Could Mobile Be Marketers’ Magic Bullet?


It didn’t take long for mobile marketing to upend the marketing status quo. This year, barely a decade after there was even a definable mobile marketing discipline, more than 50 cents of every dollar spent on digital marketing will have been invested reaching customers on a mobile device. Roughly half of all email has been opened on mobile devices for years, and well over 1 billion smartphones are sold annually.

The shift is so big that the challenge for marketers isn’t a matter of missing out, but of misunderstanding just how pervasive mobile has become. Not just in the digital landscape, but also in the way people conduct their everyday lives. In fact, because mobile has so quickly and thoroughly transformed the way we communicate and transact, it can be tricky to draw a firm line that excludes mobile. “Everything we do from a customer acquisition standpoint touches mobile, whether that’s through inbound calls, lead generation, site traffic, or programmatic advertising,” says JT Benton, chief revenue officer at auto and home insurance marketplace Goji.

In fact, success in mobile marketing depends not on throwing ever-increasing resources into a siloed effort to reach every smartphone, tablet, and wearable device possible, but on understanding how all marketing has been permanently altered. Anywhere, anytime communication that reliably reaches the same individual is a powerful ally in building awareness and converting sales through any platform, not just earning taps on a scratch-resistant screen. And the basic premise of marketing remains unchanged, no matter what technology is in play.

The share of marketing spend on mobile is substantially higher than the share of transactions completed on mobile devices, which industry data puts between 27 and 34%. That’s due in large part to the increasingly complex customer journey that spans not only multiple channels, but also multiple devices. Data from display advertising vendor Criteo shows that 40% of all e-commerce transactions now occur over multiple digital devices.

So, how can marketers use mobile to help hit their marketing targets? Here are areas that will help dial-up mobile marketing performance.

Avoid the app blind alley
The easiest way to keep your mobile strategy from blossoming into all channels is to avoid over-investing in an app that, statistically, no one will use. The average smartphone user interacts with about 26 apps per month according to Nielsen data. That level has been consistent for years, even as the galaxy of available apps continues to grow.

So, an app that simply repackages a mobile browser experience behind a branded icon is a pointless exercise. “If I bother to download your app, I’m a fan of your brand. I’m raising my hand and saying I like you,” says Maya Mikhailov, CMO of retail commerce developer GPShopper. “These are not your fair-weather fans, and you don’t want to just present them with a wrapper to a mobile catalog.”

A worthwhile app must deliver a valuable, useful experience to the best and most engaged customers. In the case of retailers, one place to start is with context-sensitive reskinning that emphasizes the features most relevant to the user’s location. “In-store, you can pull features like wayfinding, current events, and the weekly circular to the fore,” Mikhailov says. “At home, you can provide a glossy catalog view.”

One key reason brand-specific apps are losing their luster is the fact that the popular, core apps found on most devices are becoming so much more powerful. Learning to leverage their capabilities and audiences beyond the mobile experience is more important than building the next great app.

Recently, department store Kohl’s broadcast a New York Fashion Week show through Periscope, a social video broadcast app that is officially mobile-only. The Periscope experience allowed viewers to tap the screen and start building a shopping cart, moving the customer from awareness to transaction in a single sitting. Michael Becker, cofounder and managing partner of mobile consultancy mCordis, points to this as a modern example of engaging an audience through powerful mobile technology already available on the open market. “The majority of companies don’t need an app,” he says.

Consumer electronics insurer Protect Your Bubble reached the same conclusion about its cross-selling needs. Since launching in the U.S. in 2013, mobile has climbed from 38 to 55% of all its site traffic. “We know consumers are on the move and traditional methods of advertising won’t deliver the same eyeballs and ROI we would have had 10 to 15 years ago,” says Stephen Ebbett, chief digital officer at Assurant Solutions, the Protect Your Bubble brand parent.

To identify other electronic devices eligible for protection plans, the brand asks current customers browsing the site for permission to run a local network scan, looking for similar devices that may be out of warranty or in need of additional protection. Quotes to protect the discovered devices are then presented to the customer.

By running in a mobile browser, Protect Your Bubble keeps the cross-sell campaign compact and easy to manage. Customers respond, too; the network scan has a response rate between two and three times higher than Assurant’s generic loyalty campaigns.

On mobile, experiences and attention spans are shorter than ever, and that thinking needs to be reflected in mobile strategy. Rather than focus on building a monolithic brand app, use mobile-centric social platforms to deliver the right message at the right time and move fans to brand-owned channels. “On social media, at best you are a tenant farmer. You build up your social media audience, you may get some produce, but at the end of the day it’s not your farm,” Becker says. “Bring the audience to your messaging channels so you can address them directly with individualized marketing.”

One simple rule for mobile commerce
More capable mobile devices with larger screens have created amazing new possibilities to engage, entertain, and delight customers at every stage of the conversation. There are more ways than ever to develop conversations and destinations, but when purchase intent is clear, stick to business. “When someone visits an e-commerce site on a phone, they’re there to shop, not to consume content,” says Daniel Neukomm, CEO of La Jolla Group, parent company of Metal Mulisha, an action sports brand with a focus on freestyle motocross. “With limited real estate on the phone, everything has to be focused on conversion.”

Metal Mulisha is one of La Jolla’s most aggressive brands in mobile channels. Despite being about one quarter the size of O’Neill, La Jolla’s biggest and best-known brand, Metal Mulisha has a higher consumer engagement rate and larger digital presence.

Like many brands, Metal Mulisha recognized that trying to replicate a desktop browsing and search environment in the mobile commerce site would be a losing effort. Instead, the brand decided to focus on putting suitably large images of a few likely items in front of visitors at the earliest opportunity.

Using a real-time search and recommendation algorithm from Reflektion, Metal Mulisha’s mobile site automatically displays a compact visual grid of strong matches as a user types, making it easy to tap through to a matching product without having to finish typing the product name. “We’re assuming you don’t want to scroll through a bunch of different results on a phone. We want to get you to what you want, and that means being more aggressive about guessing,” Neukomm says.

The switch to visual, real-time search recommendations led to a 36% increase in site search-driven smartphone revenue. More important, the brand applied the real-time matching principles to the desktop experience, as well, where site search revenue has increased 37%.

Know your customers, and dig deeper
Mobile phones, being deeply personal devices that are rarely out of reach, can be surprisingly difficult to tie to a specific identity. “Figuring out who the device belongs to is the Achilles’ heel in mobile, because you don’t have the universal standard of the cookie like you have on the desktop,” says Chuck Moxley, CMO of mobile advertising platform 4INFO.

Log-in services have a distinct advantage, in that they can build a profile out of the same account being used on multiple classes of device. “If I’ve logged into the same Facebook account on a tablet, smartphone, and computer, it’s almost guaranteed that those devices are in the same household,” says Ian Dailey, senior product marketing manager at Rocket Fuel.

Whether learned from an aggregator or a set of log-ins, once brands establish a mobile user’s identity, they must be ready to follow through and create innovative experiences for that customer. If a brand is fortunate enough to be among the few trusted enough by customers that they will open the app on a regular basis—such as during store visits—and provide location and intent data through a check-in, that brand must do more than just track engagement. One approach is to study patterns of exactly how and when customers shop or browse, and what actions they take leading up to departure. These problems were once too complicated and expensive to solve at scale. But through mobile monitoring tools like beacons and check-ins, brands can start to understand the exact sequence of events that led to a departure without purchase, and reconfigure the experience accordingly.

There are other ways to glean important information about mobile device users, even if they don’t directly provide a name and there’s no brick-and-mortar presence for the product or service. Protect Your Bubble’s research shows that consumers are most likely to insure a mobile device within 90 days of purchase. Device purchase information isn’t immediately available to marketers, but there are other solutions. In this case, Protect Your Bubble designed a campaign to ferret out new devices, targeted at audiences of several highly popular apps.

Ad networks know if an app has been recently installed. But because the top apps are so prevalent and rarely removed from phones, the most likely reason a top-50 app has been installed is that it is being placed on a new phone. So, the brand uses customized creative to target viewers with the characteristic of having recently installed a hugely popular app, offering to insure the exact model of phone being used.

Learn lessons from email
Mobile push notifications are quickly growing in prominence and importance. Because they deliver immediate, easily accessible, and increasingly actionable information, and require little navigation and no app loading time, a phone’s home or lock screen is increasingly the stage for all manner of incoming messages. They have the same immediacy and personalization as the best SMS campaign. “The power of push messaging is the one-to-one customer interaction,” says Michael Rodriguez, a mobile product director with The Weather Company.

Unlike SMS, which is tied to a specific phone number and therefore a specific device, push can be delivered to many or all of a customer’s known devices. Push notifications are also not subject to the strict privacy controls SMS is. That creates the temptation to forget the spam email lessons of the early 2000s and abuse the privilege of appearing on such prized personal and digital real estate. Resist that urge, or there will be consequences. “The threshold for unsubscribes on push is low. People will very quickly turn off push capabilities in an app if they don’t feel the message is fundamentally useful,” Rodriguez says.

Mobile marketing isn’t a new channel to deliver old concepts. It’s a set of networked, audiovisual, interactive tools that deliver on the decades-old promise of having data-driven conversations with customers that transcend barriers of time and proximity to be seamless and convenient for all. “With mobile, that science fiction of one-to-one marketing we were promised back in 1996 is now a reality,” Becker says. “We can finally do it.”

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