"Ya think? You sleep four hours and forty-five minutes a night -- precisely, have coffee made by 5:55 am and are writing by 6. Instead of lunch you spend an hour on a stair exerciser. You have a lean chicken breast sandwich every afternoon as you write and do those damned 'phoners' into the evening. Come up from your cave for a salad dinner at 8 as you catch up on email and browse your iPad. Jon Stewart and half of Letterman, then bed. If any one of these elements does not occur in a given day, you are insufferable. 'Habit?' Are you kidding me?"
"I admit I am not very spontaneous... ." The seltzer is starting to gush through her nose at this point and she just begs me to stop. But apart from my own little behavioral ticks (she's starting to choke audibly now), habit is everything when it comes to media change. As the last decade and a half of Internet evolution has demonstrated, it is only when specific online features and platforms become reflexes that reliable business models can form around them. Online video in recent years has finally kicked in as an online habit. People now bring to most news and information sites an expectation of video elements that complement or replace text and image experiences. The product research reflex kicked in for a critical mass of users online long ago.
On mobile, those habits are still forming for most of us. There are loads of cool technologies like 2D codes, visual or voice search, or even mobile Web browsing, that are not reflexes yet. When I read a magazine and with minimal thought realize I can use my phone cam to search on that print ad, then we have arrived as a "medium."
I suspect that m-Commerce is going to become a habit with people sooner than we may think, because the smartest retailers are making a strong case for the superior convenience of interacting with them with a mobile phone. Yesterday eBay reported that it had moved $2 billion in merchandise in 2010 via mobile, and it expected that figure to double in 2011. But by m-commerce I don't mean simply buying things directly via your phone so much as letting the smartphone become an integral part of the product choice and purchase path. Last column I mentioned the ways in which mobile is fast becoming the medium of choice for me when deciding on a movie to see. It is also a fairly reliable ticket-purchasing mechanism for me. We can check ahead to see if a blockbuster is sold out and reserve a ticket. So far I have been pleasantly surprised at the efficiency of the three or four theaters where I just show gatekeepers the reservation code on my phone and get my tickets.
The same holds true for Starbucks, which yesterday expanded its test program for mobilizing in-store payments. While we are not quite to the near-field-communications model some expect, the Starbucks experience I had yesterday came close. With a downloadable iPhone app, I can load my Starbucks payment card number into the iPhone and simply tap a button in the app at the store to bring up a 2D code the cashier can scan.
The implementation of m-commerce at the retail level has been a perennial choke point. I have been testing in-store couponing for years just to see how well the clerks at register can handle what the central office tosses at them. I have had gaggles of managers mob around a register just to advise the poor check-out girl I handed my phone coupon to. I have seen thick training manuals plopped onto the register just so the staff can check on that latest directive from corporate on how to handle an SMS code.
To Starbuck's credit, the cashier yesterday didn't bat an eye when I handed her my iPhone. She put it under the scanner and had me out of there is a minute. The next time I loaded the app, the new balance was evident. Yet what did Starbucks really save me by this process in the end? Well, I didn't have to carry another annoying loyalty/gift card with me. It tied the process into a store finder and card value tracker, which is nice. In the end the added convenience is not high here, but the process still has the potential to be habitual.
Even more promising to me are the tie-ins between mobile and retail that really do solve a problem. I very much like Redbox's mobile reservation program for this reason. This brilliant breakthrough in cheap video rentals has some drawbacks. First, at my nearest location, a Walgreens, a line forms behind the one Redbox unit as everyone waits for people to peruse what is available. Many of the boxes are outdoors, and in the middle of the East Coast winter this makes video rentals a more painful experience than it should be. The iPhone app lets me key in my local kiosk and peruse available titles, even reserve one in advance so that a swipe of my card delivers it to me with little muss or fuss. If only the other 10 people waiting in the parking lot of Walgreens had the app.
Retailers that find creative ways to streamline the purchase process through mobile are in the best position to modify our habits for the better. In just the last six months I have now made Amazon, Best Buy, eBay and Redbox habitual parts of my consumption patterns, because each is adding some real value in terms of information, convenience, time saved or (to a lesser extent) money saved. I am still not sure what value Starbucks is adding to the mix, so I can't tell yet whether it has earned a place in my mobile habits. I would urge merchants not to mobilize just for mobilization's sake. Bring a clear value proposition to the table in order to make a case with users that the phone delivers a better experience, and not just a gimmick. It takes a lot to alter someone's habits, and that is what mobile media is all about. If they can crack into my patterns of behavior, they can reach just about anyone.
"Oh, we're calling what you have 'habits,' today, are we?" my partner chortles. "Honey, there are about 20 terms in medical journals that cover the kind of creature you are; 'habit' doesn't scratch the surface."