Commentary

Mobile is Not Your Older Brother's World Wide Web

Even as IHS Screen Digest reported this week that the app market is going to be worth north of $8 billion by 2014, the bigger story of late has been the increased emphasis on mobile web strategies. Far-sighted agencies last year were already advising major clients to get their "m-dot" house in order, meaning to make sure consumers plugging brand.com into their mobile browsers were getting a decent experience.

The results are still pretty iffy. I regularly make browser rounds just randomly popping in brand+.com to see what happens across different verticals. This time around, I am pleasantly surprised by some of the brands worth a look. At the edges of current development we can see the outlines of the next stage of mobile web, and something that could and should be different from the Internet we have known for the last 20 years.

The fashion and beauty segment has definitely stepped up its game on the mobile web recently. The Gap's site follows a pattern of using a lush screen-filling visual to draw you in to the professionalism of the production. On smartphone browsers it has a carousel marquee of images and a tab that pops up links to its family of sister sites at Old Navy, Banana Republic, Piperlime and Athleta. All the sites use the same excellent design, with carousel images of items and zoom tools that fill the display with product. The path to product is remarkably direct.

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The Gap family of sites demonstrates how quickly things have evolved in the mobile web space. Not only are developers working with the expectation of an advanced smartphone browser that has much higher levels of interactivity and personalization, but the thrust has moved to m-commerce. These sites are not just store locators but rich shopping experiences. The design presumes that the mobile user can be inspired to make a purchase at any time, whether in-store or just sitting back in the living room and multi-tasking in front of the TV. The sub-text of these and other sites is that m-commerce is a key driver for investment. The brands smell the money.

Grocery chain Shop-rite and department store Target also have exemplary mobile sites that approach the utility and functionality of apps. Both sites presume a mobile user is browsing before shopping, and so the thrust is towards making lists.

Target has to manage the problem of a fathoms-deep inventory, so I find the menu drilling a bit tedious. It is the search function where the site really shines, and necessarily so. The results are pretty solid, with images in the page and a prominent sort tool for ordering by price or recency. Expect on-site mobile search to get a good deal more attention as sites like this mature. Target wisely points the user to a large search box, and the tool delivers well on the promise.

Given the run-down state of the Shop-rite stores in my area, the grocery chain surprised me with the direct utility of its site. It parsed the weekly circular down well by category and let me keep a list of sale items for in-store reference. It even kept an icon for the list in the upper right of the page indicating how many items I had reserved. It gave me more by giving me less. The use of the site led the design.

The auto segment generally produces good-enough and workmanlike sites that catalog cars and move people to dealers. VW's mobile location emphasizes videos rolling out the new Bug, which is fine but unimaginative. Toyota, too, focuses on its Prius plug-In and a scroll of models. Lexus - ditto. I am waiting for one of the automakers to break from what is now a template for the segment and offer mobile users something a bit more engaging.

P&G's Herbal Essence brand site is an interesting case of a consumer brand making the extra effort. The site is a full-on beauty content destination, with the usual polls found at women's service sites, videos of hair styling techniques, quizzes and style ideas. While some of the promotional videos are disappointing (too much pitch, not enough info), the inclusion of user-gen and blogger video demos is an excellent idea. The full effect is a genuine mobile destination that at least tries to put content and a bit of infotainment in front of the promotional imperatives. It also emphasizes the peer-to-peer nature of the mobile medium.

But the site that really gets my imagination stoking is P&G's Tide site, which includes the Stain Brain stain solution finder. Optimized for the touch screen, with icons indicating stain types, this sub-section is absolutely fantastic in blending user-gen advice with the brand's own solutions. In fact, it was the user solutions that got pushed forward in most of the icons I pressed. The only frustration I have with this little gem is that P&G isn't promoting the crap out of it. This is the kind of mobile utility that deserves to be branded, given a dedicated URL, and promoted as a mobile-specific value add available to anyone with a modern cell phone. Tide sells those Tide-to Go stain sticks for portable use. Why wouldn't you want to make the mobile tool a part of the brand package?

This is where we are headed (or should be headed), I think, in developing a mobile web that is actually distinct from the web as we have known it. Marrying the mobile web to specific in-the-world use cases, utility and especially individual products converges digital with the physical world of products. Some of these branded mobile Web sites that offer catalogs and store locators are all well and good. Retailers obviously want to push m-commerce, which is fine. But the notion that the mobile phone can be a digital extension of product - that a phone can complement the actual utility of a physical object a marketer offers - is where we get mobile closer to its ultimate promise.

Mobile is not just another marketing vehicle or a web extension. It is a digital activation of the physical world. In the right hands and with enough imagination, mobile doesn't just promote or sell goods. It can enhance them. That is branding at another level. This is not your older brother's "World Wide Web." This is digital media that changes shape and purpose when it becomes unleashed from a desktop and instead attaches itself to any object, any time anywhere. This is a web that needs to be reimagined, not just "extended."

1 comment about "Mobile is Not Your Older Brother's World Wide Web".
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  1. Thom Kennon from Free Radicals, May 5, 2011 at 11:28 a.m.

    As usual Steve, you insightfully steer the conversation back to what matters when it comes to the future of brands getting and keeping their customers.

    The emerging mobile web and it's power for connecting and driving shared value for people and companies is as big or bigger than the advent of the fixed commercial web over 15 years ago.

    I remain stumped by the remaining industry know-it-alls who continue to fixate and preach an inherently silo'd appification mobile strategy --- when the hills with all the gold in them are the m.dot ones you map and navigate for us all here each week, with the discerning eye of the post digital sherpa you are.

    Keep it up.

    Thom Kennon | @tkennon | bigevidence.blogspot.com

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