American Marketer


The case for HTML5 over mobile apps

April 20, 2012

Ron Jacobs is president of Jacobs & Clevenger


By Ron Jacobs

There is no better time than now to test mobile marketing.

Mobile marketing is delivering great results and valuable data for many categories of marketers. Part of remaining relevant is having a mobile marketing strategy that allows users to engage with marketing content across multiple platforms.

Mobile can extend the conversation from traditional channels, help to activate prospects and customers, and provide mechanisms for tracking effectiveness across channels.

Making the numbers
According to the International Telecommunication Union, there were 5.9 billion mobile subscribers across the globe, as of November 2011.

Nationwide, 86 percent of the population over age 13 carries a mobile phone. Nearly one in five mobile subscribers – more than 1.2 billion – can actively access the Web via their mobile devices. More than 85 percent of all new handsets can access the mobile Web.

According to ABI Research, 80 percent of online mobile users checks email from a mobile device. And, eMarketer reports that the number of mobile shoppers increased from 75 percent in 2010 to 93 percent in 2011.

Mobile is not the future of marketing communications. Mobile has a huge impact on marketing communications today.

Many marketers report that the response rates to their mobile programs are three or four times higher than direct mail or email response rates. Mobile may be marketing’s Shiny New Thing, but it is very, very shiny.

“We need a mobile app”
Not a week goes by that a client or prospect does not ask us about creating a new mobile application. I only wish that there was a simple way to say “Yes” to this question.

There is no way to create a single app that will work on all devices in the mobile space. Mobile apps are operating-system-specific.

There are five popular operating systems for smartphones: Apple iOS, Google’s Android, BlackResearch In Motion’s BlackBerry, Windows Phone and Nokia Symbian. Nokia, however, has abandoned the Symbian OS for Windows Phone, the successor to Windows Mobile.

For tablets, another popular mobile device, there are at least five operating systems: Apple iOS, Android Honeycomb, Android Ice Cream Sandwich, BlackBerry Tablet OS and a Windows Tablet version.

Native apps for each operating system require their own programming. So, depending on what devices a marketer’s customers use, it may require as many as 10 apps to serve a client’s needs.

Most app developers believe that they create the best performance and user experience by making native apps. Native apps provide additional usability by accessing a mobile device’s memory, camera and address book.

It is easy to see why native apps are popular. Some clients think that they are a requirement for mobile marketing.

According to estimates, there are more than 500,000 apps in the Apple iTunes Store and about 450,000 apps in the Android Marketplace. Apple has seen more than 25 billion app downloads, while Android has had more than 10 billion downloads. This includes both free and paid apps.

An “inconvenient truth” about mobile apps
The number of downloads is often cited as a measure of a mobile app’s success. Downloads may provide an exaggerated view.

According to mobile analytics company Localytics, one in four mobile apps is used just one time after it is downloaded, then never used again.

The high churn rate in mobile apps means app publishers need to be very careful in testing and rolling out new mobile apps. Spending $40 to $50,000 and often much more to cover all the mobile app bases is an investment that must be taken one step at a time.

Just like other direct marketing tactics, we recommend testing an app in one or two operating systems, then rolling it out slowly.

Until an app publisher has experience with a new app on a few mobile devices, they cannot begin to learn about the usage patterns for their apps. These patterns include frequency and length of usage, event tracking and identifying returning users.

Only after they begin to optimize their mobile app to improve user retention should they expand into other devices.

Do you really need an app?
Until recently, a mobile app offered the best technology solution for rendering content on mobile phones.

Web sites optimized for mobile do not render like traditional Web sites. Animations, video and audio are often left out. There is no Flash capability on Apple mobile devices. Mobile browsers have been slow, and often do not translate graphic files very well.

All of that has changed with the introduction of HTML5 and CSS3.

Responsive Web Design, made possible by HTML5 and CSS3, is already having incredible impact on Web design and mobile marketing.

While this technology has the greatest effect on designers and developers, it will impact marketing budgets and influence how marketers engage with customers and prospects.

With users moving from desktop computers, the common fixed width design of Web sites no longer works.

Users now rely on mobile phones, small notebooks and tablet devices such as the iPad to access the Web.

Web design needs to be adaptive and automatically adjusted to fit different display resolutions and devices. That is exactly what is enabled by Responsive Web Design.

HTML5 allows the managing of data. It improves the use of online forms for inputting into text boxes, creating search tools, plus adding and rendering interactive pictures, charts, graphs, game components, animation, video and audio without the need for Flash.

Also, HTML5 also enables mobile Web sites to work better and faster at a quality and speed that users have come to expect from the desktop Web experience.

In addition, HTML5 makes it easier for programmers to develop cross-browser applications for the Web, mobile tablets and smartphones.

HTML5 advances previous versions of HTML by allowing objects to be embedded into the HTML code without plug-ins or third-party software such as Flash.

HTML5 provides support for embedding video and audio, high-quality drawings, charts, animation and other rich content. So, users can stream video, play music, interact with images, play interactive games, and gain access to social media tools.

A new HTML5 Geolocation Application Programming Interface (API) combined with GPS or other techniques such as Cellular Geolocation provides a user’s location to any HTML5-compatible browser. This is a Web app, not a platform-dependent mobile app.

HTML5’s improved forms capability provides improved text inputs, search boxes, better controls for validating data and smoother interactions with other elements on a Web page.

Moreover, HTML5 provides a new local database capability that allows a Web page to temporarily save structured data and access it when the client is disconnected for a short period of time. This can be used to store emails, messages or shopping cart items until a user is ready to complete a transaction.

The code specification for HTML5 has not been finalized. That is still some time down the road.

Nonetheless, popular offline browsers other than Internet Explorer and most mobile handset and tablet browsers already support the majority of features in this future standard.

FOR MANY MARKETERS, HTML5 is the beginning of a solution that is revolutionizing how customers and prospects will reach marketers across multiple platforms.

HTML5 provides a useful set of programming interfaces that will make native mobile apps unnecessary for a growing number of organizations.

There are issues of performance, reliability, security and access on slow networks that still need to be addressed with HTML5.

As HTML5 standards are adopted, these issues will be resolved, and will create a new, more efficient environment for mobile marketing.

Want to see samples of HTML5 Web sites using Responsive Web Design? Here are a few HTML5 galleries. To see how Web sites render on different devices, access them on a desktop computer, smartphone and mobile tablet: HTML 5 Arena, HTML5 Studio and HTML 5 Demos and Examples.

Ron Jacobs is president of Jacobs & Clevenger, a Chicago-based multichannel marketing communications agency, and coauthor with the late Bob Stone of “Successful Direct Marketing Methods”, a book currently in its eighth edition. Reach him at

This article first appeared in the April 2012 edition of adMarks, the official newsletter of the Chicago Association of Direct Marketing. It has been adapted with permission.