Mobile apps threaten travel marketing paradigm

With consumers spending more time on mobile than ever before, and apps ruling the mobile domain, could this be the end of the road for the mobile web?

If that is the case, it will have serious implications for the travel industry. Phocuswright has conducted a study to see if the above scenario is true – or are rumours of the web's demise greatly over-exaggerated?

The travel market research firm tracked the mobile activity of more than 1,000 leisure travellers for a month in 2014 to found out exactly how mobile travellers use their device on a daily basis.

A first glance at the results show that apps do indeed dominate the mobile sphere. Travellers opened smartphone apps an average of 25 times per day, while on the other hand, they only visited nine different mobile websites. They also spent more than two hours in smartphone apps every day.

It's equally important to know what they are doing with the apps. Three activities dominated: email, social media and gaming. Travellers spend a total of 66% of their time on these activities.

The results show that app activity is really quite narrow. In the Facebook app alone, the travellers spent just shy of half an hour every day.

So in reality, what's creating the illusion that the mobile web is on its way out is in fact consumers' extensive engagement with less than a handful of everyday activities, and these are dominated by apps.

The notion is strengthened by the fact that hundred-billion dollar online marketplaces thrive on things consumers don't really do – or purchase – very often. In other words, shopping for hotels and flights isn't something we do every day – but it shows in daily smartphone activity.

Looking at the statistics more closely, travel apps – including airline, hotel, online travel agency (OTA), metasearch apps and others – represent just 1% of all time travellers spend in apps on their phones.

Just because the amount of time they spend on travel apps is negligible doesn't mean, however, that travellers are not using their smartphones to plan their trip. Far from it – it's just that more are using the mobile web.

A case in point is TripAdvisor. More than 30% of respondents used the brand on their smartphones, but their main destination was the brand's mobile website. Only 13% used the app, while 18% visited the firm's mobile website. What's more, the app users also visited the mobile website. In total, just 38% of TripAdvisor smartphone users were "app only."

It's the same story with OTAs - 11% of travellers used OTA apps and 19% shopped on OTAs using mobile web browsers.

So it seems that apps aren't the disruptor that they would appear to be. But of course, it's not as clear-cut as that – there's one big exception.

Airline apps prove considerably more popular than other travel apps. A significant proportion of the travellers – 42% – used at least one airline app.

This shows that apps need to offer more than just the ability to shop for hotels and flights. Airline apps offer functionality such as flight tracking, skipping the long check-in line or mobile boarding, and this is why they're popular.

So what does the future hold: apps or mobile websites? It's a difficult call. Most travellers want quick access to travel information without having to download an app. While apps can offer visually stunning, immersive experiences, the mobile web delivers online travel companies massive reach – and at the critical moment of intent.

The mobile web is far from dead; in fact it will only continue to grow, what with HTML5 and other web-based technology. The activities it offers may not be as popular, but they're still incredibly lucrative.