Commentary

The Intimacy Opportunity: Just Like Starting Over

"Did you write your vows yet? You're the writer in the family," my bride says as we check off the list for the wedding.

Yeah, I'm the writer, and so I know that the deadline isn't even close yet.  She should ask me that question as she finishes walking down the aisle. 

"Shall we read them from iPads?" I suggest. 

"Cool. Buy me an iPad."  

Okay, paper will do. 

Actually you are reading this while my bride and I are on a honeymoon. Permit me a small moment of self-indulgence since I have involved my family in these columns now for more than four years -- some personal news that is not irrelevant to Mobile Insider. The woman I have described in countless ways here (fiancée, partner, companion, girlfriend, historically patient better half) became my "wife" at long last this past Sunday. The other chiding voice in these columns, my daughter, helped us exchange vows and rings.  

To be honest, given that this is my second marriage, her first, and the best product of a broken marriage was witnessing and blessing all of this, there really is only one vow from me that either of them should listen to: I promise not to screw it up this time.   

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The confluence of personal and commercial on mobile media is what makes this platform singular. It is one of the reasons I chose to include tangential family tales in the Mobile Insider. The odd blend of intimate exchange with third-party messages, ads, information after all represents the reality of mobile. I have always felt that the use cases of mobile change the game for any marketer or media company wanting a place on the same device.  I use this device to make sure my daughter is home safe from a date. Or, in the case of this weekend, I am using this device to keep a bride calm as I make a midnight run to any open store to find the odd missing pieces for her wedding favors. Marketers and media are sharing bandwidth with relationships of supreme importance to every one of us, and in a way that is unprecedented. Don't screw it up. 

When I first started covering wireless technology and media in the early 2000s, the idea of advertising on cell phones seemed laughable to some, dangerous to others. Doesn't everyone recall how tentatively all of the carriers entered these waters, how fearful they all were of ticking off users by running a banner ad-sslet alone blasting users with SMS? The early consumer surveys were so strongly negative about the idea of marketers mixing messages in with the intimate exchanges a phone represented that everyone was cowed.    

And here we are several years later, with a mobile media and marketing infrastructure that is starting to look an awful lot like the one we built for the Internet: ad networks, m-commerce sites, alert/SMS services, rich media, pre-rolls. In one sense we (me included) take these developments as healthy signs of a mobile industry maturing and building sustainable ad-supported models that will lead to better services. It also risks complacency.  

Extending the models and messages of previous platforms onto emerging ones is a necessary part of media development. As one of my academic mentors at Brown, TV historian and critic David Marc, taught me, don't mistake technological change for media "revolutions." Until a medium finds its own forms and its place in people's lives, all it can do is beg, borrow and steal from the last successful platform.  

There is in this platform the possibility for so much more, however. Companies talk such a good line about building "relationships" with customers, but what does that really mean in practice? Multiple email hits a month? A coupon here and there? A personalized e-commerce experience? Rewarding someone for posting on Facebook a picture of themselves at your store? Come on.  

Isn't mobile the platform where marketers have the opportunity to reset this tired notion of consumer "relationships" and learn to relate to and do business with customers differently? With real substance, this time? Instead of leading with the question of how to use the phone to advertise to these consumers without pissing them off, shouldn't we lead with the question of how can the brand help them in ways it never has before? But more than that, how can you talk to them differently? Listen to them differently? Define "value" differently? Isn't this direct connection with the customer in this most intimate of channels an invitation to find a new and more productive language with which to speak with customers?  

I don't pretend to know what any of those future forms are. In these columns I try to tease out from what you guys create some hints of what those next steps might look like, where things seems to miss and hit, and glimpse something new. And perhaps I am being too abstract here. But I do sense that settling for mobile as a simple extension of digital as we have known it is missing a great opportunity to rethink and restart the way brands work with customers. When I hear Steve Jobs boast that iAds bring the impact of TV to the mobile platform, I think, is that the best we can do? When hundreds of branded apps storm into the App Store proclaiming they will provide "service" and "value-adds" to their consumers, only to fail, shouldn't it tell us something important about marketers' delusions about how customers really feel about them?

Like any second chance, mobile offers marketers an opportunity to start over, but only if they are willing to engage honestly with customers and understand what a real relationship is: one based on mutual trust, honesty, giving, respect, listening, and a decent sense of humor.  

"We are going to leave the reception in our wedding clothes, right?" my bride asks.

"I don't know if you, me and that dress will fit in a Mini Cooper," I say. 

"Oh yes they will. If I have to stand up and poke out of the sun roof on I-95, I am keeping that dress on. It took a lot of years to get into it and I am not getting out of it any time soon." 

1 comment about "The Intimacy Opportunity: Just Like Starting Over".
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  1. Richard Percy from Liquid Media, May 24, 2011 at 8:27 a.m.

    I feel that the values you list for "a real relationship" with users are all missing from the current mobile marketing world - trust, honesty, giving, respect, etc. One only has to read the WSJ pages on "What They Know" and the recent hubris of apps stealing user data (without their consent) to understand the reality. Users would appear to be no more than fools and fodder - there to be exploited.

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