For the past year, mobile and social have been the two areas brands most acknowledge a need to grow in. This should not come as a surprise since both of these areas have been showing continued growth at a rapid rate since 2007 (the year the iPhone launched and social media usage overtook email).
For social, developments of the core technologies have slowed down, and growth in the field is now comprised of new services, business models, and an increase of scale. Social media strategy is increasingly about fine-tuning, and seems to be approaching the state SEO and SEM strategies are currently in. This is in sharp contrast to the state of mobile.
Meanwhile, the core technologies behind mobile are transforming at a breakneck speed, specifically in the United States. The carrier business model is built around a two-year device refresh, so more than half of U.S. phone owners buy a new device each year. No other consumer electronic segment has even come close to this sort of speed for hardware replacement.
The technologies behind mobile are also expanding beyond pocket-sized devices. The success of the iPad has made tablets a necessary consideration for digital marketing in 2011. This summer, Google TV will get an Android app marketplace. Apple already brought an App Store to OS X, and Google created one for Chrome. Motorola was quite savvy with the Atrix phone release in creating "laptop" and TV docks that allow the phone to power those experiences in addition to its core functionality. Mobile devices are on the path to becoming the hub for all of our digital experiences.
Rapid evolution is a double-edged sword. While there are great opportunities to innovate, there are also looming dangers of obsolescence. To help brands seize those opportunities and mitigate the dangers, this guide will provide some "do's and don'ts" pertaining to the new trends in mobile -- encompassing both basic, all-purpose trends and emerging innovations.
Do invest in your mobile website
Over the past four years, mobile web use has quadrupled in North America, according to a 2011 Strategy Analytics report. One-in-three mobile phone users browse the web on their phone weekly, and one-in-five browses every day, according to numbers from Antenna Software.
A good mobile website can be turned into an application at very little additional cost; it can make the user experience -- when clicking through on display ads -- nearly synonymous with an "iAd" experience at a fraction of the price. Mobile websites can be used to increase results from social media and email marketing that is received by users on their phones. The list really does go on and on.
Because the iPhone, Android, and Blackberry 6.0 web browsers all use the same base for the browser -- and the code base is fairly advanced -- mobile web development can reasonably adopt many of the emerging HTML5 standards. There is no longer any reason for the mobile web to lag behind the features and aesthetics of a standard website.
This is probably the most important place for brands to be spending their money right now, yet it is, unfortunately, one of the least discussed. Money spent here will see returns that scale with the increase of mobile activity across the board. Even Facebook's CTO recently positioned revamping the site in HTML5 as the main focus for their development moving forward, specifically calling out the numerous benefits this will provide social app developers in supporting mobile.
Don't focus on text messaging
Text-messaging (i.e., SMS) campaigns can be very powerful, see high conversion rates, and can reach the majority of mobile phone users. However, text campaigns are expensive to conduct, offer a poor consumer experience, and require a great deal of effort to pull off effectively. While it remains a tool that should absolutely be considered when appropriate, SMS is best thought of as a one-off tactic, and should no longer be considered a core component of a brand's mobile strategy.
Do think about email and social experiences on mobile
Most brands are currently doing some sort of email and social marketing, which also happen to be the two behaviors that index the highest for smartphone usage. Few brands have optimized these experiences for mobile.
It's really just a change of perspective. At a recent mobile conference, someone from a beauty supplies brand asked what a good number for a CRM database of mobile numbers was. This person asserted that after a year they had a database of 5,000 contacts for their SMS alerts, but felt it was small compared to the 100,000 contacts from their email database. According to Pew's data in July 2010, 34 percent of mobile phone owners check email on mobile, up from 27 percent in 2009. So, while the brand was struggling to increase its mobile list of 5,000, it was already reaching 34,000 customers on their mobile phones -- the brand just wasn't aware of it.
Assume that emails and social communications will be taking place on mobile phones, and make sure those communications support mobile (i.e., don't link to flash sites if possible, and don't use fixed-width elements in HTML emails). This is an especially easy change if a brand already has a website that is designed to support a rich mobile experience.
Don't worry about feature phones
Historically, mobile marketing efforts have been limited by the desire to support all mobile users, not just the early adopters with the best new smartphones. Considering Nielsen predicts smartphone ownership in the U.S. will exceed 50 percent this year, these concerns should be a thing of the past. It's more than just device ownership -- smartphone users use their phones more often and for more things than feature phone users. Even if only half the population has smartphones, they are going to account for at least 80 percent of overall mobile activity.
We've finally reached a time when feature phones, not smartphones, are the outlier. If the budget is there to support feature phones, that's great. If not, aim to support Apple and Android devices first, as that's the direction the industry is headed. And at a half-life of one year, it's wiser to build for the future and wait than build for yesterday.
Do support tablets
A good rule of thumb is to wait for a technology to sell 10 million units before worrying about supporting it. At more than 15 million units sold for the iPad alone, the tablet market has arrived. We live in an Apple-dominated market that, according to Strategy Analytics Q4 2010, saw a 22 percent Android market share for tablets worldwide. Knowing the rivalry between Apple and Google, it's very likely Google will continue to put a lot of focus on the tablet market, so "tablet support" won't only be "iPad support" for long.
Because tablets are generally intended to be held in "landscape" mode, which is a similar proportion to a laptop or desktop screen, supporting tablets is also going to prepare brands for supporting touchscreen computers. After all, besides the software, the major difference between a tablet and a computer today is the use of a mouse and keyboard versus the use of fingers.
Do develop widgets
Currently one of the prime differences between Android and iOS is the support for widgets. As applications that are always open and run on the home screen, widgets provide a great way to gain a high profile presence on a consumer's mobile phone. Even if the widget is primarily aesthetic, it can be a download welcomed by users. Because this is still considered one of the major advantages of Android (over iOS) expect Apple to support widgets at some point in the future. Also, Android 3.0, codenamed "Gingerbread," greatly expands the support for widgets designed for tablets. This is a developing space in mobile apps.
Don't hop on the NFC train before it leaves the station
There has been a lot of buzz about near-field communications (NFC) payment systems in phones. For years, the industry has been talking about how people in Asia use their mobile phones to pay for things. The U.S. is starting to see support for NFC in our mobile phones, but the real challenge is getting support for these NFC systems at the point of sale. There are rumors that Google will partner with MasterCard, Citigroup, and VeriFone to support payments to readers currently at the point of sale and roll out new readers to retailers. However, even with the technology available, it will take some time to retrain consumers to reach for their phone instead of their credit card. For at least the next 12 to 18 months, plan on people continuing to use their wallets to pay.
Do work on integrating location
One of the key advantages mobile has over other digital media is the support for (and the relevance of) location. Often brands misconstrue the location bit as a need to add location detection to their app. In some cases this might be appropriate. However, in truth, location is a broader topic. Integrating location means figuring out how local search results appear on phones, and improving those results. Another consideration is a partnership with a location check-in service. Shopkick is a new service that attempts to be a type of Foursquare where loyalty programs are the main intent -- not an afterthought. Integrating location may even consist of altering display ad content based on locations, both at a DMA level, and, in some situations, a hyper-targeted location.
Don't use augmented reality
It seems that often the location discussion can end up leading to a discussion of augmented reality and the ability to allow users to enhance their immediate surroundings with an overlay of information and entertainment. But augmented reality has a number of serious issues on mobile devices -- the most prominent issue being the difficulty in keeping the display on an object one wants to interact with while actually interacting with it. Typically, augmented reality becomes a novelty addition to an app that never gets used. The one exception to this is the WordLens app that translates text into other languages and overlays the translation on top of the sign, menu, or document. In this case, the app is actually saving the user time in achieving the intended goal. If the reason for adding augmented reality is to simplify something, it may be a good fit, but in general it's an added complexity with little to no benefit.
Do re-tune search for voice friendly terms
Is a voice-recognition system going to recognize the keywords that currently lead to your site? This is a question brands need to ask themselves, as voice search is on the rise for mobile. Both Apple and Google have invested in and are continuing to invest in this space. Users of these phones are becoming increasingly dependent on voice search for a speedy search query, especially while in the car. Consider two retail competitors, one with a simple and easy-to-pronounce name, and one with a difficult one. Will users while driving make a conscious choice to switch brands from the difficult-to-recognize name to the nearest outlet for the easier name? If the alternative is typing in a search query while on the freeway, the answer is probably yes.
Do develop a three-screen strategy
TVs are undergoing a process of reinvention. The end result in most of the incarnations being developed is the position of the mobile phone as a remote control, and/or a media extender. The combination and cross-pollination between computers, TVs, and mobile phones is going to become a cornerstone for many brands over the next three to five years.
The best way to be an innovative brand in mobile is to stop thinking of mobile as a separate medium. Users don't. Mobile represents a redistribution of online activity that was previously exclusive to desktop computers. Today's users are spreading this out into online video on connected televisions, reading news articles on their phones, and playing games on their tablet computers. More devices represent more ways to connect to a single medium, rather than separate media. Yes, there are nuances to each method of connecting, but the content remains the same. Without question, mobile devices will eventually act as the hub for all digital media.
Being new and innovative in this market doesn't mean jumping on a brand new technology that has no market adoption and high buy-in costs. It does mean anticipating a customer's needs and creating things that will meet those needs now and in the foreseeable future.
Josh Lovison is a digital strategy consultant.
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