Forget the app (for now) and focus on making your website mobile friendly

With mobile now the preferred medium for visitors interacting with travel websites or booking hotels, it’s no longer a question of “mobile vs. desktop”.

In the midst of the mobile takeover, instead we see marketers and industry experts debate whether hotels, tour operators and attractions should develop their own apps, or focus on mobile responsive websites.

While apps definitely have their place, we don’t think it should be a question of one versus the other. For smaller travel brands and independents who are still building and nurturing an online presence, your first priority is making sure your website is mobile-friendly. In fact, any brand within the hospitality industry that does not yet have a mobile responsive website must make that their first order of business.

Here’s why …

First, let’s look at some stats

Last year, marketing expert and consultant Frederic Gonzalo attended EyeForTravel’s annual Social Media and Mobile Strategies in Travel summit in San Francisco, gaining some important insight into the world of travel apps and mobile development.

Presentations from Google, Facebook, LeanPlum, TripAdvisor and more revealed the following:

  • 65% of mobile users in the US had never downloaded a single app
  • 80% of time spent on mobile apps is done on the top five most popular mobile apps, and Facebook owns two of these
  • 90% of all mobile apps downloaded don’t even get opened in the first 30 days
  • It’s estimated that 76% of mobile apps don’t get used again after 24 hours
  • Looking at information sources used by US travellers when planning a trip, hotel websites topped the list at 40%, with OTAs close behind at 38%

“The ‘mobile app vs mobile web’ was perhaps the most interesting debate,” says Gonzalo. “Must you really have a mobile app in order to be pertinent and cater to on-the-go travellers? No, obviously.

“A mobile app is a great tool, but you can simply read any of the [stats presented] to quickly realise that it’s a heavily saturated environment where it’s becoming increasingly difficult to stand out and stay relevant.

“What you do need, however, is a strategy to provide a quality experience for travellers on the mobile web, where consumers don’t always want to have to download an app in order to engage with the brand,” he explains.

As a smaller hotel or travel brand, it would make more sense for you to create a presence within existing, well-built apps that thousands of people are already using. Sure this means paying a premium (nothing compared to developing your own app), but listing your business on these OTAs gives you direct access to a massive captive audience.

According to a 2015-2016 study by Statista, the top three travel apps used by UK travellers are maps (55%), weather reports (51%), and social networking (47%). It’s simple and very often free to list your business on platforms like these.

The power of a mobile friendly website

A mobile-friendly website is essentially a site that’s been designed to display correctly (or optimally) on hand-held devices. They should load quickly, be easy to read and navigate, and include minimal scrolling or flash plugins.

A 2014 study conducted by Akamai’s Guy Podjarny found that only 18.7% of 10,000 top-tier websites and only 11.8% of the top 100 websites are mobile-friendly. While the figures have surely changed since, it just goes to show how many websites are not catering for mobile growth – even the large ones!

Today, Google rewards responsive websites with higher search rankings, and earlier this year warned that inaccessible mobile content would be penalised.

Developing a mobile-friendly website is inexpensive (relative to building an app), and once done, is much easier for visitors to navigate. Remember, 40% of travellers in the UK would rather use a hotel’s website to gather more information before booking a stay. If they arrive to a dog’s breakfast on a mobile device, the odds of them sticking around diminish.

This enhanced user experience means a much greater conversion rate and greater loyalty.

Mobile-first vs responsive

There are two main types of mobile friendly designs – mobile-first and responsive. Which one you choose depends entirely on your individual situation and user statistics.

As its name clearly suggests, mobile-first design deems that the mobile version of the website should be at the core of its design, with the desktop version then adapting from there. This method prioritises how content is presented over everything else, optimising the user experience as soon as the visitor hits the homepage on a mobile device. Additional content can then be added to display on bigger screens as necessary.

A responsive design goes in the opposite direction – it is designed with desktop computers or larger screen sizes in mind, but adapts to a smaller screen size if a mobile device is being used.

By looking at the amount of monthly mobile hits your website gets with Google Analytics, you can easily justify what type of upgrade you should consider.

When to develop a mobile app?

Although they can be expensive to develop, well-designed apps provide numerous benefits for your business and brand. They’re accessible offline, can make use of unique graphics and effects, and you’ll be able to send push notifications to a captive audience whenever you need to.

But if you’re thinking about developing an app, it should ideally offer something that people can’t get elsewhere.

People are becoming increasingly resistant to apps that take up space on their phones; in fact, Google found that only 23% of travellers have downloaded the apps for the travel brands they use the most.

So, unless your app is something they can envisage themselves using regularly (for example, every time they travel, or every time they book a stay with you – think controlling smart room features) travellers probably won’t download it, and your time, effort and investment will be much better off spent creating a well-built site that is optimised for mobile use.

Ultimately, a mobile-friendly website will encourage traffic and grow your online reach until the time is right to invest in developing an app as needed, which should drive engagement from loyal customers. If done right, both options provide exceptional value to your brand. Just ask yourself which approach will yield better results for your guests …