A few years ago, about a thousand of Nathan Letourneau’s customers used cellular phones to browse the Web and visit CampusBooks4Less.com, the textbook price comparison website he co-founded in Hudson, Wisconsin. Since then, however, the number of people arriving via mobile phone has, to put it mildly, skyrocketed. “We’re somewhere between 85,000 and 90,000 mobile users right now,” Letourneau says.
A nearly 100-fold increase in any commercial activity in a few years is enough to get anyone’s attention. And, although Letourneau says his experience has been ahead of the curve—he suspects it’s because their audience of college students is more comfortable with smartphones and the mobile Web—market studies say mobile Web browsing has quadrupled in the last few years. That’s considerably faster than the growth in the Internet, with more to come.
But there’s a problem. Websites designed to be accessed by desktop and laptop computer users don’t look good or, in many cases, work properly when viewed on smartphones. The main issue is that a conventional site is designed for a large screen. “When it converts to a small screen everything becomes microscopic—your buttons, your text, your brand image,” says Alex Kutsishin, CEO of FiddleFly, a Columbia, Maryland, maker of tools for creating mobile-optimized websites.
Mobile browsers are also looking for less and, in many cases, different information than stationary browsers. Visitors using a smartphone are interested in snippets instead of megabytes, and they don’t want to have to look through a pile of pages for it. “Most of the information has to be put up front,” Kutsishin says.
And it has to be the information mobile users are likely to want. A restaurant’s regular website may have 20 pages, including biographies of the owners, a history of the business, description of the facility and more. A mobile site, however, may just have a meal menu and a way to make a reservation. “It’s critical to simplify the message and navigation so the person looking at your site on a mobile device finds the information quickly and easily,” Kutsishin says.
If you’re interested in going mobile, begin by asking your customers how they access your site. “That’s the first step a small business should take—do some on-the-street research to find out what phones their customers use and what they’re doing with them,” says Chuck Martin, author of The Third Screen: Marketing to Your Customers in a World Gone Mobile.
You should go further, Letourneau advises, and study your website’s analytics to find out more about traffic patterns. But knowing whether your customers are using iPhones, Android devices or less-sophisticated phones is a good first step. This can help you decide whether your site will incorporate more rich media features such as video or basic tools like text messaging.
When Letourneau was making his website mobile-friendly, apps were hot. So after testing the water with a slimmed-down version of the site for mobile visitors, he hired programmers to develop an iPhone app for CampusBooks4Less.com. That got them some media attention and helped build the ranks of their mobile visitors.
Today, however, Letourneau isn’t suggesting an app as an early step. Instead, he suggests using free or low-cost tools for converting a conventional website to a mobile format. For instance, WordPress Mobile Edition is a free plugin for websites built on the WordPress blogging platform that displays a mobile-friendly interface to visitors who browse using a mobile device.
Apps are both more costly to develop and more limited, since each app is designed to work only with one type of device such as an iPhone or Android phone. “I’d explore those free tools and then a mobile website, to be able to be used by more devices,” Letourneau says.
Using free and low-cost tools has limits, of course. Most don’t permit designers to employ advanced activities such as tapping online databases, for instance. But it doesn’t have to cost a fortune to have these capabilities. Martin notes that businesses that have conventional websites have already borne most of the cost. He suggests going back to the designer who created your existing website and requesting a mobile-friendly conversion. Only when you get to the most advanced capabilities, such as enabling purchases by mobile users, do costs get sizable.
Within a few years, most forecasts say, more people will browse using mobile devices than using desktop and laptop computers, But that doesn’t mean you should drop your conventional website. Just convert it to be mobile-friendly. You can keep the same domain name, Kutsishin notes, and just have the site detect what devices visitors are using and automatically route them to the appropriate pages.
In the final analysis, going mobile is about adding a new and better way to reach more and different customers rather than leaving anybody or anything behind. And that includes the still-uncertain impact of the tablet tsunami. “It’s not that desktops and laptops won’t be around,” says Letourneau. “But this is a huge growing market. We want to be sure we’re optimized for those things too.”