There is no right or wrong answer to this but here are my thoughts on the local (middle east) situation.
If you remember having to use books at school and university (instead of the internet) then you will remember when you first went online you’d go to a homepage, AOL or Yahoo or some such entry point and try and navigate out from there to wherever you wanted to go.
For the next billion to come online, and for the majority of internet users in this region, the gateway to the rest of the online world is Facebook. A lot of content is shared on Facebook by people and many sites like The Guardian and other national papers have plugins so you can tell your network what you’ve read and shared etc.
Since the majority of research will tell you that the activity most people are doing on their mobile is email and social networking, it stands to reason that if you have a social presence you really should have a site optimized for mobile.
Take for example my recent browsing history on my mobile. I got a link from one of my social networks to a Forbes article. As you can see at the bottom there was an ad for Qatar National Bank - the “safest bank in the world”
I’ve seen the mobile ads served by AdChoices before, i’ve often struggled to open them. Anyway, after the click, we get to a non mobile optimized landing page for QNB which then asks me to pick a region. Given that you’re serving me the ad on my mobile, i would assume you knew where i was.
One of the biggest issues i have is when brands start thinking about things like applications but don’t optimize for mobile search. Imagine you’re in transit and you want to find the exact location of a shop. Maybe you use the phone to call, but how would you find the number? You’d have to go through some sort of intermediary (the operator or directory enquiries) and then you may or may not get connected directly. Similarly the person who answers the phone may or may not be able to help you.
These days that intermediary is Google (or again social networks). Its quicker and more efficient. If i’m searching for a local business whilst i’m on the move and I cant find it or worse, i cant read the site on my mobile, then why would i use an app? More importantly, how am i going to find this app of yours? Finally, what if i’m using an operating system that you haven’t built the app for?
I’m not against apps at all. Currently i’m really enjoying The Onion app. Its all content (text and videos) and one of the nice features it has is shaking the phone to generate a random post. I also think apps are perfect for utility and entertainment. I would probably play a game developed by a fast food brand or an FMCG brand, but i would expect that game to be very well executed. And in english. Which adds yet another layer of complexity to brands thinking about the mobile space here.
Mobile site or App?
Which operating system?
How many languages?
What do I want them to do on the mobile?
Since i spend about 80% of my time on the mobile compared to laptop, I’d like to think i have a good insight as to what the issues are as a consumer. You might say I represent a very small percentage of people that do that, but in the not so far future, most people in the middle east will be accessing the internet on their mobile much more than their laptop.
The concept of being available for users through mobile by optimizing your site and content for this device is a form of media in itself. Forget about mobile advertising (a recent study suggested that 38% of clicks on mobile ads are by mistake), if content is media, then brands should seriously consider making their sites mobile friendly. Or even developing mini mobile sites that give users the information they need.
Discovering applications is much harder here than it would be in Europe or North America. Let’s say you access the iTunes store to browse for apps and you are sitting in the UAE. Unless you’ve managed to do some jiggery pokery, the amount of content available to you in the UAE version of the iTunes store will be a fraction of whats available elsewhere.
What does this mean? It means there’s less apps available, which means less opportunities for other brands to advertise within those apps. There’s less content. Where else would i find apps? How many brands have actually tried to find something within an app store? There may be a misconception that the minute you publish an app it rises to the top of the store there for everyone to see. The reality is somewhat different.
There is also less overall content, both on and offline that can promote apps. We are not awash with app review sites and magazines and TV shows that focus on promoting apps. So its very important to think about the extra expense of marketing that app. Building the app, marketing it and then measuring the results and keeping it stable is a very costly exercise.
Most people in the region are still using the internet for non commercial causes. Political, religious (the top social media accounts by followers are held by clerics) and for getting access to things that aren’t available (porn, music, etc). Your brand app is going to have to be either extremely useful (The Dubai Mall app for example could actually solve a real problem, rather than being a mobilized brochure which it is now) or, extremely entertaining (unless you’re having daily chats with the local game studios, your efforts are going to be negligible)
Ideally the following process would happen:
Bob, get me the analytics for the last 12 months on visitors to our site. I want to know what percent on average access via mobile. Are there any tablet users? Those who access through mobile devices Bob, what time of day are they doing it? Is there a clear trend there? Bob, can you tell me what pages they look at, whats the bounce rate compared to laptop users? What do you think these mobile users want? How about we compare some of that data with overall industry data for searches around our business? Where are people coming from? Are they coming from google mostly through the mobile or are they coming through another link? Do you think its worthwhile perhaps coming up with some mobile landing pages and asking our visitors to take some sort of action so we can see if its worthwhile investing more into our mobile efforts Bob?
As technology increases, brands will no longer be able to manage or afford to execute their marketing strategies on all channels. Those who have an internal culture of looking at company data, analysing and testing will do much better than those who don’t. Only by starting with existing data can you make any sort of educated guess whether you should build an app or not.