Responsive Web Design: A Marketer’s Friend or Foe?


If you’re in the world of marketing, especially online marketing, chances are that you’ve heard of responsive web design (RWD). With new smartphone and tablet devices coming out daily, it’s nearly impossible to predict which devices will be coming to your website. Because of its fluid nature, RWD has become the go-to strategy for website redesigns. However, as with any new approach to a web design, there are pros and cons to RWD and it’s important to understand where responsive design excels, where it might fall short and what the right approach is for your business.

The Benefits of Responsive Design

Adjusts to every screen

This is the biggest benefit of RWD – that your website will adjust to the size of the screen that is viewing it. RWD has specific logic built into the code that will re-arrange your website’s elements depending on the screen size, which provides peace of mind to many marketers because they know their site will look good no matter what device is visiting their website. See the image below as an example:

Who benefits:

  • Website’s that are visited by many different devices (which is most people these days)

Content accessibility across devices

Another major benefit of responsive design is that your content is accessible across all devices. This is especially important for websites that produce lots of content, and rely on strong engagement from their followers. If people can’t access your content in an easy-to-read format, they’ll simply give up reading and move on to your competitor’s website.

Who benefits:

  • News and journalistic websites (Boston Globe, New York Times, CNN)
  • Blogs (This blog is responsive – yes, the cobbler’s children do have shoes!)
  • Sites that encourage social sharing (Buzzfeed, Mashable)

Easier Content Maintenance

Because a responsive website is all the same site (as opposed to having a separate mobile-specific site), marketers have an easier time maintaining content because they only need to make changes to content once. If the majority of your content changes frequently, having a responsive site can help cut down on site maintenance.

Who benefits:

  • Time-strapped marketers (granted, not many marketers consider themselves having an abundance of time!)
  • Marketers who don’t have a website manager

Search Engines Like It

Let me make this clear: Building a responsive website does not mean you will automatically rank higher. There are many considerations that determine your search rank (page titles, keyword density, page speed etc.), but search engines have an easier time crawling and indexing a responsive site because it’s all under one URL (versus having an “m.” subdomain). This does not mean you take a hit by using a separate mobile site; search engines just like responsive sites because it makes their job easier. Ultimately, you can still rank equally as high or higher with a separate mobile site and it’s up to you to determine which is the best user experience for your end user.

Who benefits:

  • Companies with large investment in SEO and PPC

 The Drawbacks of Responsive Web Design

 Load Times are a Headache

Load times are where most responsive websites fall short. A responsive website consists of large amounts of complex code, and most responsive sites simply deliver that same code-base to all, no matter what device they’re using. However, smartphones have much smaller rendering capabilities than desktop computers, so when it comes to processing that huge code-base on a smartphone, it’s like trying to move a huge pile of dirt with a wheelbarrow versus a pickup truck. If your website takes forever to load on smartphone and tablets, chances are that you are experiencing significant drop-off rates, and people are simply abandoning your website before it loads.

There are coding techniques that can be used that cut down on load times for responsive design, more specifically, server-side coding, which can be considered a second generation of RWD that takes website performance into consideration. Responsive with server-side coding (aka RESS), will detect what device is visiting the site, and then deliver an experience and website size better suited for that device and its rendering capabilities. For example, when a smartphone visits the site, the server will deliver a website with smaller image sizes, and less CSS and Javascript files. When a desktop computer comes to the site, the server knows to deliver larger image sizes and a larger code-base so that the site renders appropriately and looks sharp on a larger screen. Using RESS can greatly improve a responsive site’s performance, but it’s important to consider these techniques from the start as they need to be factored into the overall redesign project.

Who is impacted:

  • Anyone using RWD – users are impatient, and ensuring fast load times is crucial

Delivering Mobile-specific Content/Calls to Action

Many websites benefit greatly from mobile-specific content and mobile-specific calls to action, especially those driving lead generation on their website. For example, is it a good idea to offer a white paper download to a smartphone user? What are the chances that the user actually downloads and reads your white paper on their device. It might be more effective to use a click-to-call button or “sign-up for newsletter”. Responsive websites don’t usually swap out or re-prioritize calls to action based on device type. Instead, the page will just readjust but leave the same call to action across all devices.

Content changes should also be considered based on device type. Smartphone users and desktop users have different behavior patterns. Mobile users are typically on-the-go and need access to quick, reference information. Desktop users have more time to read in-depth on a topic and casually browse. Serving up different content based on device type can greatly increase your website’s user experience and your conversion rates.

Changing the content based on device type is becoming more and more common, but can still be difficult on responsive websites. Although you can serve up different CTA’s and content using RESS and CSS coding, it is difficult to make changes to this content without touching the code. If a marketer notices a CTA isn’t performing on mobile, unless that marketer is an advanced coder, it’s impossible for them to switch out that CTA without going through IT or their agency.

Who is impacted:

  • Companies using their website heavily for lead generation and conversion metrics
  • Marketers without an IT department or agency
  • Marketers who manage their website
  • Marketers who want to target based on device-type

Is Responsive Right For You?

Responsive design offers many benefits to marketers and is beginning to take hold as a standard for web design. However, before simply choosing responsive because you want to be “forward-thinking” or “tech-savvy”, it’s important to understand the benefits and drawbacks to this approach, and how it fits into your overall web strategy. Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide if responsive design is right for you, and we hope the above information helps lead you in the right direction.