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Which is a better investment for your nonprofit – an iPhone App or a mobile website?

March 10, 2010

June 7 Update :: As mentioned in the post below, I started sensing that a mobile website may be a better investment for nonprofits than an iPhone/iTouch App early in 2010. Some new data reinforces that idea:

comScore: Browser Continues to be More Popular than Applications for Accessing Mobile Web
Google Android surpases iPhone in the U.S.
Pew: 1 in 5 Americans now access the mobile web each day
Search Engine Land:
Top 10 Reasons Your Website Should Go Mobile

In addition to the 5 points below, I’d like to add a sixth:

6) Mobile websites are more affordable than iPhone Apps. With a little creativity, you can use a WordPress blog as a content management system (CMS) for your mobile website, and then sign up for a mobile website service like Mofuse Premium – essentially allowing you to create a mobile website for $8 a Month.

When I bought my first iPhone in June 2009 I was absolutely blown away. Love my iPhone. What a miraculous little tool of technology. I immediately downloaded the Apps for the social networking sites that I regularly use as well as the few Apps that were available from the nonprofit sector. In the months following my mind was ruminating and imagining nonprofits throughout the world launching iPhone Apps.

Now eight months later, with the exception of Facebook, Twitter and Pandora, I rarely use Apps on my iPhone anymore. I browse mobile websites. For those 5-10 nonprofits that are my personal favorites, I would definitely download their Apps (if they were free) and use them when I have a moment to spare while I am out and about. But in all honestly, I have shifted away from using Apps to using mobile websites more on my iPhone. That said, here are a five reasons why it might make more sense to initially invest in a mobile website over an iPhone App:

1) Almost anyone with a mobile phone can access your mobile website whereas only iPhone users can access your iPhone App.

There are 4.1 billion mobile subscribers worldwide (277 million in the United States) and just a small fraction of those are iPhone users.  iPhones and AT&T are also expensive, so your user demographics will be narrow in comparison to the general web community. Also, 57 million Americans now regularly access the mobile web, and that’s a June 2009 stat. The mobile web is exploding – especially for social networking sites. Believe it or not, Facebook Mobile is now growing faster than Facebook Desktop!

2) Mobile websites are easy to update whereas if you want to update an iPhone App, then the user has to download the Updates.

If you change the functionality of your iPhone App, then users need to download those Updates from the iPhone App Store. I personally don’t download Updates very often. You?

3) As the smartphone market expands, are you then going to also launch multiple versions of your App?

Are you going to also create Apps for Palm, Blackberry, Android, etc.? That could get expensive. To reiterate, a mobile website can be easily viewed on all smartphones.

4) Social networking sites all have mobile websites and their traffic grows every single month.,,,,, All bookmarked on my iPhone. Easy. And as Tablets hit the mark this year, their traffic is going to grow even more. Facebook of course is one step ahead with Facebook Touch. It looks great on an iPhone and I bet it looks even better on an iPad. The point is more and more people get acquainted and comfortable with mobile web browsing each and every day.

5) Text alert campaigns need mobile websites to be successful.

I wrote about this a few weeks ago. It’s definitely not a best practice to link to desktop sites in text alerts.

Next week I’ll write about the benefits of iPhone Apps, but I really am starting to come around to the conclusion that a mobile website and text alert campaign should be the entry point to the mobile web, rather than smartphone Apps and Text-to-Give.

Related Links:
Mobile Marketing Special for Nonprofit Organizations
HOW TO: Create a Mobile Website for Your Nonprofit for $8 a Month
Four Reasons Why Nonprofits Need a Mobile Website
10 Nonprofit Mobile Websites

10 Nonprofit Text Alert Campaigns
10 Free Nonprofit iPhone Apps
Webinar: How Nonprofit Organizations Can Successfully Utilize Group Texting, Mobile Websites, and Smartphone Apps

23 Comments leave one →
  1. Adam permalink
    March 10, 2010 9:00 am

    Regarding Point 1 – Not exactly true. I recently bought an iPod Touch and I can use almost all of the Apple apps intended for iPhones using my wi-fi connectivity. I agree with your conclusions though!

    • nonprofitorgs permalink
      March 16, 2010 4:51 am

      Thanks, those are good points, but I think very few nonprofits will create Apps that people would be willing to pay for. They would have to be very good Apps. I briefly mentioned it above, but I am not the App buying type. Some might be able to use Apps as a micro-fundraising campaign, but my gut tells me the number will be limited.

      Ironically, I am taveling and replying via my iPhone… And I had to do it via my mobile browser because the WordPress iPhone App doesn’t allow you to comment on your own blog… Unless there is a update I need to download?

  2. March 10, 2010 9:18 am

    This would seem to echo app usage patterns that have been found in other studies (I guess that makes you a typical iPhone user – smile). People go nuts and will download 100s of apps to a new phone, I think the spend for paid apps that I saw was high, averaging around $80 per user, but then it drops off rapidly with most users falling back onto one or two apps that they use regularly, and relying on the mobile web for the rest.

    TechCrunch recently had a post that indicated that the shelf-life of a free mobile app is less than 30 days…

    So I totally agree with your comment that non-profits are best off investing in mobile versions of their websites – and if they do it right, they can achieve 80% of this goal through proper implementation of their sites using XHTML and CSS (with the hand-held style sheet rendering for the mobile device) – thus there is no need to invest massively in two different sites and maintenance programs. Web Standards are your friend 🙂

  3. Andy Wollen permalink
    March 10, 2010 3:37 pm

    Heather —

    Thanks for your post. This is a question I hear very often from organizations that are new to the mobile space. For them, it seems that it boils down to the simple fact that apps are device-specific and mobile sites can be accessed from pretty much any device. Given that set of facts, why would anyone want an app at all?

    In reality, mobile websites have their purpose, especially when an organization needs a very simple “micro-site” to supplement a text messaging campaign or to be available to the non-smartphones out there. But most organizations have no need to provide content to the 4.1 billion mobile phone users in the world. They are actually targeting a much smaller subset of supporters, activists and funders in the US — and these socially-aware, upscale supporters are disproportionately large users of the iPhone, iPod Touch and other smartphone platforms. They’re also savvy consumers who appreciate an excellent user experience when they see one.

    And that’s the enormous difference between mobile sites and mobile apps: the radically better user experience that an app is able to deliver. To see what I mean you need look no further than comparing Facebook Touch — a mobile site that can be accessed from many smartphones — with the Facebook iPhone app, an actual application installed on the iPhone. Both are free, and I’d encourage anyone trying to understand this question to use both and then decide for him or herself. The app allows the user to upload photos directly from the iPhone to Facebook, provides one-click dialing to the Facebook phone numbers from friends’ profiles, shows the pictures and links that are included in friends’ posts on the News Feed, and so on. In short, the app uses integration with device capabilities that just aren’t available to simple mobile websites.

    In addition, creating a good quality mobile website is a lot more complicated in the back-end than it looks. The different capabilities, browsers, screen sizes, etc. of mobile devices mean that a single set of code for a mobile site is really not a good idea. A quality mobile site will be fronted with a “sniffer” that will identify the device requesting the web page and will then deliver content optimized for that device. That means all those different variations on the content and the formatting must be maintained over time. If the organization wants to take advantage of storing passwords and user preferences to make repeat visits easy and pleasant, the site must use HTML5 — which limits the devices that can access it and costs more to develop. Ultimately, many organizations opt to skip this complexity and go with a “lowest-common-denominator” approach like using a blog theme that does basic optimization and is easy to maintain — and also easy to ignore.

    Updating a mobile application on a user’s device is really not difficult. If the developer uses static content then application updates are approved by the app store and an alert is published to the user’s device. Most users regularly update their apps in a big batch download and the devices automate the process so it’s extremely easy. Better app developers use a hybrid approach in which the app checks for updates each time it’s opened and downloads and displays fresh content automatically. You can see examples of this at MTB Mobile.

    As a consultant with more than a decade of experience in mobile technology, I approach this mobile web vs. mobile app question by understanding the specific target audience the organization wants to reach and the specific actions the organization is trying to drive. I tailor my recommendation to those specifics — and very, very often I find that the client’s needs lead them toward the app.

    Sure do appreciate the discussion you generate on your blog!

    Andy Wollen

    • Andy Wollen permalink
      March 11, 2010 5:17 am

      Whoops — looks like one of the links got messed up when I posted. The MTB Mobile link should go to Nonprofit Apps on the website.

  4. March 10, 2010 5:44 pm

    While I agree with your article, I found that there is a key point that is not entirely accurate. iPhone applications have greater market share than you give credit for, largely because they also work on the iPod touch. The vast majority of clients I come in contact with don’t necessarily have an iPhone (…myself included), but they DO have an iTouch. Depending on the demographic of your target audience, investing in this technology may be successful. For non-profits that largely connect with a younger cohort, iPhone and iPod touch apps are downloaded frequently and easily, and may be a successful way of engaging people in a different way.

  5. nonprofitorgs permalink
    March 11, 2010 5:17 am

    Thanks guys. I forgot about the iTouch. I have the flu at this moment… can’t think/write, but will come back around.

  6. Henry Balanay permalink
    March 15, 2010 10:48 pm

    An important point left off the article is that iPhone apps can generate revenue. They don’t have to be free. I think people are more likely to give money to a cause if they can get something in return for it. The price of an app can be marketed as a donation, in the same spirit that many non-profits use when holding event oriented fund-raisers.

    Also once the app’s icon is on the user’s iPhone it becomes a more effective way of branding your business. My guess is someone looks at their phone several times a day (thus seeing the app icon next to all the other icons), and visits any particular website less frequently. Its a way of integrating your brand more thoroughly into your audience’s lifestyle.

    btw: One of my most used apps is the This American Life app that came out recently. It was $2.99.

  7. March 21, 2010 1:23 pm

    You could create a mobile website and then create an app that is mostly just a link to the mobile website. It won’t work on unconnected phones, that is true, but it does give benefit to those who are browsing through apps and aren’t aware of your mobile website.

  8. March 22, 2010 1:39 pm

    Hi Heather,

    Nice post! I agree with many of your points, but you didn’t mention one advantage of an app. A mobile version requires you to have a live connection. An app can store the content on the device. For instance, I can download the latest content from using their app. But doesn’t have an app yet. So while I can read NYTimes articles on a subway or in a plane, Washington Post requires an always-on connection.

    The decision depends on the type of content and how frequently it is updated. If you are delivering a tool that, say tells you what sort of food is more healthy and/or sustainable, an app is probably preferable because the person will be able to look up the food while they are deep in a grocery store (where cell reception is frequently poor).

    I do agree that a mobile version is often less expensive to deploy — especially if you already use Drupal or WordPress (or have well-formed RSS feeds), than developing an app. Although, there are increasingly lots of app-maker services that for a fee of only a few hundred dollars can deliver an app that will live in the iPhone store.

    An app has potential to offer much more sophisticated functionality than a mobile version, but *can* cost tens of thousands to create. So in the end, the question to ask — as always — what are your goals, and where do you want to invest your resources?

    • nonprofitorgs permalink
      March 22, 2010 1:55 pm

      Good point… thanks Andrew.

    • July 25, 2011 3:50 pm


      I totally agree with the advantages you stated and to add to this discussion having an smart phone app to a mobi site definitely has many more advantages such as better user experience, accessing information at a click of a button rather than entering a url, receiving instant updates through push, making donations and signing up for events at a click of a button and from a non profits perspective they would know there target audience better with tools that can help them keep in touch and measure the success with more accurate and detailed analytics.

      I do agree with you that the cost for an app was tens of thousands but not anymore. The texas based company called Minnos labs ( builds custom apps for a monthly subscription fee and no upfront cost or set up fee starting at 29.99/month making apps very affordable.

      Given this option I think any non profit should venture into the app space to help them with there goals.


      • nonprofitorgs permalink
        July 26, 2011 5:00 am

        Just have to ask then… besides PETA… what nonprofit has a good app that people actually use? Twitter, Facebook, e-newsletters, websites, blogs, etc. are completely void of nonprofit pitches to “Download our app!” I see no buzz whatsoever. 🙂

  9. May 4, 2010 6:05 pm

    While I agree with your article, I found that there is a key point that is not entirely accurate. iPhone applications have greater market share than you give credit for, largely because they also work on the iPod touch. The vast majority of clients I come in contact with don’t necessarily have an iPhone (…myself included), but they DO have an iTouch

  10. June 7, 2010 12:30 pm

    Nice summary of why to go with a mobile site. I’ve been making the same argument to anyone who will listen 🙂

    • nonprofitorgs permalink
      June 7, 2010 12:47 pm

      I hear ya Michael! Even comScore is having hard time getting through to folks that mobile websites make much more sense. A classic case of marketers being distracted by bright, shiny and expensive new toys. Nonprofits were the first to utilize social media, but they are becoming the last to adopt the mobile web. They think it is expensive because the mobile web = text-to-give + iPhone Apps. Not realizing mobile websites and group texting are a fraction of the cost… and the way to reach most supporters. Something will give soon… hopefully!

  11. Sofyan David Subijanto permalink
    June 12, 2010 12:48 am

    I would like to subsrcibe please.

  12. August 24, 2010 3:43 pm

    for me both of them are good investment from each viewpoint. if you are choose one of them, it must have reasons. like the tehnology development in your country, the people habits, and another.

    nice post!

  13. Jamie permalink
    January 4, 2011 12:58 pm

    Why not split the difference and adopt a mobile web app? It offers the flexibility of cross platforms, instant updates and yet can interact with the phone very similar to a native app. Another benefit to a mobile web app is you can now accept donations. Being able to accept donations is very important but can be a bit technical. However, if you are a registered nonprofit, you can get a free mobile web app from Civigive and accept donations.

    A mobile web app is a cross between native apps and mobile websites in that you can view it on any phone browser but has many of the cool look and feel features of a native app (like iphones).

    If you are a nonprofit, you can signup to get one at

    • January 12, 2011 6:38 pm

      There are a few products (one of which, in full disclosure, is ours) that allow for cross platform app development – meaning you build it once and it properly renders as a native application across the various operating systems, carriers and screen sizes. In other words, build the app and it works on iphones, android, blackberry, Microsoft Mobile and for those with feature phones, a mobile web version. Perhaps best of all, the front end, client facing part of the platform requires no programming knowledge, it is a “wysiwyg” editor that is akin to building a Powerpoint – drop and drag, copy and paste existing content, including video and audio. With hyperlinks and short codes, one can promote their mobile app without ever worrying about the proprietary app stores (i.e. no reason to be in the Apple app store, period) and with no incremental marketing spend, simply using existing communications and channels.

      This is a game changing shift, making a mobile play by non-profits more cost effective and rendering the main technical barriers of reach and uptake moot.

      Great discussion, hope this contributes in some way…


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