The new rule is mobile first. Mobile first in everything. Mobile first in terms of applications. Mobile first in terms of the way people use things. —Eric Schmidt, former Google CEO, speaking at Mobile World Congress, February 2010
Two years have passed since Eric Schmidt’s mobile directive, and mobile first has morphed, gradually and pervasively, into mobile now. New device announcements are heralded with wild fanfare, with pundits using bombastic adjectives like “explosion,” “surge,” and “boom.” National events are also parsed for their mobile significance; this year’s presidential election will be the first one influenced by mobile technology and the Super Bowl is now the mobile Super Bowl.
Consumer adoption is supporting this interest, with more people today holstering smartphones than ever before (97.9 million Americans in the three months ending December 2011, according to comScore).
Somehow, despite the noise about the ‘dawn of the mobile age,’ advertisers have been slow to follow. In a “Mobile Commerce Forecast: 2011 to 2016” report released last July by Forrester Research, sales via mobile devices in 2011 were estimated to make up just 2% of all e-commerce, with eBay and Amazon constituting half of the volume.
This leaves the rest of the world squabbling over a measly 1% of e-commerce. While Forrester and others predicting growth in mobile commerce in the coming years, it is still not expected to surpass 7% of total e-commerce by 2016. If we’re so certain smartphones will be the next commercial frontier, what is keeping companies from investing more?
Much of the problem seems to reside with how mobile Internet browsing is defined in the first place. For the most part, search engines have positioned mobile search as an extension of their desktop products--and why shouldn’t they? Rather than struggle to reorient searchers with their brand, let’s appeal to a loyal group with an experience that feels seamless and familiar.
However, in their rush to convert desktop advertisers into mobile clients, search engines have pitched a transition that sounds deceptively easy. Agencies and advertisers have become similarly swept up by the hype, approaching mobile campaigns as a bolt-on addition to existing desktop ones.
What these companies need to realize is that setting up a tailored mobile strategy need not be complicated or costly. Consumers behave on their smartphones quite differently from how they might on a desktop computer.
How should search engines better define mobile search? Behaviorally? Purely functionally? And don’t forget the swell of voice-activated searching ushered by Apple’s Siri assistant, which renders our dealings with our phones conversational.
The truth is, our smartphones foster all of these interactions, and sometimes more. Mobile devices can serve as an intermediary between a need and a purchase, or between a question and a solution. The tricky thing is determining how to quantify the technological disruption caused by mobile phones for advertisers that have been conditioned to relate marketing success with a strict return on investment.
In many ways, this problem illustrates not just the economic obligations of Google and Bing, but the antiquated metrics around search advertising, which have remained essentially unchanged for over a decade. Are the evolving notions of a new technology enough to overthrow old beliefs? One thing is certain: The search engines, based on their recent populist appeals to advertisers, are not satisfied collecting mobile advertising fees from eBay and Amazon, while the rest of us mobile one-percenters bide our time.
As for Eric Schmidt’s declaration, Mobile first should not be interpreted just as a call to design uniquely mobile tools. Mobile first means embracing the distinctiveness of the medium. But perhaps even more so, mobile first may mean starting from scratch to build offerings that harness the true potential of mobile.