How to move apps from distraction to transaction

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The year 2009 may be remembered as when the smartphone entered our everyday vernacular, but it also was when more marketers finally began to see the opportunities available through a device that is carried daily by virtually every consumer in their target audiences. The dramatic visibility and uptake of apps has made so much noise that it could hardly be ignored.

This is just the beginning. As the adoption of smarter phones continues and the next wave of development deploys, brand managers will be amazed at the sheer service and advertising possibilities. However, many of these seemingly futuristic advances will be based on the features already inherent in today's mobile handsets. With understanding of capabilities, some imagination, and constant focus on business goals, brands do not have to wait, and can build these advanced mobile programs into their 2010 plans.

Below are three fundamental areas for marketers to focus on, based on current technologies, with views and applications as to how each can serve the savvy marketer today and tomorrow.

Current reality: The transaction engine
The term mCommerce (or mobile commerce) has been used often, but it does not really capture the possibilities of what can be created through mobile devices. These pocket-sized computers, which just happen to make phone calls, really are powerful transactional engines. With that in mind, apps and other mobile functionality move all kinds of transactions into an un-tethered environment -- beyond traditional online -- and create the opportunity for new kinds of commerce and activity altogether.

As brands continue to evaluate which mobile opportunities to undertake, it is important to see precisely how this channel can either enhance an existing business or create an entirely new mechanism for interacting with consumers.

Retail is an obvious fit for the "enhancement" category simply by extending into the mobile environment. While some brands have left any transaction potential out of their current apps, the online juggernaut of Amazon embraced it smartly, and created additional value for its customers. 

First, Amazon addressed simple mobile purchases, as consumers can log in to their existing user accounts, just as they would from any PC. This gets past the security-blanket hurdle. Next, using the core functionality on many smartphones -- specifically the camera -- the Amazon app brings the online brand into the real world. Users can snap a picture of any desired product with the app, which relays the information directly to Amazon. The photo is then matched to similar products sold on the site, either via automation or a group of people, and the consumer is notified in-app, via email, on Amazon.com's PC personalized homepage, and in the user's wishlist. Essentially, the world becomes the Amazon Shopping Mall. More importantly, this creates potential transactions virtually anywhere, including at competitors' brick-and-mortar locations. 

Pizza Hut has moved in an opposite direction, mapping mobile phone purchase transactions to physical retail restaurants. For a consumer, the primary method of ordering food was traditionally to find and call a local Pizza Hut. But the company's new mobile service essentially brought the menu to life, helping a user customize a pizza order and then place it automatically at a local restaurant (using location-based services). Purchases can be made directly from the phone, and the mobile aspect keeps this access available to the consumer on-demand. While the app itself has had both positive and negative response, its business model illustrates how to open new avenues to the consumer when other online efforts have not been as successful.

The opportunities it brings
When adapted by other types of localized businesses, this could lead to true, efficient, on-demand purchases and delivery. Think of it as a retail store with no cash register. The mobile phone provides a touchpoint and interactive interface to the consumer, as well as connectivity to the transaction engine for purchases. So consumers can walk through a store, pick out items on their own handset, press buy, and grab their purchases as they exit. Or how about truly fast food, where each customer can order for him or herself at McDonald's without uttering a word. No need for lines, as there would just be purchase and distribution. These are service and business possibilities that the PC environment could never truly offer.

One new arena that opened with online adoption -- banking -- is about to change dramatically again, as mobile may provide an even more robust platform to service customers. Many of the large banks have deployed their own mobile apps, which currently offer the simplified basics of the PC environment. However, more functionality will find its way into these interactions, and can create new services altogether. USAA, a bank and insurance company, lets its customers cash checks directly from an iPhone app. The user takes a picture of the check, transmits it to the bank, and the funds are applied to the consumer's account. 

Now, take this approach even further. What if a bank customer never stepped foot in a physical branch? The account opening "paperwork" can be done through the touchscreen of a phone, including the signage card. Deposits can be made. Money can be transferred. Even cash can be dispensed from machines with customers carrying the smartest of smart ATM cards, the phone.

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