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How to build, deploy effective mobile sites, apps: Mobile Boot Camp

SAN FRANCISCO – Executives from Wet Seal, Netbiscuits, Zumobi and Digby detailed the necessary steps to create user-friendly sites and applications that enable viewing of ads, searching, shopping and transacting.

The panel at Mobile Boot Camp, cohosted by the NRF’s and Mobile Commerce Daily, was moderated by Marci Troutman, CEO of Siteminis, Atlanta. Consumers are increasingly expecting the same user experience across all digital channels, so mobile sites and applications must meet the requirements of the many available smartphone screens, browsers and operating systems to be successful.

“We’re a teen-based mall retailer specializing in fast fashion—we get a product in and sell out of it quickly, and most business is done in store,” said Jon Kosoff, director of ecommerce and direct marketing at Wet Seal, Foothill Ranch, CA. “We launched an iPhone app based on our online social community, where consumers can take various merchandise and make outfits that are rated by the community.

“There are 20,000 or so outfits online at any time, which are all used to power the application, so it’s a perfect fit for us,” he said. “Two months ago, we launched a mobile commerce site letting customers shop and buy online using their handset.

“One of the challenges we face is that the check-out process is still not easy enough—we’re working on making that check-out process easier and faster.”

In general, the mobile Web has greater rich while native applications provide a richer, more optimized experience.

However, retailers must keep in mind that a mobile Web site may serve different functions than a downloadable application.

“Our app is more branding-based and designed to drive retail sales, while our mobile Web site is more ecommerce-based to drive online sales,” Mr. Kosoff said. “I do see it eventually converging, though, as mobile reaches the next evolution.”

WAP vs. app
Today, consumers are expecting at least as rich and interesting an experience on mobile as they get on the fixed Internet, so retailers better be able to deliver. But should they launch a mobile site, an application or both?

“The standard of what mobile users are looking for is quite high—the experience on mobile should be frictionless,” said Ran Farmer, managing director of Netbiscuits, Reston, VA. “Retailers should first identify the things on the Web that make sense on mobile and ask how you can optimize the delivery of those things—put them in sequence.

“The user experience is different on mobile than on the wired Web, so spend a lot of time trying to understand what drives traffic and what users want to do using their handsets,” he said. “Don’t ignore the browser experience.

“We think of the app as the showhorse and the WAP site is the real workhorse.”

Netbiscuits created and powers mobile Web sites for brands such as eBay, MTV, Time Magazine, ABC and the Universal Music Group.

Mr. Farmer said that one hospitality client processed more than 100,000 reservations in one month via a mobile Web site without receiving any complaints from users.

The WAP versus app debate made the panel lively.

“Nielsen reports that use of an app declines quickly after the download, and most people only go actually use to their top five apps regularly,” Mr. Farmer said. “After two or three days they start to ignore the rest.

“The mobile Web and apps will follow an evolutionary path where mobile WAP sites and apps are merging together to form hybrids,” he said. “As network bandwidth speeds get better, WAP sites can be just as good as apps.”

How to stay top of mind?
To some brands, mobile seems like the Wild West, with discovery and ongoing engagement with mobile sites and applications primary concerns.

“There are unique challenges in the app space—brands need to think beyond the download and how do you rise up the charts,” said Ken Willner, CEO of Zumobi, Seattle. “There is so much focus on the initial download, people can lose sight of the fact that this is an ongoing relationship with users.

“How do I keep them coming back and retain that user down the road?” he said. “One of our retailers, REI, has seen 92 percent return visits and 56 percent return visitors, which is counterintuitive.

“To keep an app fresh over time, you have to provide utility and update it regularly to sustain engagement beyond the initial download,” he said. “People have shown a propensity to download a lot of apps.

“Prior to iPhone apps I never bookmarked 100 mobile Web pages, but I have downloaded 100 apps.”

For many brands, the answer to the WAP versus app debate may not be an either/or choice—most should have both based covered.

“People use mobile sites and apps in different ways—the mediums are different, the behaviors in which they’re consumed are different, and you need both, but there are different use cases,” Mr. Willner said.

Easy does it
When creating a mobile Web site or application, it is best not to reinvent the wheel.

In fact, a simple, streamlined mobile platform is often preferable to trying to pack all of the features and functionality of a wired Web site into a WAP site.

“It’s really important for retailers to prioritize—what are the things we really want to accomplish?” said Dave Sikora, CEO of Digby, Austin, TX. “You may have a laundry list, but you can’t do them all on a mobile site or app, you really need to dial it back and look at several things you can do—sell stuff, enable an in-store shopping experience with access to product reviews…there is use case after use case, but you have to prioritize.

“Make it really simple, because it has to be snappy, it has to be quick,” he said. “If you dial people through too many pages, too many roundtrips, you’re going to lose them going to have to work really hard to get them back.”