The mobile phone may be the smallest device we carry, but it has become perhaps the largest daily opportunity to portray your brand to consumers. Its intimate nature is intensely appealing to brand managers and content creators alike, yet continues to be significantly misunderstood. The one common, missing component in mobile strategic planning is often to put the user experience first. And whether we like it or not, consumers consume on their terms. This means that no one flavor will satisfy everyone. But unfortunately, many companies large and small, are serving up 90 percent vanilla, as they turn to the app as their primary savior, and leave their mobile websites as mostly uncultivated gardens.
While a well-developed app is a powerful, interactive asset, the vast majority of mobile consumer discovery and exploration begins with search and direct navigation on the web. A feeble mobile site strips the brand of the consumer image and feel it works so hard to develop across other media -- including its traditional website. Instead, what remains is a weak cover band rendition, with simple menus, minimal graphics, and overall poor experiences. Further, as the PC takes its place as a minority internet-consumption device, why are a disproportionate amount of your internal resources continuing to be devoted to that web experience, leaving your mobile site remaining neglected?
Admit the mistakes of others
Interestingly, over the past three years, virtually every company has at least tacitly acknowledged the idea that it needs a mobile website. However, the lack of true interest here has led many brands and content publishers to present mobile sites that the average consumer can easily deem as truly awful. The question that many managers continue to not even ask is whether their site, their company's 24-hour face to the mass audience, is in that group of shame. The good news is that you can play the internal hero in correcting the errors that may have been created and exacerbated by others, and quickly.
To start fixing the problems, managers need to understand the factors that continue to work against them in creating strong mobile sites. The first is your digital team members have been unreasonably expected to become mobile experts immediately, as this area was deemed close enough to the more than 20-year-old traditional web. While rooted in the same coding languages, the fact is that mobile is its own animal, with different nuances, data, and consumer behaviors.
The next challenge for the mobile website is that it does not carry the same cachet and pride with executives that an app does. Politically, the app looks to be the safer route. However, that safety is quite short-lived, particularly after the need for a full, real, app program is required to make the simplest of apps successful. Once it becomes truly accepted internally that any app needs revisions (on multiple platforms), advertising budgets, and personnel to manage the app and its data, the app honeymoon comes to a quick ending.
Perhaps the biggest culprit in impeding the growth of strong mobile websites lies with the choice in agency partners and assigned responsibilities. With the explosion of smartphones starting around 2009, each day seemed to further display consumers' ever-increasing content consumption on their mobile devices. Agencies, of all kinds, couldn't help but note this change based on the data coming from the traditional websites they created for clients which showed PC-consumption diving. Coupled with a new flood of requests from the justifiably-un-mobile-knowledgeable clients, seemingly every agency began stating it could "do mobile." While the "could" in that assertion may be true, there were few that could actually do mobile well. Similar to your internal team, it was unrealistic to believe that an agency could offer advanced, embedded understanding of mobile consumer behavior and market experience overnight. Their offering, instead, was born more out of a defensive position to contain client budgets in-house, than to best serve those same clients' interests.
They expect more, so give it to them
Mobile websites need to evolve to the more innovative environments that consumers have come to expect. Mobile users spend their free moments buried in the new game-du-jour, which is immersive and entertaining. It is filled with motion, sound, and multiple kinds of activity unique to the mobile device. They then open their web browser and are exposed to simplified, vertical lists to navigate through your site. This is not how it should be. This is merely one of the more recent cracks in the mobile ecosystem. You have the chance, right now, to close that gap, better engage your consumers, and step considerably ahead of your competitors.
The solution involves two pieces. First, consider what content needs to be presented in the mobile site itself, and how. This may involve changing your thinking outright, as developing a mobile site is approaching this process from an angle slightly askew. So things that traditionally showed up on your home page may now be two or three taps deep. Why? Because mobile is about quick hits. It is about spontaneity. It is about buying the candy bar at the checkout counter. While some users will spend a great deal of time flipping through your site, the vast majority are in and out quickly. They need a store location, a price compare, or the latest headline. Just take a look at your web data, and you will see the differences on time per session spent on your traditional website from a PC and your mobile site from a phone. (As an aside, looking at this comparison may also show you the challenges that users are having navigating your mobile website.)
The second step is to create immersive, engaging experiences. The last wave of mobile development had companies of every shape and size saying, "I gotta have an app." The truth is apps do give a great opportunity to completely control the experience and utilize the innate functions of the phone. And even with this canvas, most branded apps scratch the surface of what they should be doing. But those concepts that went behind creating that consumer experience can now be replicated, to some degree, on the mobile web, as the development tools have dramatically improved.
There is no reason to confine your thought to merely scrolling the screen up and down, just because it is the area with the greatest length. Adding a "slide" to the right, with good transitions and animation, can provide a more consumer-expected, advanced experience. The game-like tactics that users have become accustomed to in their collection of apps can be deployed smartly to help set your site apart. You can also try adding carousels or audio and sound elements. You don't need to present a boring veneer on arguably the most exciting, advanced technology consumers use hundreds of times throughout a day. This is a prime opportunity to set your company apart.
There's money in being unique
As your new mobile web thought and development advance for your content, these elements also open up new mechanisms to increase monetization and show advertising. There is no rule stating that you must stick to the conformist, IAB-determined standard of 320x50 (or, the ridiculously re-named HD units which are 640x100 for the same space -- you do the math there). You know who didn't want to, and who put its money where its mouth was? Facebook. It created custom-sized mobile ad units that depict the product, purpose, or app, and make it very easy for consumers to interact with them. According to just about any app acquisition buyer, Facebook has become the powerhorse in driving app downloads. Now, mobile advertising accounts for 59 percent of its revenue (first quarter, 2014).
From a strategic standpoint, these new, differentiated units also allow your sales team to have a more compelling story to tell and to stand out from the other conforming publishers. It conveys to buyers the genuine thought in how you are trying to engage the new mobile consumer. In the process, it also allows you to reset the still-low rates you are being forced to charge for mobile ad space.
Now this approach does not mean that you must abandon the mainstream 320x50 unit, which you are most likely currently filling with inside sales and external ad nets. On the contrary. It gives you more options and moves you further away from being just a commodity. You can let the ad nets fill the commodity space, while you sell directly exceptional, new experiences that are based on your understanding of your site visitors.
Pandora was one company that took small steps toward this approach. Its larger 300x250 ad units (and full page takeovers) were sold by its internal sales force, and the small banners were sold by select ad nets. However, that 300x250 was already a comfortable, standard traditional-web size, shape, and feel.
For mobile site engagement and advertising to continue to grow and expand, publishers and brands need to do more with this unique opportunity. Start asking new questions beyond, "How do we make this work like our regular website?" Start asking, "What is a great experience where we can now take advantage of the touch, voice, audio, video, and game-like elements easily available to us?" The pendulum on apps being the go-to mobile mechanism has swung too far. This just opens up opportunities for smart companies to get ahead of the predictable curve again.
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