Commentary

'Mobile Blinders' At Retail: Another Opportunity To Turn Mass Into Me Media?

There is more than showrooming going on at retail among smartphone owners. Increasingly, magazine publishers and candy and soda manufacturers appear to be worried that the checkout experience where they rely on impulse buying is being clouded by mobile phone use.

The so-called "mobile blinders" is the topic of an excellent article at Bloomberg in recent days. In it, a range of manufacturers from magazine publisher Hearst to marketers for Coca-Cola and even gun manufacturers are quoted worrying about the problem of apparently diminishing impulse buys at checkout being attributed to people having their nose in their smartphones rather than cruising the racks.

Apparently, there is little hard evidence that this is going on. There is some data suggesting that some small item sales are down, and we know that magazine newsstand sales have been plummeting. Whether this really is attributable to people doing mobile check-ins and checkouts on the checkout line is debatable, and surely deserves further study.

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But according to Bloomberg, the perceived phenomenon is moving some marketers -- especially in the magazine and soda segments -- to look for other places at retail to intercept the shopper. For instance, single-serving soda refrigerators placed in other places throughout the store or cardboard magazine standup racks positioned in unexpected places seem to be initial tactics.

Some companies are trying to use mobile to fight mobile. They are offering smartphone users a variety of text-to-win and other mobile marketing incentives in-store in order to capture behavior that is going on anyway. Of course, many things can be blamed for diminished impulse buys at checkout -- the least of these being the higher prices of almost all of the items there.

A host of other distractions, including TV screens at checkout, are probably attracting at least as much attention as the pocket screen. But I believe our own observed behaviors at any grocery store confirm that in some measure the suspicion of a "mobile blinders" has some kernel of truth to it. And this only underscores how important it is to understand the profound ways in which smartphones are intruding on a full range of everyday outdoor habits upon which marketers depend.

I have no doubt that at some point the out-of-home advertising industry and its kiosks and billboards and wall signs and posters will begin to discuss this mobile blinders effect. Instead of chasing mobile users where marketers think people are not using their smartphones, marketers and other media should begin to think of the smartphone differently -- not as another screen or an extension of digital platforms, but perhaps as the user’s third eye. It is another lens that the user can apply to the world and aim at all the other offers for activation.

Since people love using their mobile phones, give them more reason to do what they enjoy doing rather than coming up with gimmicks to distract them from it. To be sure, the trick will be to find just the right way to catch someone's glance in order to engage them to begin with -- as some small distraction or intrusion has to activate the contact. If you wrap the distraction in the ability to take action with the device that someone already enjoys using -- and the messaging dovetails with the user’s favorite activity in a way that they probably find more engaging -- then you have slipstreamed into their habits. And this all leads to something that I believe longtime mobile marketers understood all along.

These devices are activation media. They are like a virtual mouse applied to a world that becomes the Web. If you give the consumer the opportunity and the ease with which to click on the physical world, they will use their mobile phone to do so. It's not just a matter of making digital and interactive physical media and offers -- it's also a matter of personalizing those offers.

When someone activates something from the physical world with their phone, this presents an opportunity for it to become the consumer’s own in a way that is simply not possible from yet another piece of sterile mass communication seen out there in the world by everyone else.

These offers need to be constructed in a way that appeals not only to the mobile user’s love of their device, but to their love of the personal and intimate nature of that device. Thinking that you need to outmaneuver or outsmart the smartphone user is misunderstanding the entire phenomenon of mobile devices. The passion with which people have embraced these platforms has everything to do with the level of intimacy and personalization they see in them. The marketing that appeals to people on their devices must understand that entire attraction to the device itself.

So whether it's a cardboard standup or an out-of-home bus stop, a billboard or print magazine ad, or almost anything in that physical world that uses traditional modes of mass communication, the opportunity exists to turn mass into me. Mobilizing an out-of-home experience -- no matter what its shape -- should also embody that transformation from a traditional mass communication ethos to the culture that is embodied in mobile devices, which is all about that individual user. Otherwise, you are missing a fundamental reason why their noses are buried in the devices to begin with.

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