With over 1.2 billion mobile Internet users worldwide, you can’t afford to ignore the rising tide of people accessing your content from a mobile device. Mobile visits probably already make up a double-digit percentage of your traffic, so you need to make sure those visitors are properly served, but there are two options.

Should you direct mobile visitors to download a native application for their smartphones, or should you offer an alternate version of your website that detects that a visitor is using a mobile device, then displays content in a more compact way?

Many businesses are formatting their existing web content for mobile devices, but others are considering going the mobile app route to make sure their content is presented in the best possible light to a mobile audience. Here are some pros and cons of each option to help you decide which choice is best for your business.

Mobile App: Pros

A mobile app is an application that runs on a mobile device to perform a specific function. Calendars, navigation, and games are all examples of popular apps that run on mobile devices. Many apps also use a connection to the Internet to extend the reach and utility of the applications.

Since apps use the computer processor of the device they’re installed on, they can be very powerful and provide a number of flashy, fun, and useful features. Apps are typically built with a specific device in mind, so there is a lot of control over how apps are displayed on screen, and how they can interact with other device features likes cameras and GPS systems.

Apps have even become part of the cultural lexicon, as in the well known expression, “There’s an app for that.” Between its popularity and its functionality, a good case can be made for the benefits of including a mobile app in your your company’s marketing mix.

Mobile App: Cons

The biggest potential downside to building a mobile app is its cost. Apps usually have to be built to run on specific devices, so if your target audience is using a combination of iPads, iPhones, Android devices and so on, your development costs will rise according to how many platforms you’re developing for.

Michael Peng, co-owner of restaurant-directory app BonAppie, also cautions that once an app is built, if you need to make any changes such as menu items, contact information, and so on, you’ll usually end up paying a developer to make these changes. Most app developers are “charging anywhere between $150-$350 per hour,” says Peng, adding, “this can be cost prohibitive to businesses like restaurants that need to change their menus often.”

Another disadvantage to mobile apps, especially for small and local businesses, is their limited utility. “Most single-location businesses just won’t have the utility in their apps to make it worthwhile to build,” says Peng. For example, a restaurant with a single location is likely to need just a simple menu feature, along with contact information and hours of operation. “That type of limited functionality is probably going to get rejected by Apple,” says Peng.

Instead, he advises small and local businesses to get listed in “directory apps” — apps that include other businesses and a collective set of features that are useful both to the participating businesses and the users of the app.

Mobile Website: Pros

The major alternative to creating a mobile app to promote your content to mobile users, is to create a mobile-optimized website. In this scenario, you format your online content to display on a variety of different mobile devices using whatever web browsers are installed on those devices. Using web development protocols that are common to most mobile web browsers, you can display a consistent looking website, no matter what device is being used to access and interact with your content.

“This cross-platform functionality usually makes development less complex, and less expensive than building a mobile app,” says Brent Matsalla of QR Estates. Programmers can spend more of their time developing functionality for the mobile-enabled website, as opposed to spending time building multiple versions of the same app for different mobile platforms.

Mobile-enabled websites are often more convenient for your audience; they don’t have to find, download and install a third-party app in order to interact with your content. Data compiled by Nielsen from the 2011 shopping season also found that mobile-enabled websites were preferred by shoppers over their mobile-app counterparts by a factor of 58 percent to 21 percent.

Mobile websites are much more flexible if changes need to be made to your content. Typically, mobile websites are created much like traditional websites, with a content management system that can be updated without necessarily needing a programmer to do it. This can represent a huge advantage over mobile apps, especially if the content aimed at your mobile audience needs to be changed or refreshed frequently.

Mobile Website: Cons

At least for the time being, you have to allow your non-mobile customers to access your online content through larger devices, such as laptops and desktop computers. The alternative is to redesign your entire website to dynamically adjust to the devices used to access it. In most cases, you’ll likely have to maintain two sets of online content, one for your mobile customers and another for those not using mobile devices. This adds to your administrative and organizational overhead.

Another potential downside of a mobile-enabled website is that it’s restricted in the type of information it can display, given the end-user bandwidth costs associated with receiving large photos and videos on their mobile devices. This means that you’ll have to rethink your entire content strategy to provide the most appropriate information to your target audience.

Unlike some mobile apps that can function just fine without an Internet connection, this is not possible for a mobile-enabled website. In order for your brand to be represented, your customer needs a reliable Internet connection from his or her mobile device, which is completely out of your control.

Which Option is Right for You?

Whether you should build a mobile app or a mobile website “really depends on what type of business you have,” says Michael Peng. You also need to consider “what percentage of your customers and prospects are accessing your content from a mobile device,” he adds.

Consider the pros and cons listed above. These factors will help you decide where your resources will be spent most effectively when it comes to marketing your business to an increasingly mobile audience.

[Sources: MobiThinking, Gigacom; Image credits: Pawel Kabanski, Jesper Rønn-Jensen, Jesper Rønn-Jensen(2), Jesper Rønn-Jensen(3)]