The rich experience available on mobile web phones, combined with the insatiable popularity of social media, present very attractive opportunities for marketers who want to provide greater customer service and deepen engagement. The question is, what direction to go? Should you invest in native apps designed specifically for iPhone, Droid, and Palm, or start with a mobile website and web apps that run commonly across all phones via a mobile web browser?
First, it’s important to understand the differences between native and web apps. Native apps are programs that users download and install on their devices. Native apps can access the device’s functions—GPS, camera, accelerometer, etc.—and therefore can deliver deeper features. But this functionality is tied to the phone’s operating system. That means you’ll need to build separate versions for iPhone, Droid, Palm—and it’s not a cut and paste process. As a result, native apps cost more to build and maintain.
Native apps are both cool and useful. After Apple opened its iPhone code for developers to create their own software (apps), marketers and developers quickly joined forces to develop thousands of apps that extend the capabilities of the phone, while providing a branded vehicle to engage iPhone users. Others such as Palm and Droid followed suit. Each has its own suite of dedicated apps.
However, since many cell phones—not just high-end smartphones—now come with web browsers, mobile-specific websites can deliver custom functionality via “web apps” to a larger universe of mobile users. Mobile websites are served up when users go to a website on their web-enabled phone. Rather than deliver the same website designed for a broadband PC user, a mobile-specific website accommodates the limited nature of mobile phones.
Mobile web apps cannot access a phone’s special functions, so they are frequently simpler than native apps. But they can be accessed by any mobile web browser, and thus serve a wider audience. And web apps, despite their limitations, can be very useful, too. Plus, they can be tied to social media.
Given the growth of mobile browsing, it’s likely that you will want to develop a mobile website in the next year or so, whether you develop native apps or not. In designing your mobile site, consider where the mobile user is and what that user will need at that point. Rethink the information architecture, design, content, and experience so that it suits the tiny screen.
But back to the apps. Many resorts are building their own, as well as mobile sites to deliver branded interactive experiences to customers on the go. Features generally include resort conditions, weather, trail/resort maps, and content feeds. Advanced features leverage GPS functions to provide location/map integration, stats (speed, runs, vertical feet), and provide social media/network broadcasting. Here are three examples of different paths resorts have taken.
If you want the basics and can forgo customization, AccuTerra by Intermap (www.accuterra.com) provides an excellent product. It specializes in high-resolution terrain maps for GPS devices, and has developed its own native iPhone app for hikers and bikers. It has extended this app to include Aspen, Vail, Whistler/Blackcomb, Alta, Snowbird, Heavenly, Kirkwood, Mammoth, Northstar, Stowe, Sunday River and Telluride. According to a company representative, it does not currently plan to roll out any more resorts—on their dime. However, they do have elevations of every resort in the U.S. and can offer white-labeling. That is, AccuTerra has the elevations of all the resorts in North America and Europe, and would just need to add the trail runs, lodges, etc., for any resort—plus add branding that would include icon, welcome screen and web links back to the resort website/mobile site. This would seem like a great opportunity for any resort that wants a fairly turn-key iPhone app for minimal cost.
• iPhone native app
• Simple clean interface
• GPS map integration
• GPS statistics: average speed, max/min elevation
• Path tracing
• multiple map layers: proprietary terrain contour, Google street, Google satellite
• E-mail, Facebook, Google Earth Maps integration
• Photo uploader
Snowbird developed its own native application specifically for iPhone (www.snowbird.com/iphone.html) with the team at Welikesmall.com. They did a great job of identifying two audience segments: those on-mountain and those trying to get there. For both audiences, the app provides conditions, weather, and trail maps. For those on the mountain there is a Twitter feed with mountain updates, a ski-day counter, and a photo up-loader for users to post photos to the community photo stream. For those trying to get to the mountain, there are directions and current status of Little Cottonwood Canyon Road—which can change rapidly and often closes. This is one of only a few native apps custom developed for a resort, and the resort did a great job of focusing on the core needs of its audience segments.
• iPhone native app
• Trail map (non GPS)
• Photos and uploader
• Ski day counter
• Road conditions
• Twitter feed
Stowe: A Non-Native Solution
In working with Stowe, we (Propeller Media Works) avoided a long development process—and the expense—and simply repackaged existing data and content into a mobile-specific website (www.stowe.com/mobile). A device detection script identifies mobile visitors coming to stowe.com and automatically sends them to a site designed just for mobile users. To determine what should or should not go into the site, we used Google Analytics to reveal what content mobile users had historically consumed. We then created a very minimalistic (fast) mobile site that pulls existing content from our content management system—the site involves no additional administrative tasks for Stowe’s marketing team. The cost was low and the turnaround was fast.
• Web app (for any mobile)
• Ticket prices
• All content pulled from existing CMS content.
• Simple and inexpensive
What’s on the horizon? Google “augmented reality.” Augmented Reality (AR) uses a phone’s camera, compass, GPS, and accelerometer to layer data and graphics over the camera preview mode. The phone essentially knows what you’re looking at and can augment that view with additional info. Resort Technology Partners (RTP) has built a very cool iPhone app they call REALSKI, which uses this technology to provide on-mountain orientation to trails, lifts, lodges and other on-mountain locations. Just imagine the ability to push real-time lodging discounts or lunch specials to users that view your hotel or base lodge. www.rtp.com/realski.
If you’re planning a mobile strategy, keep it simple at first. Consider your audience segments; study your current website’s analytics. This will help you identify popular content areas that mobile users are hitting. Then, serve up that content in a simplified mobile site or web app. Also, consider how to encourage mobile enthusiasts to share their experiences through social media.
Dave Gibson is President | Overhead at Propeller Media Works, which provides online marketing, custom web design and application development to the winter resort industry.