Mobile devices such as tablets, smartphones and e-readers are changing the way people live. More importantly for online businesses, however, is that they are changing the way people shop - not to mention how they make decisions about products, services and the companies that provide them.

Businesses in this age of information need to market their products by leveraging a world of connected customers. Mobile seems to be a great channel to do just that. But is it time for your business to go mobile? Here we'll take a look at the debate from both sides.

The Mobile Bandwagon

Why is going mobile such a big deal? Let's take a brief look at the current mobile environment.

Data from comScore shows that for 2011, smartphones are being used by close to 42 percent of mobile subscribers in the United States. That represents 98 million smartphone users. The trend is similar in Europe, where 44 percent of mobile subscribers own a smartphone. What's more, comScore relates that more and more people are opting for a smartphone when buying a new handset.

ComScore also states that:

  • Connected devices, such as tablets, mobile phones and e-readers, were used to access the Internet close to 8 percent of the time in the U.S.
  • More than half of Americans who own smartphones used them to research products they wanted to purchase while inside stores selling the same merchandise. Globally, 20 percent of consumers scanned product bar codes while close to 13 percent compared prices on their devices while still inside the store.
And just how many people are actually buying products using their mobile devices?

Consider that for Black Friday 2011, one in every 10 purchases was done through a mobile device. That's a number that's expected to continue to grow over time. Mobile commerce is expected to reach $119 billion by 2015 globally. In the U..S, it is expected to total $31 billion by 2016.

That's a lot of business!

The Pros and Cons of Going Mobile

Just getting a piece of that $31 billion pie is enough to push many businesses toward having mobile functionality. But despite the opportunity here, this move has both pros and cons.

The Pros

The advantages of going mobile include:

  1. Customers are increasingly likely to have a mobile device, providing more opportunity for them to interact with the businesses they like, whether by visiting a website or downloading a mobile app.
  2. Consumers are using their mobile devices to research things they want to buy - and buying those things online more often.
  3. Mobile is inherently integrated; it acts like a bridge to different forms of marketing. This is clear in the strong link between marketing and social media.
  4. New technologies help make mobile more attractive. The advent of QR codes and the increasing awareness of near-field communication highlight the importance of going mobile. (Read more about QR codes in An Introduction to QR Codes.)

The Cons

If you still have not gone mobile, don't fret. A February 2012 report from Antenna Software and Vanson Bourne stated that 45 percent of businesses in the U.S. and U.K. are still developing a mobile site, while 43 percent are working on a mobile app.

That means you are not alone in not having a mobile initiative. Yet.

Moreover, those that were in the process of releasing a mobile site or a mobile app were discouraged by the fact that doing so was very costly, complex and took too much time. In fact, 45 percent of those polled thought that it was taking far too long for their mobile apps to get to the market, while 42 percent thought that it was getting to be too expensive. The study also revealed that the average mobile initiative took more than six months to complete while a good 10 percent took more than a year. (Dive into the world of mobile app development in Native App or Mobile Web App?)

Further, a badly planned, executed and designed mobile experience could mean turning off your customers, diluting your branding, and generally failing to present your business or website the way you wanted to.

Who Needs Mobile?

The first thing you need to worry about when deciding to go mobile is to find out whether your business would really benefit from this move.

In an interview with ComputerWorld UK, Forrester Research vice president and principal analyst Ted Schadler suggested that answering "yes" to the following four questions could provide a solid indication that you need a mobile website.

  • Do you have an existing website that your customers regularly use?
  • Does your target market use tablets or smartphones on a regular basis?
  • Do you think mobile can give you opportunities that your current website and other marketing initiatives are not giving you?
  • Would your target market benefit from getting information via a mobile device?

Considerations for Going Mobile

If you decide that your business needs a mobile site, you'll have a number of things to consider, mainly how much it will cost, what technology you will need and what kind of experience you can provide to users.

Costs and Resources
Probably the first consideration that every business owner or enterprise IT professional must face is logistics: the manpower and the cost of building and maintaining a mobile site.

If you currently have a website that is not mobile optimized, that creates another roadblock as well. That's because the first step is to optimize your site so that it will show up perfectly no matter what device is used to access it. And that means that you have two options:

  1. Revamp your existing website to make it mobile-friendly. This also involves tweaks to the CSS that will allow it to detect the device that is trying to access and serve up the right page for that device.
  2. Create an entirely separate mobile site.
However, the problem goes beyond just mere format and layout. Do you have the manpower to create and maintain that mobile site on top of your existing website? Plus, if you do decide to create a separate mobile site, you run the risk of diluting your brand image or not being able to reflect your brand values in it.

If you decide to revamp your current site to make it more mobile friendly, would you be able to translate it perfectly into a mobile environment? If you accept purchases online, would you be able to do the same for your mobile site and still provide a secure way to get the orders in?

The good news is that your mobile website does not need to be an exact mirror of your desktop site, so you have the option to limit what you offer on the mobile version. Take time to identify which services, features and functionality you would want to keep and work from there.

In short, you need to determine whether you have the money and the people with the right expertise to accomplish your mobile goals.

Platform and Technology
Another problem is the platform or technology to use. At the moment, mobile marketing is exploding and there are a lot of technologies and platforms out there competing for attention.

The more pressing decision in this area is whether you should go for a mobile application, a mobile website, or an HTML5 app. In fact, after coming to the decision to have a mobile presence, you should also answer several questions such as:

  • Should you go for a mobile app or a mobile site?
  • Should you go for a mobile widget or a mobile app?
  • Should you go for a native mobile app or an HTML5 app?
It would be great to have something for everything: a mobile site to complement your existing website, plus a mobile app and mobile widgets to boot. But it goes back to the question of having the required resources to back these up.

The Mobile Experience
Another thing that most companies rolling out a mobile site grapple with is the experience they provide to users. This means designing a mobile site or app that takes full advantage of a mobile device's features. This might include limiting the amount of horizontal scrolling required to navigate the site, and making sure that links can easily be clicked on a touch screen. Handy features such as clickable contact numbers are also a must.

The Text Problem
If you have a website that is heavy on text, this may also present a problem because smaller screens are not always conducive to long reads

Better mobile broadband speeds and better screen resolution have also given rise to the need for visually appealing mobile websites that are rich in visual content. Note, however, that not all mobile devices support Flash, so you are quite limited to just static images, unless you go for HTML5. (Learn more about HTML5 in Moving From Flash to HTML5.)

Go Mobile or Go Home?

Consumers' increasing shift toward mobile computing means that companies must follow along and look for ways to connect with people on the go. But the best mobile websites, retailers and marketing won't just go mobile, they'll seek out unique ways to leverage the strengths of these devices to appeal to their users.