Got a mobile strategy? Start connecting with customers' smartphones

Don't have a strategy for interacting with customers via their mobile phones? It's time to get one, and learn from previous mistakes.

This was certainly unexpected: When Alex Betancur, general manager of Publisher's Clearing House (PCH) Online Network, looked at the sweepstakes giant's Web site logs in late 2008, he was surprised by an upsurge in visitors using mobile browsers.

What caught Betancur's eye was that the users were entering extensive information -- first and last names, addresses, ZIP codes -- on tiny screens. "I said to my staff, 'If this many people are going through this process on a tiny screen, this might be an avenue that needs to be addressed.' "

So Betancur asked the IT group to create a mobile-browser-friendly site, first for the iPhone and next for the BlackBerry. Port Washington, N.Y.-based PCH Online also worked with a contractor to create two game applications -- a slots game and a trivia game -- to be distributed via the iTunes Store.

The strategy, Betancur says, is two-pronged: Support current users who embrace the mobile Web, while also reaching out to younger smartphone users through entertainment-oriented applications. A future goal is to support "geotargeting," or delivering content tailored to specific mobile users based on their locations.

Like many companies, PCH Online is making its first foray into interacting with customers via their mobile phones. So far, it has avoided the missteps of early adopters by basing its strategy on known customer behaviors and sticking to its core competency: providing the experience of winning sweepstakes. "Our challenge is to translate the excitement of winning to the mobile phone," Betancur says.

We're still in the early days of mobile customer strategies, says Julie Ask, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc., noting that companies spend less than 1% of their interactive marketing budgets on the mobile channel. But only the foolhardy will fail to establish a mobile presence by this year or next, Ask says, given the explosive increase in consumers adopting mobile devices and using them for data services. ABI Research predicts that mobile marketing expenditures will grow from $1.8 billion in 2008 to $24 billion in 2013.

"There are more retailers getting into m-commerce every day, and it will grow exponentially," agrees Tom Nawara, managing director at Acquity Group LLC, a digital marketing consultancy. And they'll approach mobile commerce in a variety of ways, including SMS texting campaigns, mobile banner ads, mobile Web sites, mobile coupons, or iPhone, BlackBerry or Android applications, he says.

Do your homework

But mobile strategies must be well conceived -- based not on the behavior of "typical" mobile phone users but on the actual behavior of your own customers. "There's too much 'Let's do an SMS campaign' or 'Let's build an iPhone application,' " Ask says. "Plans need to be more substantially based on data."

Success will require the IT department's participation and involve lots of groundwork. Among other things, you must do the following:

  • Study your customers' demographics and mobile behaviors.
  • Explore mobile-specific functionality such as location awareness.
  • Decide whether to build a site that's compatible with multiple devices or optimized for specific types.
  • Make sure all of your customer channels feature a consistent look and feel, while being sensitive to the fact that the interfaces on small devices must be easy to navigate.
  • Integrate the mobile applications with back-end systems that hold customer, inventory and product data.
  • Learn which technologies you need to support, either in-house or through contractors. They include Objective C for iPhone applications and Java for Android systems.
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