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The Best Mobile Online Community Options: Responsive Web Design vs. Mobile Sites vs. Native Apps

Written by Katie Oakes on April 14, 2015 at 1:40 PM

Best Online Community Mobile App Options

With technology, there is a constant evolution of terms, products, and approaches. If you're not fully engrossed in that world, it can be hard to keep up. The meteoric adoption of mobile device to find information, keep in touch, and complete transactions has heads at many companies spinning.

According to data from Cisco, global mobile devices and connections in 2014 grew to 7.4 billion, up from 6.9 billion in 2013. The vast majority of mobile data traffic (97%) originated from smart devices.

The increased use of mobile devices poses both opportunities and challenges for businesses. They want to know if their approach is the right one for their company, customers, and goals. Are they putting their time and money in the right places?

Though the mobile strategy conversation and the experiments that organizations are launching in their markets are not new, the current discussion is centered around responsive web design, mobile sites, and native apps. Which is better? Where should you invest your valuable resources when it comes to staying ahead of the curve?

The answer is simple and unpopular: it depends. There is no one approach that fits all organizations. It depends on things like your audience, what they do on their mobile devices, and your capacity to manage your mobile platform.

Let's talk options for your online customer or member community.

Responsive Web Design

First up, responsive web design. Responsive design leverages a single website that automatically adjusts the size and layout of the given page to meet the standards of the screen it is being opened in.

The website code is built to adapt content, design, and navigation to each user's device and method of interactions. For example, say your online community's home page has a navigation bar where all options are available when viewed on a desktop browser. When someone accesses your community on their mobile phone, the responsive site will automatically nest some of those navigation options into a drop down menu to meet the demands of the screen size.


Mobile Website

Best Online Community Software Mobile SiteA mobile site is an additional mobile-optimized website that exists alongside your browser-based online community. Mobile websites have their own codebases and are designed exclusively for users to view on mobile devices (tablets, phones, etc. ). The layout of these sites is typically a one-column design. The big differentiator is that this is a separate website. The code is not part of your existing website or online community.

Native Mobile App



Lastly, a native app is an application developed specifically for mobile users. It must be accessed via an online store (Apple App Store, Google Play, etc.) Apps often have features that interact with the mobile-specific features of your phone. Apps can be used offline and integrate with the camera, click to call or GPS Data.

Each type of mobile platform has its own set of advantages and considerations. It is important to choose an option that will help meet your organization's specific engagement goals. There are several areas to pay close attention to when making your selection.

Selecting the Best Option for Your Online Community


This is often one of the biggest concerns when it comes to launching any initiative. What is the cost and process to maintain and make changes to my mobile strategy? It is important to know what resources you will need to maintain what you create.

Responsive Web Design

Since online communities that use responsive web design use one single codebase, this is the easiest to manage option. You can invest all of your resources in one responsive community website and it looks beautiful on all devices.

Mobile Website

Managing two URLs with unique code structures is going to require extra resources.

Native Mobile App

This option requires the most amount of maintenance of the three. If you are launching your community in multiple mobile operating systems (OS), you'll need a process for developing and maintaining your app on each platform. When one of the mobile app OS's updates their software, you'll have to invest in making sure that your mobile app still works with those type of mobile devices.

Marketing and Adoption Paths

Each option requires a unique plan to get your community members to engage on their mobile devices. Take into account the resources that your organization will expend educating your target audience on how to take advantage of your investment.

Responsive Web Design

The best thing about having only one website to manage is that your community members don't have to choose to participate. By using your online community on their mobile device, they are automatically adopting your mobile platform. This means that you can dedicate all of your marketing dollars to driving people to your one, single website.

Mobile Website

There is usually a moderate amount of additional marketing required for this option. Since this concept is somewhat unfamiliar to people, there may also be a slight adoption curve as users may need additional instructions for accessing your community's mobile site.

Native Mobile App

This option requires an individual marketing plan as the adoption process is unique. Though it is a common process for people with mobile devices, community members are still expected to download the application on the mobile device from their respective app store. Community members with limited space on their mobile device (like most Apple iPhone users) may not have the room to download your community's mobile app or they will have to choose which apps, videos, and photos to delete in exchange for installing your app.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

Getting found on search engines is increasingly a priority for organizations when planning their online customer or member communities. User generated content and discussions are gold to marketing teams.

Responsive Web Design

This option is great for creating an SEO-optimized online community. You also only have to manage your SEO ranking for one website. In addition, Google is making responsive web design a priority for search rankings starting April 21, 2015.

Mobile Website

These sites are equally great for SEO rankings. However, you will be spending additional resources to optimize both your online community and the mobile version.

Native Mobile App

Since this is a stand-alone mobile application, there are no SEO opportunities within the native app itself.

User Experience

At the heart of every online community management decision is your community members. You want to build something that your customers or members not only use but enjoy using. The mobile platform you embrace plays a big role in making their experience with your brand's online community as simple and rewarding as possible.

Responsive Web Design

While an online community platform that features responsive web design is easiest for you to implement, it may not be best for certain target audiences. Depending on the platform, your site can load slower if users are using an outdated browser or very old mobile OS. It can also be a little harder to maintain a consistent user experience. Some users may be on an updated browser while others lagging behind. 

Mobile Website

Mobile sites are optimal for one purpose - access on mobile devices. Thus, it is typically very user friendly. Social community software that includes a mobile website version is built to make sense to your community members.

Native Mobile App

Native mobile apps are a the top choice when it comes to user experience. They are fast, have a great feel, and can be sleek if you pay for a top-notch app designer. Native apps can integrate mobile tools and assets (ie camera, contacts, click to call, etc ) within your application. This allows an additional level of creativity and convenience for your user. Often, native mobile apps are best for communities with a single engagement opportunity, like Twitter and Instagram.

Online Community Software Updates

As with any software there is always room for improvement. So which of these systems is easiest to update?

Responsive Web Design

This is the easiest to update of the options. You can make updates to your online community in one place and it is immediately delivered to your community members. When you or your online community software provider make a change to your platform, it only has to be made and tested in one place.

Mobile Website

As with the responsive web design, your updates can be rolled out immediately. However, updates to your community platform can get time-consuming because you may have to make updates in two places.

Native Mobile App

Updating native apps can be tricky. All updates have to be approved by the overlords in the application marketplace, which can take days or weeks. Then, your community members are responsible for going to get those updates themselves. If you have a lot of updates, this can get frustrating for your community members and eventually they may stop updating and just stick with the old version. It can also be difficult to support community members who are on various versions of your app.


Regardless of the scope of your mobile engagement strategy, there is an online community mobile option that matches. It is important to consider the impact that each of these options will have on your bottom line and ROI projections. Make sure that you choose an option that fits your goals, as well your budget.

Responsive Web Design

This is the most cost efficient option. You are investing in one online community website, one SEO strategy, and one set of code. 

Mobile Website

This can be a little more costly as you are managing two online community sites - one for desktop browsers and one mobile website.

Native Mobile App

This is the most expensive of options. Developing a custom mobile app for your online community can cost over $10,000 for the initial develop and several thousand each quarter for maintenance. Online community native apps are often custom applications, where you can create a truly unique experience for community members, and the cost reflects it.

How to Choose Best Online Community Mobile Platform for Your Strategy?

Each of these options has their own advantages and disadvantages. It is important to strongly consider the goals of your organization and which option can meet those goals efficiently and within your budget. Assess your resources. If you have a team of coders and application developers, you may be able to mitigate the cost of creating a native app.

Simply choosing a mobile online community option isn't enough. You should be thinking ahead to what marketing resources you have at your disposal. Sure a custom native app sounds cool, but do you have the resources to properly promote it and gain users? 

Lastly, Know your audience. We all use naive mobile apps as in our everyday lives as consumers. The are simple, fast, and easy-to-understand. However, that fact does not mean that investing in the development of a "app store" app is right for business to business companies or membership organization.

Your goal here is keeping your community members engaged. You need to take time to look at how your users are using your online community and select an option that makes those engagement features better. 

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Topics: Online Community Software, Member Experience, Online Community

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