Mobile Coupons Still A 10% Solution -- But Will Help Drive Digital Promo Trend


How many times have you gotten that puzzled puppy-dog look from a cashier when you presented him or her with a mobile coupon? "Um, let me call my manager," they might say. Or they pull out a phone-book-sized set of rules and news from the home office searching for that lost directive about how to handle an SMS savings code.

This is still more the rule than the exception in my experience. Noah Elkin, principal analyst, mobile, at eMarketer, knows my pain. "The last step of the last mile lies at the point of sale and is vitally important to ensure that touchpoint is optimized so that consumers come away with a favorable impression of the business," he tells me. "Training sales associates on the intricacies of mobile coupon programs might be as big a shift as getting consumers to use them in the first place."

And the two, consumer acceptance and in-store seamlessness, may be linked. As it is, Elkin reports in a new study on mobile couponing that just under 10% of mobile phone owners have used their phone to redeem a coupon in the last year.  He projects that the number of mobile couponers will rise from 19.8 million this year to 35.6 million in 2013, but that still will represent only 16.5% of the available mobile audience. And yet, the sheer convenience of redemption via mobile will help drive the growing adoption of digital couponing generally.

As Elkin notes, mobility helps weave couponing in with a range of other triggers and marketing tools. "Although mobile coupons are a complement to existing couponing mechanisms, not a substitute, they do have unique characteristics that enhance their appeal," he says. "Consider that mobile devices offer the promise of targeting consumers based on location, context, behavior and timeliness. The ability to apply these highly personalized characteristics to offers can increase their relevancy, and more effectively trigger a response. And by coupling mobile coupons with print and outdoor advertising as well as in-store pull mechanisms such as barcodes, marketers can drive further engagement down to the product level." He sees mobile as a key element in broadening the appeal of digital couponing.

Right now SMS push is the most popular mode of delivery for mobile coupons. But Elkin expects to see pull models -- like consumers searching for coupons related to a store they're about to enter -- become more popular. In 2011 more than 20% of smartphone owners will redeem a mobile coupon, an increase of 117.6%. He expects more than a third of smartphone owners to get in the habit of redeeming coupons by 2013.

But it is at POS where mobile couponing needs to succeed. Users who walk away with negative experiences from a clueless cashier will hesitate before trying it again. You don't want to be sitting at checkout displaying your phone to a cashier who thinks you're from Mars. The lady waiting behind you on line won't be too happy, either.

For a brief shining moment Borders Books, of all places, got this right several years ago. My regular member discount coupons came simultaneously both to my email and SMS inboxes, so I never got caught passing a Borders without a coupon in hand. At checkout, the cashier saw my phone and simply grabbed a bar code near the register and scanned it in.

Of course that story doesn't end well. The mobile coupon effort from Borders lasted less than a year and was discontinued without notice or explanation to anyone. But I did get another email from the company just this morning, alerting me to the storewide 60% to 90% discounts available in its final days.  

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