Market to All Technology Levels

In the world of wireless information delivery, what appear to be hairsbreadth distinctions are actually enormous differences. Consider this: Does being online with a wireless device give the user options or obligations? Does tying your service to a particular device lead to an army of customers on the go or a filtered-out legion you’ll never see because they went elsewhere? Is wireless information timely if a customer has to go looking for it, even if only in his suit pocket?

Letting employees, customers and prospects gain access to Web-based or digital information from “anywhere, anytime” is a hot theme for companies today. The wireless Internet already lets us access data from phones, personal digital assistants and wireless laptops, and new devices are cropping up all the time, offering a host of new features/functions. Compaq’s new PDAs offer full-color video; Nokia and Ericsson offer phones with built-in PDA functionality; and Palm, Handspring and Compaq PDAs offer built-in mobile phone options.

Numerous sales pitches tout an “untethered future” where we can access the Internet in new and exciting ways. But hold on a minute: Don’t all these new devices just allow me to be online 24 hours a day, as if I were at my desk? An impressive feat of technology, perhaps, but the last time I checked, neither I nor anyone I know is looking to live online 24 hours a day.

For one thing, studies and articles galore are pointing to increased stress levels associated with always being on call. What’s more, “always on” e-mail is just an extension of the unrelenting availability to work that many people have come to resent in their mobile phones. There is already a backlash against this, based on people’s need to take control of their own lives instead of giving away that control to the people who would keep them available and online all the time.

More importantly, even when I’m online via a wireless device, I may not be focusing on it – looking for the particular application, e-mail or message that could be the most important communication of the day. I might not even be looking at my desktop, Palm or wireless phone. That’s why pagers and mobile phones are attractive in the first place.

The real answer doesn’t lie in systems that use spiffy wireless technology to re-create the experience of sitting at one’s desk and looking for information. It lies in systems that serve people actively – getting their attention through technology they already have to deliver information they’ve already indicated they want.

An old-fashioned mobile phone call triggered by a stock price, project bid or sports score is infinitely more valuable than a passive system that won’t deliver a bit of data unless the user takes it out of his briefcase and hunts for it.

Businesses must satisfy the needs of all their customers, not just the switched-on digital ones, but far too many of the vendors touting wireless solutions are providing device-specific approaches instead of customer-specific ones. Only in the cases where a business controls its user population (i.e., its employees are all given a specific device, such as a Palm, that is programmed to access a corporate intranet) does the device-specific solution have merit. Few employers want to be tied into that investment, however, and the customer-based business that thinks it controls its user population is in for a lonely surprise.

According to Jim Sterne, president of Target Marketing, customers all want the same things: Remember me. Communicate with me. Work with me. Make my life easier.

Making me come to your site to find things is OK if you remember me and personalize our interaction. Ideally, however, communicating with me should involve you letting me know when something of import to me has happened. Some businesses live or die based on product or service information that has the greatest value when it’s timely. Certain information, like news content, decreases in value from the moment it’s produced, until soon it has so little value you can’t even get away with charging for it.

Making customers’ lives easier is not just a matter of giving them a new medium to access online information. Often it means communicating with them proactively, working with them at the moment the data is most valuable, then serving their needs. However, this approach only serves all customers if it can be accomplished from any device they choose.

The lesson: If you build an application that requires a fancy new wireless PDA or digital phone, you must justify it on the basis of available users, the biggest of which is available today only if you alert to all devices, both online and offline, both new digital/smart and old analog or digital. Only a small, if growing, percentage of users have the newfangled stuff. It may be sexy from a marketing standpoint to offer the highest-tech wireless solutions now, but the real return on investment comes only when the solutions work for all your customers. Your hype can actually backfire if customers find they can’t use the new functionality without spending a bundle on an expensive new device.

Marketing on the basis of your new wireless innovativeness is a bit like that tree falling in the woods: all sizzle, no steak until we all have the devices to get the advantage. Why wait? Why not start delivering those kinds of mobile empowerment applications in a way that actively alerts people with information they want using devices they have today?

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