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Responsive Web Design: Is It a Magic Bullet or a Conversion Killer?

by Benjamin Diggles  |  
June 5, 2013

As marketers, we all face the same primary challenge when tackling the mobile realm: How do we optimize our sites to create the best possible mobile experience for current and potential customers?

Recently, the industry has seen a heated debate erupt over the best way to approach this challenge---using M-Dot or responsive web design. Many marketers are in the Responsive Web Design camp. Using this approach, however, brings its own set of challenges. To understand why, letís review both options.

The M-Dot approach consists of a separate website dedicated for the mobile experience, usually existing on a subdomain that, more often than not, uses the letter M for mobile (i.e., When users visit your website on their mobile device, JavaScript alerts the browser and redirects users to the sub-domain.

The Responsive Web Design approach does not point the user to a dedicated mobile version of the site but scales the existing site down, so it fits the screen size of whatever device is being used, including both smartphones and tablets.

Many marketers look to this method because having a single content set that changes form factor for several device types seems like a true magic bullet. Marketers can save time and money on not having to design, develop and maintain different properties. Also, it is super-relevant, so if you have a responsive website, it shows that at some level that you ďget it.Ē

But before choosing which optimization method is right for you, first understand what holds the most importance in the mobile site experience for users. More specifically, know what turns users off and, in turn, kills conversion opportunities.

Top Three Conversion Killers

Industry data has shown that the top three conversion killers are the following (in order of priority):

1. Load Time. If your mobile-optimized website loads slowly, then the user has a tendency to jump ship and move onto your competitorís site.

2. User Interface Design and User Experience. If your mobile site is visually unappealing or unintuitive, your visitor is going to leave in a hurry. It is the kiss of death to put all your resources into your desktop experience then give your mobile site the scraps.

3. Relevance of Content. Looking for snowboard gloves---but somehow landed on a mobile site pushing Hello Kitty backpacks? No one would blame you for backing out and searching for a new site. However, to take it a step further, even if the user has the right mobile site but isnít seeing the content relevant to him at that very moment, he is likely to leave. People using mobile devices typically are on the go, so keep this in mind and try to be as relevant as possible.

What Marketers Need to Know

Now that we know that speed, beauty, and relevancy are the most important factors in creating a successful mobile solution, what do marketers need to keep in mind when considering the response approach?

When creating a website with the desktop in mind first, developers are less worried about page load times since the average desktop computer has access to speedy broadband connections, more processing, and more RAM than a mobile device. But when users access a responsive website on their mobile device, they are downloading a full desktop site worth of content on a smaller device screen that pales in comparison to the desktopís much faster specs. Though not having to update content in two places like you would have to with an M-Dot approach, you have to be more speculative of your load time in relation to your content.

Another significant hurdle is design. With M-Dot, you have the luxury to custom design the mobile site experience to your heartís content. With the responsive approach, you have to design your website for the desktop, the tablet, and the smartphone holistically. You have to design with the foresight of what the navigation, for example, will look like when the resolution is scaled down or up.

The Magic Bullet Doesn't Exist

There is no magic bullet and there never will be. That's because needs, constraints, and requirements vary from site to site and brand to brand. The best way to evaluate your needs isnít to listen to someone like me or look at your competition. The best way is to look at your own data and combine it with industry data. Learn from others mistakes and successes, and map it to how your visitors are interacting with your web properties.

Just make sure to make your design is fast, appealing, and relevant! If it is slow, ugly and misaligned with your visitorsí needs, then you are most likely losing a massive opportunity and helping your competition.

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Benjamin Diggles is director of Digital Marketing for Webtrends. He drives the enablement and awareness of Webtrends Mobile capabilities and is responsible for all public-facing web properties and web marketing enablement.

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  • by Jacey Wed Jun 5, 2013 via blog

    I would agree with you that responsive web design is not the end-all cure-all of mobile optimization, I have some qualms with your logic in this article. Particularly when you say...

    "People using mobile devices typically are on the go, so keep this in mind and try to be as relevant as possible."

    What about the people who are surfing the web from their phone on their couch... what about the person sitting on the train in the morning for an hour... what about the person who uses their tablet at work....these people are using "mobile devices" but they are not technically mobile. These people absolutely deserve to see websites on these mobile devices that contain more than a phone number or directions to an establishment.

    By limiting the content you present on a mobile version of a website, you are penalizing a great deal of your visitors simply because your taking a guess at their physical location based on their device type.

    There has to be a happy medium that allows every visitor to have the optimum experience with your website and your brand.

  • by William C Wed Jun 5, 2013 via blog

    Hi Benjamin, your quoted Top Three Conversion Killer is great. May I know where is the source?

  • by kaushiki@iQeCommerce Thu Jun 6, 2013 via blog

    A well descriptive and well balanced article for portraying the significance of responsive web design..but can you explain me what are the responsive designs the website owner must develop for matching the criterias of mobile phones specifically to use it as a conversion killer??

  • by Jody Resnick Thu Jun 6, 2013 via blog

    Great article, Ben. I think you hit the nail on the head. Regardless of which option is chosen to address our multidevice world, analyzing the data and making iterative enhancements/optimizations is key to conversion optimization.

  • by Benjamin Diggles Fri Jun 7, 2013 via blog


    We have extensive data that shows this as well as feedback from our customers. However a great book, be is somewhat dated in the space, that covers this is The Third Screen by Chuck Martin. Stellar read.

  • by Benjamin Diggles Fri Jun 7, 2013 via blog

    Sorry, I am don't understand the question? Can you clarify? Thanks!

  • by Benjamin Diggles Fri Jun 7, 2013 via blog

    Thanks Jody!

    This is an ever changing space. Even an article like this may be invalid in a matter of weeks or months due to new capabilities. A very exciting, yet challenging, time to be a part of Mobile Marketing.

  • by Benjamin Diggles Fri Jun 7, 2013 via blog


    We are in complete agreement and I probably should have clarified a bit more.

    I would classify as someone on the train for an hour "on the go" simply due to the fact they are not tethered to their desktop. If data shows that the majority of your users use a few features while visiting on a Mobile device I feel it is best practice to augment the experience so that those features are prioritized. Your data should show what content you can safely strip from the Mobile experience.

    That being said, it is always best practice to allow ways for users to expose or visit the full site experience. So if in which case a visitor on a 1 hour train ride wants more than just a phone number and address you should be set up to allow them to dig deeper.

    A great example of a brand that offers multiple ways for the user to consume a Mobile site is New Egg. I encourage you to visit it on your phone so you can see how they do it. Very cool stuff.

  • by Randy Milanovic Fri Jun 7, 2013 via blog

    Responsive delivers a richer experience hands down. True, when a site reconfigures to a smaller screen, there can be trade-offs. But consider the m-dot sites. When did you see one that wasn't more than a shadow of the original. When I see m-dot sites lacking features, I forget them (hint Calgary Herald). (Thanks for the tip on this post @MorganMelnyk!)

  • by Jonathan Wed Jun 12, 2013 via blog

    I think that responsive web design is not just going to be a factory in UX, but also a ranking factor with Google and other SEs

  • by alexjuvion Wed Jun 12, 2013 via blog

    I am completely agree with the Lacey regarding responsive web design.
    Thanks for the post dude....!!!!
    I like your way to present the content on post.

  • by Active Computing Thu Jun 20, 2013 via blog

    I think responsive web design is super important now.

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