Is Mobile The Un-Channel?

I need to get out more.  Even though I have covered the rise of mobility and mobile media since 2003, the actual everyday behaviors surrounding our devices continue to catch me by surprise when I surface from my writer’s cave every now and then. To wit: this holiday I spent a few days in Manhattan observing more than working. Scanning the horizon of commuting workers, panicked holiday shoppers and the like, our dependence and level of absorption with our connected devices really sunk in. I was seeing in its full import what the winning entry in this year’s National Geographic photo contest depicted so starkly by Brian Yen in a Hong Kong train car. A woman lit by the glow of her phone screen, slightly isolated from her train mates, there but not there, freed on some level from time and place by connectivity and an untethered screen. The mobilization of our consciousness somehow seems near complete now. For good or ill, older confines of space and place are being disassembled. This is at least as tectonic a shift as the Internet itself first represented to us, and yet in most cases we still treat this uber-connected customer as if she were still sitting at a desktop.



This ubiquitous connectivity not only liberates people from place, but also frees marketers from the channels and silos that often are tied to specific physical media and locations. This is the gist of the recent position paper from Forrester’s Julie Ask, who has been covering mobile pretty much as long as I have. But Julie , in her very wise book Mobile Mind Shift, has been focused on the ways in which mobility disrupts and redefines some of our presumptions about marketing channels. In her latest piece she argues pointedly, for instance, that “mobile is not a channel.” Indeed, she warns that “eBusiness professionals who treat mobile as just a channel will fail.”

How so? They will miss the opportunities mobility offers to touch the consumer not only in concert with familiar channels but in new pathways that these devices are creating and accessing.

She contends that devices are capable of enhancing revenues, customer relations and efficiency in just about every existing marketer channel.  They are key drivers of impulse sales opportunities, as they open up remarkable new flash sale moments. Their influence on sales in other channels remains underappreciated and poorly counted. But the many ways in which mobilized information supports the consumer research process are inarguable. They are likely to open up new models for dynamic pricing in a wider range of categories, since retailers will be able to layer in location information in these calculations and even reach that customer at the greatest point of need. They enhance the in-store experience with sales associates who increasingly are armed with smartphones and tablets tied into inventory.

But it is in the integration of mobile into every second of our lives where the true power and un-channel-like power really is felt. As mobile specialists have been saying for many years, mobility is a medium of moments. This platform allows marketers to intercept, enhance, and tie together occasions of everyday consumptions, many of which they never could access directly before. 20th Century mass media were also about moments, but they were highly defined by a single media channel in a given, shared moments of the day: prime-time TV, morning newspaper reading, drive-time radio, weekend movies, office radio half-listening, home desktop PC use. The moments that mobility activates are infinitely varied, highly personal, and are defined by individual lives and behaviors, not contrived by the media themselves.

As Julie Ask points out in her report, the personal device plays a role in a series of moments, from initial product research, to in-store moment of decision, to post-sale brand satisfaction. She breaks them down in to a set of addressable moments: research, influence sales, information, impulse, product setup, loyalty “moments” that are a part of the overall customer journey.

The basic observation about mobility here may be unremarkable. The idea that devices can touch upon all aspects of the path to and after purchase has been with us in the field for many years. But it is only as user behaviors start to emerge and coalesce in consistent patterns that we start to see real consistent opportunities that marketers can start targeting routinely. At the same time mobility is creating a new set of addressable moments like app use, push messaging, ever more connected devices. These are new media experiences that are melding into nooks and crannies of everyday existence where media never actually existed before.

The takeaway from these insights is that the first impulse of marketers, to translate desktop programs and experiences onto mobile, was at best short-sighted and at worst wholly missing what it takes to leverage this new un-channel. It is not another line item or an extension of PC strategies. In order to make the most of mobile (and not lose a step to smarter competitors), companies need to organize mobile approaches that are driven by teams of people with product, program and device expertise. They need to be able to talk across departments and enjoy budgeting that comes from these various parts of the company. Isolating mobile from the rest of the enterprise (including its funding), only further silos it as a discrete channel. Forrester discovered in their survey of executives, that almost half were planning on spending less than $500,000 externally on creating mobile services. The business case for mobile needs to be expanded beyond the ROI from that channel so that it measures and gets a stake from all the channels that do benefit from its development.

The rise of mobile technology has had both the benefit and the curse of being preceded by the Web as we have known it for the past 20 years. Porting the Web to handsets was an easy and obvious first step for most companies as they saw the numbers of customers migrating so quickly to device access. At the same time the similarities between mobile and Web too easily overshadowed the truly disruptive distinctions between the two and likely has impeded a full appreciation of the larger opportunity here. In many ways the push towards omnichannel approaches to consumer marketing should be overlapping at most points with mobility. It is the one un-channel that is capable of tying together from the consumers’ perspective the silos that once made sense to companies but not to customers. 

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