For most businesses, app development is a costly and unnecessary enterprise, but, for hospitality brands, having both to meet customer demands is a no-brainer. Mobile websites attract SEO-driven traffic, and because they’ve been around longer than apps, they tend to be easier to navigate by users who have little experience with smartphones and tablets. But statistics show that 90% of mobile time is spent in apps, and only 10% of mobile time takes place in a mobile browser.
Flurry mobile-time infographic: http://flurrymobile.tumblr.com
A case for hospitality mobile apps
“Apps will reach a 50 percent penetration at a rate faster than websites, which have taken five to ten years to hit. Given the speed with which mobile has overtaken desktop searches, I estimate that apps will go over the 50 percent mark within two to three years,” said Zach Cusimano, COO of Bizness Apps.
The apps that dominate usage statistics are social media apps, like Facebook, Instagram, and the like; entertainment apps like YouTube; gaming apps like Candy Crush, Angry Birds, and so on; and messaging apps like Snapchat. The hospitality industry has its fair share of travel apps, some niche-specific, others including a variety of features designed to make travel fun and engaging for users, however none as widespread as Airbnb, Booking.com, Expedia, Priceline, Hotel Tonight, JetSetter, Trivago, Trip Advisor, Google Trips, and the like. Large hotel chains like Ritz-Carlton, Hyatt, Marriott, Starwood, and Hilton developed apps too, offering users, besides direct booking perks, a wealth of destination-specific information and concierge services, as well as customer support at their fingertips.
If the most popular travel apps belong to huge brands, does it make sense for a small hotel chain and boutique hotels to invest in developing their own apps? Most hotels will have a presence on OTA travel apps, but forward-looking brands like Maldives Beach Resort, Hideaway Beach Resort & Spa, Olive Green Hotel Heraklion, and others have specific hotel apps that engage customers at a personal level.
These are the pioneers. But most hoteliers believe statistics that imply that hotel apps are “not noticed enough.” This may be true right now, but remember that early adopters are most likely to gain momentum and become highly influential businesses than people who are happy to follow.
"The biggest risk is not taking any risk. In a world that's changing quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks,” - Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook Founder, and CEO.
The world’s most successful leaders understand trends before they happen. Followers are resistant to change, bringing all kinds of excuses along the way: no proven ROI, trends don’t last, I don’t have the time or the resources, and so on. When it comes to mobile, these excuses are futile: Statista estimates the number of mobile users for 2017 at 4.77 billion. And the world population in 2017 is 7.6 Billion. This means that more than half of the world’s population is “mobile.” Mobile usage is no longer a trend, but a lifestyle.
Granted, mobile is soon to transmute to a more likely futuristic “trend,” like wearables, but there are adoption limitation to this premise. First, phones and tablets, as advanced as they are, are still “familiars.” Second, all devices that pertain privacy issues are subject to strict scrutiny, and metathesiophobia (fear of change) may affect the outcome of a trend based solely on futuristic ideals.
But apps are NOW. Like SEO in the late 1990s, apps are a marketing force to reckon, albeit they require extra time and effort to entice the users’ engagement and they are costly to develop although options to develop an app for free do exist: Mobincube, AppMakr, Appy Pie, and so on. Such tools, however, have limitations, like co-branding and obtrusive ads, and sometimes hidden fees. Plus, there’s always the risk that you will lose your app customer database if any of these providers interrupts its services, either by going out of business, by selling to a third party or… just because.
Before deciding to build an app for your business keep in mind that this endeavor only makes sense if the app offers benefits and value that mobile sites cannot: push notifications when dormant, simplify the booking experience, improve direct communication with the guest on the go, and so on.
Usually, the power of an app lies in numbers: the more adopters and engaged users, the stronger the app. But for a small business, numbers may be difficult to achieve. Yet the app can offer other benefits: for example, you can use an app to provide customers with real-time last-minute hotel deals, push off-season special offers, encourage them to fill-in customer satisfaction surveys, and remind them to review your property on TripAdvisor, Google, etc... One way or another, the app is likely to become a business necessity in the very near future.
- An app is a constant presence on a guest’s phone, a powerful branding instrument and a better way to keep customers engaged.
- An app can improve ROI by allowing guests to make bookings on-the-go from anywhere in the world.
- Apps can help personalize interactions with guests through push notifications, location alerts, loyalty rewards, deals, special offers, and so on.
A case for hospitality mobile-ready websites
“Mobile internet traffic is now the majority of traffic worldwide and, in Latin America alone, GOOG and FB services had 60% of mobile traffic in 2015, growing to 70% by the end of 2016. The remaining 30% of traffic is shared among all other mobile apps and websites,” Open Democracy reported.
As far as apps are concerned, the only viable cons involve development costs, publishing issues with Apple App Store and the Google Play Store as their guidelines are not set in stone, publicizing costs, as well as user retention and engagement matters. Also, remember that it only makes sense to develop an app if it offers users benefits and value that a mobile website fails to deliver. There are basically very few things that mobile apps do that mobile websites cannot do. For instance, website push notifications can be accessed on all devices, including smartphones, tablets, and desktops. The push notifications used to be a tool designed for mobile apps, but because surveys showed that more than 70% of users enabled push notifications from their favorite brands’ apps, websites – traditional and mobile – now use push notifications successfully too.
The main reason why you should be already having a mobile site is that Google demands it. The search giant launched a mobile-friendly ranking algorithm in April 2015 and in March 2016 it began giving mobile-friendly sites better rankings in its SERPs. In 2016 it was predicted the mobile optimization would be a competitive advantage in 2017 and the prediction turned right when, at SMX Advanced in June 2017, Google’s Gary Illyes announced that the launch of Google’s mobile-first index is imminent, most likely to happen sometimes in 2018. The company will communicate changes in time to allow business owners enough leeway to make the changes required to rank. Responsive sites should still be able to rank after the mobile-first index update, yet it’s better to be safe than sorry, so make a mobile-ready site. Most website owners are aware of Google’s preferential treatment of mobile-friendly sites; therefore, they are prepared, and mobile sites are becoming the norm.
Until Google gives apps preferential treatment in SERPs, the best way to retain customers who use browsers is through mobile websites. This means that mobile sites have a powerful SEO advantage over apps. Because they are easier to find in search engine results they offer more traffic. Content from mobile websites can also be quickly distributed via social networks through links, can be bookmarked and shared via email too. A well-optimized mobile site loads fast even on slow connections, which is a good thing, although apps can load even quicker.
Mobile apps vs. mobile sites
In the short term, mobile sites seem to win as far as SEO is concerned. Google will roll the mobile-first index next year, and so far, they have not made any announcement regarding preferential treatment for apps.
But app indexing is a thing, although very few search engine results deliver within-app content based on a given query. Yet, because the algorithm is there, things may change quickly. It is in your best interest to have a business app ready in case Google decides to prioritize apps against mobile-first sites.
Mobile sites work on all devices, and you do not need to build separate sites for iOS and Android – which means lower development costs. Yet, with no offline access, websites remain a thing of the past and apps win when it comes to user retention and engagement.
With a solid balance of pros and cons for both mobile sites and apps, the smart thing to do is to consider both for your mobile marketing strategy.