WAP VS APP: A Mobile Marketing Battle Royale


With the explosion in mobile use and the increasing capabilities of smarter smartphones, tremendous opportunity exists to reach customers like never before. In fact, it would be a mistake to think of web-connected smartphones as simply an extension of the web on a smaller screen.

The way and context in which people are using smartphones — and what they are using them for — is far different in many cases than what the larger, tethered telephones and computers of yesteryear were taxed with. Unlike the traditional desktop setting, these variations in context drive a whole range of issues with respect to the choice of technology and the tools available to serve unique customer needs. For example, when in a retail setting, a customer may use her smartphone’s camera to scan a barcode and get more product information or use her GPS antenna to find a nearby retailer carrying the same product. Simply formatting a traditional web browser for mobile devices would ignore these contextual opportunities.

To address this, a whole industry has exploded with specifically designed mobile websites and new applications tailored to specific phones. This is a new genre of meeting consumers’ needs, and it’s one that’s worth investigating for brands interested in staying in the spotlight.


Okay, in order to take this conversation a step further, we first have to get a few acronyms out of the way. Technically speaking, WAP refers to “Wireless Application Protocol” and traces its roots back to the late ’90s. When WAP was first introduced, it was a standard for the state-of-the-art mobile phone browsers at the time and has little resemblance to what smartphone browsers can do today. While the acronym is still used today, it is used more broadly to describe a mobile web browser, with comparable functionality (albeit for a much smaller screen) to its desktop cousin.

On the other hand, APP refers to downloadable mobile applications written for a given type of phone and distributed as a download to perform a specific function or set of functions. It is through APPs that access to a phone’s camera, GPS, accelerometer and other hardware functions is enabled. While the required download presents a bit of a barrier, this is often outweighed by the rich functionality and utility that an APP gives the end user.

So, marketers might ask, “Which of these mobile technologies should my brand focus on?” The answer is both, but for different reasons — and these reasons depend on the user’s context when engaging the brand through the mobile channel.


When focusing on WAPs, we are targeting users who either perform a search from a mobile device or explicitly type a known web address into their mobile browsers. In this scenario, we must realize that visitors will be viewing the site on a relatively small screen that was very likely not considered when the site was first developed. One strategy for dealing with this is to create a separate site that is optimized for the smaller screen. While this approach may seem intimidating, especially when working with a large site with a significant amount of content, it is important to keep in mind that a visitor in the “mobile context” will require a smaller amount of content than the primary website visitors. Priority should be given to the content that customers will seek while out-and-about, like the location of a retail outlet, store hours, or directions.

On a mobile website, succumbing to the temptation of providing too much information from the main corporate site is not only a waste of effort, but a negative for the mobile user as well. The attention spans of these users — and, frequently, the urgency with which they are seeking information — make the extra clutter an obstacle. Therefore, the needs of mobile users should identify pertinent information for the mobile site. And that information should be prioritized so that the most important content appears “above the fold” or on the first screen, at least.

Creating a WAP site, however, is only the beginning. From this starting point, the site maintenance plan and the strategy for making and managing updates need careful attention. With a similar effort and plan already likely in place for the primary site, this additional workload should be balanced and, where possible, combined with the existing maintenance plan. In fact, a good content management strategy and supporting technology can help facilitate this process, centralizing the content and providing mechanisms for differentiating the materials for each format (mobile and desktop).

Taking this a step further, technology exists to provide even more granularity and targeting for different mobile devices. There are content management platforms that keep content more, well, manageable. This type of approach acknowledges the disparity of mobile devices. A very modest home screen could be targeted to a low-end phone that is text-only and relies on many “clicks” for navigation. More feature-rich elements can be targeted to newer smartphones with larger touch screens. With literally hundreds of different devices on the market today, this can easily be taken to an extreme and is seldom broken down into more than three device classes in practice. To reiterate, we are not proposing simply using technology to “re-skin” the same content for each device, but instead recommending that the content itself, as well as its organization, be considered separately for each potential format.

As with any solid interactive marketing plan, thinking ahead and making provisions for analytics is essential in mobile. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the varying contexts from which a user views a WAP site is very important to keep in mind throughout development. Variation in site traffic and user flows can also make for significant considerations, depending on the specific device that is being used to view the site, as well as the network speed that the user experiences at the moment.

In addition to the process, technology, and mechanisms for managing the WAP site, search engine marketing and optimization make yet another important dimension to consider since this is how visitors will ultimately arrive onsite. In fact, a mobile-targeted site will fare much better in search rankings when the search is initialized from a mobile device.


Switching gears for a moment to consider the APP, we need to dig beneath the technology and really dissect the differences of how users initially engage an APP and how they ultimately use it. What is the benefit that an APP provides mobile users, and what will prompt them to go through the trouble of downloading and installing it?

It is very easy to miss the mark here if we march forward developing an APP with a web mindset. The first thing we need to acknowledge is that an individual that seeks out, finds, and then installs an app is a lot less passive than a user bouncing around on the web from site to site. They have found what they are looking for, and there has to be some perceived ongoing benefit derived from downloading and installing it.

An APP that is packed with the same information available on the website is doomed to fail. Users will just go to the web for that. A tool or utility, on the other hand, that has ongoing benefit for the user is a much better fit for an APP — especially if it leverages the context that the user is in, the location awareness of the phone, the camera as a digital reader, the ability to easily engage and interact with a network-based data service, etc.

These downloadable applications give the author far greater capability in terms of accessing the phone’s hardware devices and providing a top-notch user experience compared to a mobile web browser. APPs require a bigger commitment from the user in terms of downloading and accessing the software to perform specific actions. So, it makes sense that the APP would allow for a more personalized media-phone-user relationship. APPs arguably require more creativity than a WAP for success, but if they’re grounded with solid hooks to maintain the audience’s interest through repeat visits, then they could lead to incredible returns.


Keeping priorities aligned and the focus on the user’s motivations helps to maintain a level of clarity on creative ways to use these technologies. Minimize reliance on the slick interface and cool functionality to carry the message or wow the user. That gets old really fast. Instead, focus on functions and elements that will leave the user wanting more. Whether it be for entertainment, social networking, or to get something done, APPs are not a one-time shot. Additionally, as with WAPs, close attention must be paid to the two primary constraints with mobile as it exists today: the minimized screen real estate and the time that a user is likely to invest in a mobile session.

With respect to the screen real estate question, not only do we need to be sensitive to the presentation, but much of the traditional wisdom and many best practices associated with traditional software development begin to fall apart under these circumstances. One notable example is the principle of “minimizing the number of clicks that a user must make to reach their goal.” It is much more user-friendly to present a few additional clicks or touches, as the case may be, if this makes the interface more intuitive and easier to manage. For example, on a traditional web page, a user frequently will navigate from one field to the next on a long input form by hitting the “tab” button. Without a practical equivalent on mobile, it is often much easier to allow the user to select each field with a touch and pop a keyboard onto the screen.

Looking at the average session length of the mobile user raises additional concerns for APP development. To reduce the minimum time of engagement for user satisfaction, developers can reduce the amount of “required” information needed from the user by breaking apart functions with finer granularity. Also, allowing users to save their work-in-progress can be extremely helpful, especially since interruptions to sessions are much more likely. With an APP (unlike a WAP or even a traditional website), there is a greater ability to store information on the device and retrieve it later, making these types of alterations possible.

In summary, WAP and APP mobile applications will continue to play an ever-increasing role in our lives, especially as they evolve to help us interact with brands, consume information, and make decisions easier and faster. Therefore, all brands should consider developing a strong mobile strategy. This strategy should start with an exploration of the various contexts that the mobile audience would experience and how those contexts would affect the audience’s wants and needs. From this vantage, solid WAP and APP strategies can emerge to reach these users with great efficacy, while keeping your brand up to speed with a world that never stops.