Over two-thirds of Americans now possess a mobile phone, and we use it for just about anything and everything, multiple times per day. And we've all heard those reports that shock us with the extent of our mobile obsession, suggesting that people are willing to give up beloved vices like chocolate rather than give up their phone.

So knowing the significance of the mobile phone to our everyday lives, and quite frankly our personal identity, how can brands effectively master communications with customers in a way that achieves results—in a way that is respectful of the user? And what methods should we take to reach them? Can brands just build a mobile app and call it a day?

It isn't that simple.

The opportunities for businesses to engage with mobile users go beyond simply creating an app or mobile website. Mobile communications need to be informed, responsive, intelligent, and mindful of the user's unique experience on mobile versus other platforms, such as the desktop.

Here's why it matters: The micro-moments (a term coined by Google) that occur when people instinctively turn to a device to act on a need to learn something, take action on a task, watch something, or buy something... are intent-driven, highly personal moments when choices are made and preferences are formed.

But how or why people choose to open an app or a mobile Web browser, or initiate or respond to a text, can affect usability design and customer communication strategy.

One way to give mobile communications a boost is to provide real-time chat sessions to engage with customers to capture their attention in the micro-moment. That can be facilitated via mobile Web browsers, mobile apps and SMS. But which is best?

Simply put, they all serve a purpose based on why the user has chosen that specific medium. All three should all be employed as part of an effective mobile messaging strategy. Let's look at each one a little deeper.

The Mobile Web: Reaching the Widest Mobile Audience

Perhaps the most compelling reason to give special attention to the user experience on mobile browsers might be the size of the audience, which is estimated to be twice that of the mobile app audience. With more eyeballs viewing and fingertips tapping in browsers each day, it is an important part of the mix.

But we also have to consider the top reasons users are there: referencing information, shopping, and general education. Also worth noting is the fickle nature of the Web user, who often consults many different websites infrequently, without having a strong affinity to a specific website or a desire for repeat visits or purchases. Welcome to the world of the transient eyeball.

The easily distracted nature of this audience should guide customer engagement element design:

  • Make it transparent: The engagement window (whether chat or automated engagement) should be made slightly transparent, as the typical mobile Web user consults various websites and easily gets distracted. Those transient eyeballs should be assured that they were not taken away from the site, and they should be able to see the content on the site while chatting.
  • Design to fit your brand: Customer engagement design elements for mobile Web browsers should be fully integrated into the brand's website design. For instance, customized, page-specific embedded click-to-chat buttons should be supported where contextually relevant (for example, on the Contact Us page or next to the tele-sales call to action).
  • Anchor it: Users who are targeted should be shown an anchored button that opens an engagement window (for chat or automated tools) that is easy to access. Usability testing has shown that the optimal position for this button is in the upper right corner, and that when the user first lands on the page that button appears to be fixed but it actually remains anchored to this position as the user scrolls down.
  • Make it smart: Because of the temporary nature of the user's behavior, the best-practice for engaging with new visitors on the mobile Web is to not put them in a queue; thus, the button should not be displayed if there is no immediate agent availability.
  • Respond fast and brief: Because the user's presence is fleeting and the user is focused on the task at hand and expects instantaneous results, agents should respond to each user query in less than 15 seconds. Agent responses should be no more than 160 characters, which is the standard maximum length of an SMS text message.

Mobile Apps: Interacting With the Highly Engaged Mobile User

Unlike their approach while using the mobile Web, consumers are highly selective when using apps. They tend to download and engage with only a handful of apps, but they use those apps on a regular basis, spending a majority of our mobile time on these few apps.

In fact, we love our apps so much that by some estimates over 80% of consumers will check at least one app first thing in the morning, sometimes before getting out of bed.

It's safe to say that mobile apps excel in getting users to engage in order to accomplish one or a few very purposeful tasks for which they specifically downloaded the app. The repeat usage of apps is why businesses are willing to make a costly investment in app design and app maintenance, and in return this investment translates into increased usability for customers.

Having an app installed on your phone guarantees quick access to the desired content; and because an app is built for mobile devices, it enables smooth, fast and intuitive use. Apps are built to perform on top of the phone's native features, while the ability to do that on the mobile Web is limited. For example, just reflect on how much more usable a banking app is because it can use the phone's camera to take a picture of a check for a deposit.

So, with all that in mind, here are three tips for engaging the mobile app user:

  • Focus on how the app works: Put a higher focus on live assistance in task completion and education regarding other available features to ensure that customers know how to use it in order to self-serve.
  • Make it a permanent option: Engagement windows should appear as a fixed button element within the app displayed to all visitors, based on agent status, and preferably within the application's standard navigation toolbar. For example, the chat button should use button states, meaning it should look different when agents are available vs. busy vs. offline.
  • Be responsive: The brand should be as responsive as it is with mobile Web users, since app users are often in transit when on the phone and the phone has limited real estate. Live representatives should respond to each user query in less than 30 seconds, with agent responses of no more than 160 characters, which is the standard maximum length of an SMS text message.

Native SMS: Building Loyalty With Customers

Perhaps no medium gives a greater opportunity to communicate on a personal level than mobile text messaging, or SMS. It's probably the most personal type of conversation you can have with a consumer via mobile.

Mobile texting is the most widely and frequently used capability of a smartphone, for both personal and business communication needs, and SMS today is used the way consumers used email for about 10 years ago: personal conversations.

Customers who opt in to mobile messages are highly involved, and the ability to engage with a business through the native messaging app makes the brand more "accessible" to consumers.

Consumers are more likely to read a message sooner if it's an SMS than if it's an email. Moreover, due to its highly personalized approach to customer engagement, SMS produces significantly higher engagement rates than email, with average click-through rates for URLs in text messages surpassing industry estimates for email.

However, customers value using this private communication channel with brands only if the message that is sent is highly relevant to the consumer. We see this in the most favorite tasks consumers complete via SMS: to check order status, to schedule or change appointments, and to make or confirm reservations.

There are no engagement-design considerations for brands, since the engagement with the customer is conducted within the phone's native text messaging interface. However, it is essential that brands reply to each text within a standard response time of 90 seconds. And brevity is required, since text messages allow only up to 160 characters. That means not all conversations belong in a text message. If the content is complex and lengthy, chatting via SMS is not ideal and should be redirected—to the mobile Web, mobile app, or perhaps a phone call in relevant cases.

The main takeaway here is that the user appreciates the ability to have increased access to the brand for a private conversation, but only when it's relevant. To build loyalty, brands must focus on building a relationship with customers that is respectful of the user.

* * *

Here's what it all boils down to: Businesses need a strong mobile engagement strategy as mobile usage grows at a rapid rate; however, consumers use the mobile Web, apps, and SMS for different purposes.

That's why businesses need to think about how to use each, and not simply which to use, then take that knowledge and design for the best experience in real-time communication.

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Mobile Web vs. Apps vs. Native SMS: Tips for Mobile Engagement Success

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image of Jessica Langdorf

Jessica Langdorf is VP, Digital Interactions Lab, at TouchCommerce (now part of Nuance Communications), a provider of omni-channel customer engagement solutions for market-leading brands. She is a Certified Usability Analyst (CUA) with an Award of Achievement in Web Analytics.

LinkedIn: Jessica Langdorf (Gammon)


image of Doreen Saxby

Doreen Saxby is director of the Digital Interactions Lab at TouchCommerce (now part of Nuance Communications), a provider of omni-channel customer engagement solutions for market-leading brands. She consults on strategic launches with best-practices for the advancement of cross-device omni-channel UX, data usage, and automation.

LinkedIn: Doreen Saxby