and Twitter. Why in the world would they need an app? They have an amazing presence on the web and across social channels. Did they just want to be cool and go with a trend? No they wanted to see how people would interact with their content. What did people do when they launched their app? Sure they downloaded it but what they found was that more people watched their live stream of their service from the app than any other place. They also found that more new people gave from the app than any other place.

    Moving forward apps are going to play an even bigger role. It will have to do more about the hardware of the device than the content on the web. It will be about sensors interacting with mobile devices and how a person then interacts with the device. This will all be done through apps and not the web.

    So do you need a mobile website? Yes.
    Do you need an app? Test and see but I think users will tell you yes.

    Matt McKee
    ceo of ROAR

    • Lauren Hunter January 16, 2014 at 9:02 am · Reply

      Great addition to this heated debate, Matt! Grateful for your contribution to the Kingdom!

  3. Jeff Maddux January 16, 2014 at 3:35 pm · Reply

    I am an Android developer and also have some experience with iOS. Let me quickly address a few of the issues Chris brought up.

    First, “multiple code bases”. Yes, a separate code base is required for Windows, iOS, Blackberry and Android. In reality though, only one or two of the above mentioned platforms needs to be supported today… iOS and/or Android. Windows is gaining market share but not yet enough that I personally would consider investing in Windows development. And the future of Blackberry is in question (you can, however, port Android apps to Blackberry). And by the way, Amazon runs Android so no separate codebase is needed to support Amazon devices. Within the iOS and Android ecosystems themselves, only one codebase is need to support their respective devices. They are both backwards compatible.

    Second, regarding “updates to multiple codebases”. Both Android and iOS release updates periodically, which is a good thing! Apps don’t just “break” from an update. An app is not something you build once and then forget about it. It evolves. It requires continual development to keep it fresh and to stay on top of the latest changes in hardware, usage patterns, UI styles, etc. Continuous updates show your users you care about them and your product.

    The Mobile web vs Mobile app debate has been going on for what seems like forever. And its demise is long overdue. I appreciate Santiago, Jeremy and Matt’s comments as they all stated it is not an App OR Web discussion. It is an App AND Web discussion. You do need both. You must consider when, where and how your users interact with their device(s) and provide them with the best experience tailored to their device. The question is more where FIRST to put limited funds and/or resources. To this I would say, ask your users.

    To Jeremy’s point… a healthy dialogue is the best method for disseminating information. In the tech world, solutions are neither black nor white. Many factors must be considered in order to determine the “best fit”.

    Jeff Maddux

  4. Antoine RJ Wright January 20, 2014 at 1:08 pm · Reply

    I don’t have much to add that others haven’t said already. But, I think its good to bend the conversation differently, perhaps seeing why such a subject gets asked often.

    Many ministries merely act as content distribution points. Meaning, they point to pre-existing content, and through various methods, are able to connect that content to groups who are receptive to it. In most of those cases, a mobile app makes sense only when there’s a specific end to that connection happening (pastor training, small groups facilitation, and the “connector” who usually wants to have a mini-library of content for the various folks they connect to). For this context, yes, a mobile app works – but its not necessary.

    Other ministries are information portals. While they might aggregate and connect, if they aren’t doing a systematic curriculum – interactive, measured results, etc. – then its just content. Those ministries are best served by a mobile web(-first) approach. They can leave the mobile app to being a point of being discoverable, but only if they’ve not done enough work on the marketing side to connect “being available” with “being more than mobile-accessible.”

    The conversation of mobile web vs mobile apps is largely semantic when it comes to most ministries though. All need to be at the very least viewable on a mobile website. Its when content (a) needs to go offline for some portion, or (b) needs to utilize some aspect of the mobile’s hardware that’s not done as efficiently through web protocols, then we can start looking at where mobile apps make sense. But, when they do make sense, we aren’t drawing so much on what the technology does, but what needs to happen with the person(s) who engage it.

    Bill Buxton once tweeted (paraphrase), “what if we paid as much attention to interaction as we did to presentation.” I think that in the author’s points, this is a subtle and profound point missed – hence the vitrol from one of the early commenters (and probably a few viewers of the discussion). Mobile (if we take Tomi Ahonen’s 8 unique characteristics as a starting point), isn’t about what the technology does, but how the tech *and behavior* influences interactions which push life and faith forward. To that end… its more than the tech. Its always more than the tech.

  5. Santiago Jaramillo January 23, 2014 at 10:08 am · Reply

    Apologies, everyone, for coming into this conversation a little late. It’s partly because I was interested in seeing how things developed before contributing and partly because I’ve just been busy.

    I don’t know how objectively I can engage when the first sentence of one of the comments is “this entire post is nonsense,” but I’m going give it a shot.

    Christopher, I hope that what I wrote didn’t come across as a treatise against mobile sites, because—and I believe I already covered this above—they do have value. In today’s web, a site that doesn’t have some sort of mobile functionality is not a site worth having.

    At Bluebridge, though, we focus on two things: congregation engagement and community outreach. We do this in a number of different ways which we’d be happy to discuss in detail with anyone who is interested. We’ve been at it for a while now, and I have yet to see a single example of those two things being accomplished well on a mobile site.

    Let’s imagine, though, that those two things can be accomplished with a mobile site. A great mobile developer comes along—maybe Christopher?—and builds a mobile site with all the functionality of one of our apps. There would still be the issue of user preference. Similar to what Jeremy said about users not saving links on their homepages. According to Flurry, people spend 80% of their smartphone time in apps, and only 20% in the mobile web. It doesn’t really matter if something can be done if the users aren’t doing it. People can take the bus to work, sleep on the floor or grow their own vegetables, but most still choose to drive a car, sleep in bed, and go to the grocery store.

    Some of the other issues that the commenters have raised about mobile apps are legitimate complaints with traditional mobile apps but not with the product we offer, which is unlike anything else available to churches today (no offense, Matt!). I’d be happy to talk with anyone who is interested about how we’ve solved some of the problems of a traditional app, just drop me a line at santiago [at] bluebridgeapps [dot] com.

    Ultimately, I think we all want the same thing, which is to help churches spread the Good Word. Jeff and Antoine touched on that as well. The medium is simply a means for spreading the message; it’s up to churches to use whichever method fits them best.

    • Lauren Hunter January 23, 2014 at 10:59 pm · Reply

      Thanks for weighing in, Santiago! I think this is a really good discussion, one that will most likely change as technology changes. I appreciate your work with churches and yes, we are all in this together!

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