Commentary

Be An Appliance, Not A Gadget: Do Marketers Overestimate Mobile Comfort?

One of the perennial guessing games still rife in this over-measured, data-drenched digital revolution is what role these technologies really have in people's lives. Sure, there are sales and market penetration data. Then there are the surveys that usually produce wildly disparate results. I still don't know with any confidence what share of people in a store actively use apps for shopping. And the field is further muddied by commissioned data skewed one way or another by the vested business interests of startups clawing for VC funding. In these twisted surveys, anyone anywhere who even heard of wearable media, shopping apps, second-screen functionality or connected TV can be massaged into seeming like regular users or at least an “addressable market.”

Our perception of consumer adoption of emerging platforms is also skewed by our own use. Try as we might to separate our early adopter ways from the general base of consumers, there is a tendency for gadget myopia to set in. We presume the rest of the world is at least starting to -- or inevitably will -- use their mobile phones the way we do. I think check-ins were a good example of this disconnect. It was an odd and unprecedented behavior that made more sense to the kinds of people who actually are in marketing and sales, or who embraced social media early. For the rest of us, we cringe at the notion of broadcasting our current location or proximity to hipness.

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And so I found a survey from location data provider Placeable interesting in the way it tried to explore this disconnect between marketer experience and customer usage patterns. When it comes to using devices as shopping and commercial tools, “We do have a sense that marketers are ahead of the curve in terms of their own comfort,” says Dan Weiner, VP of Product, Placeable. “We wondered if some of that analysis was being over-interpreted.” His company provides location data services to the enterprise, which uses it for things like store location tools.

“Even if people are on their phones, they may be doing a lot of different things, but are they doing more commerce and marketing behaviors.” So they asked about mobile behaviors among 1,000 consumers from a range of demos and then harvested 200 marketers from trade show attendee lists to ask similar questions.

One of the key insights from this survey is how little digital searching is going on about retail outside of the home. Seventy-one percent of consumers surveyed said they still scope out restaurants and stores the new old-fashioned way, by searching at home before going to the location. Weiner admits that the survey did not distinguish between home desktop and home device searches, but the results indicate that on-the-go searching for local service is still nascent behavior. On the other hand, 39% of the marketers surveyed said they are already using smartphones to search location while they are on the way to a shopping or dining goal. The gulf is not huge bit noticeable.

Personalization is yet another divide between marketers and consumers. While only 55% of the general online population surveyed said they like getting personalized offers, 72% of marketers said they did.

Likewise, and as I would expect, sharing location or engaging on other check-in style behavior is much more likely among marketers. Only a third of consumers are comfortable right now broadcasting their location even to friends. But about a half of marketers are.  

Old behaviors, even those appropriated from new media, die hard. For instance, more than half of consumers are still using Google to search for local restaurants. Even in the mobile age, where apps like Yelp and Grubhub are helping at the margins to get used to vertical search, the generalized search reflex still rules.

Intuitively, most marketers understand they are ahead of the curve. But the disconnect between mobilistas generally and the people they serve often comes out in usability. A great many of the mobile apps employing check-ins, vertical search, and social sharing functions suffer from obscure interfaces that presume users understand their twisted nomenclature and feature set. A lot of mobile media still has a clubbish, clique vibe -- designed by young digerati for people just like them -- not the rest of us. This reruns an old episode of the PC and Internet Show circa 1995. The functionality and design of computers and the Web made so much sense to the circle of heavy users who built it that they seemed to think it was the consumers' job to catch up. Some of that actually did happen, as the workplace, school, and just youthful comfort with gadgetry filled the pipeline with more tech-savvy audiences. But at the same time genuine visionaries like Steve Jobs and Apple pushed the entire industry toward simplicity with the basic insight that technology really matters in people's lives when it becomes more invisible. The goal is to be an appliance, not a gadget.

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