Commentary

Duh, It's Still a Communicator: The Mobile Reach Equation

Tin Can CommunicatorTry as we might to turn the smartphone into a multimedia wonderland where marketers can intercept consumers as they browse, game and tap their apps, most of us still make person-to-person connectivity the priority in our mobile phone use.

That’s one of the key takeaways I get from a new Experian Simmons pilot study of mobile behaviors. The white paper, “Unique Learnings in Creating a 360 View of Mobile Consumers,” has a lot of interesting preliminary finding on how mobile activities map against other media behaviors. But the glaring reality to me is that the study shows how much we use phones for their original purpose: to connect with one another.

The meter-based study of smartphone owners found, for instance that if mobile phone use is measured on a classic advertising reach basis, then voice remains the most effective way to grab a customer, because 62% of them are accessing a voice application on any given day, far and away the most popular activity. Interestingly, messaging (51%) had the next largest daily reach, followed in close order by browser (47%) and email (46%). But then the increasingly popular category of mobile social networking grabs 38% on a daily basis.

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In other words four out of the five activities on smartphones with the widest reach involve people trying to make or maintain connections with one another -- not with a third party. That’s worth remembering.

It’s also worth mentioning what should have been an important lesson of the Web’s first two decades of history. As a media critic and reporter covering this evolution, I remember that first decade where media companies and their ad clients saw in what we then called the “World Wide Web” just a big honking newsstand. Remember Time Warner’s “Pathfinder?” Remember portals? Remember that ever-elusive search for the Web’s “killer app?” Remember the befuddlement and frustration of traditional publishers and broadcasters who were used to having their viewer/readers engaged for hours at a time each week -- only to find that getting the same user to spend more than 10 minutes a month total with your branded media Web site was something to brag about?

Users were declaring what the “killer app” for them was -- email, which was the most used app on the Internet by far. And when simple search arrived -- and later, social networking -- the true character of this platform became clearer. While media companies preferred to think of the Web as a publishing platform, users were thinking of it more like a phone -- as a communications medium first and foremost and then as a task-driven answer engine. Media consumption did take place here, but not in the style to which traditional media was accustomed.

Similarly, it is critical for mobile marketers to acknowledge that the mobile device, while it is proving a great remote media consumptions device, is defined by its communications functions. For instance, when measured by frequency of daily launches, the three main p2p communications functions of the phone are social networking (17.7 daily launches), email (13.6) and voice (10.3). Clearly there is a massive, generally unrealized opportunity to leverage the social networking function on mobile for marketing. This is a nut worth cracking.

So as much as the smartphone evolves, as did the Web, into a kind of media platform, it remains rooted and largely defined by certain dominant modes of use and user mindsets. It would be a mistake to believe that we “broadcast” or “publish” to mobile platforms, when users are already telling us what they want here: communication.

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