Got a mobile strategy? Connect with customers' smartphones

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.

At Western Corporate Federal Credit Union (Wescorp), IT is the driving force behind a mobile banking effort. That's a good thing, considering the complexity of the back-end integration between Wescorp's San Dimas, Calif., headquarters and its 1,100 credit unions.

Christopher Barber, CIO at Wescorp, is a firm believer in mobile banking, asserting that "smartphones are the PC of the future." His vision is for Wescorp to provide a mobile banking application that its credit unions can rebrand for their members. Although the membership base is aging, he says he wants to create applications that not only are useful but also demonstrate a "wow factor" that could help attract a younger demographic.

He foresees applications that, for example, allow people to make mobile payments -- with the consumer's mobile device acting as an electronic wallet -- support person-to-person payments, enable networking between credit union members, and allow credit unions to launch geotargeted marketing campaigns in which they can send shoppers coupons and directions to nearby stores.

"You can start thinking about payments in a different way if you know where the person is standing at the time," Barber says.

Building a front end for mobile banking on the iPhone wasn't a problem, he says, nor will it be difficult to build front ends for other devices. The challenge is securely and cost-effectively connecting transactions initiated on mobile devices to the credit unions' heterogeneous back-end systems.

But Barber says a mobile strategy is key to Wescorp's success. "If the biggest problem the credit unions are having is drawing in younger customers, and we can help, we're living up to our mission," he adds.

Scottrade Inc. also faced a big technology decision when it first started devising its mobile strategy. The online investment firm recently announced Scottrade Mobile (m.Scottrade.com), which lets customers manage accounts and research and process trades from any mobile device.

Criteria for mobile-friendly Web sites

When digital marketing consultancy Acquity Group LLC audits a retailer's mobile Web site, it asks the following questions:

* Does the site use a .mobi top-level domain?

* Can the site automatically detect a mobile browser or device?

* Does the mobile site offer different functionality than the desktop site?

* Is the site optimized for mobile browsers?

* Is the site optimized for the iPhone?

* Does the retailer's main Web site have a landing page that details the company's mobile offerings?

* Does the retailer offer downloadable apps for the iPhone or BlackBerry, or for Windows Mobile and Android devices?

While Scottrade intends to someday create sites geared toward specific smartphones, it decided -- based on the current behaviors of its customers, and its own customer strategy -- to start with a WAP-enabled site for a broad base of users.

"It's critical that your mobile offerings align with your customer strategy," says Kevin Dodson, director of online financial services at Scottrade. "We looked at our customers and said, 'How are they accessing us, and are there new things we can offer?' "

Dodson says it was more important for Scottrade to reach the largest possible audience than it was to focus on specific devices. During a two-month beta period, customers accessed the mobile site using more than 50 different devices. It's also much less costly to support one WAP site than it is to offer multiple device-specific ones, he says.

Although PCH Online took a different tack than Scottrade, its decision to build mobile sites optimized for individual devices was equally sound, in that it was based on its own strategy and the behavior of its customers. Its logs revealed not only that a majority of its customers were iPhone users, but also that it needed to maximize the graphics and sound of the individual mobile platforms in order to create an appealing experience, says Betancur.

Another key consideration in building a mobile site, Dodson says, is ensuring that the user experience is consistent no matter which device is used and that it's similar to what customers encounter in other channels. At Scottrade, programmers took great pains to emulate the Web experience, he says, so that "if you know how to use any Internet browser, you already know how to use m.Scottrade."

But that doesn't mean the mobile site should be a clone of the nonmobile Web site. As Acquity's Nawara puts it: "Mobilize, don't miniaturize. The goal is not to shrink down the Web site but to understand the three to five top activities that customers really want to do on the mobile device. These needs can range from the urgent -- finding an ATM -- to the casual, like wanting to pass time with a game."

"If a task is not time-critical, they probably aren't going to do it on the mobile device," says Kevin Dulaney, an analyst at Gartner Inc. "If they can wait until they get home, they will."

Simplicity rules

Given the smaller real estate on mobile screens, simplicity is a virtue. "You can't use complicated navigation structures. It has to be, 'Log in, click on the task, and you're done,' " says Dodson.

According to Dulaney, complexity is what sank many early mobile efforts. His rule of thumb: For every level of navigation required on a mobile app, you lose half your audience.

"In the early days, companies were providing things like sports scores and banking, but once people saw the complexity of the application, they went back to their PCs," he says.

For example, if you have a tool that locates the cheapest gas station, don't ask people to enter an address, Dulaney says. Use a GPS chip to take care of that. "If there are a bunch of steps, people generally won't use it," he says.

Dulaney extends that thinking to mobile coupons. "If I can take a photo of a product and get a coupon, that's useful," he says. "But if I have to scan the bar code, I may not use that capability."

Of course, the only constant in a new area like mobile computing is change. "You must be willing to change, because the industry is moving so fast," Dodson says. "We're always augmenting, adding and reprioritizing as more people adopt mobile capabilities." His group is now building an application geared toward the needs of a niche group of active traders.

Keeping up with ever-changing browser technologies is also a challenge. "As networks get faster and browsers allow greater access to data, you have to move all the time to take advantage of the latest technologies," Dodson says.

The biggest misstep is failing to do your homework, Nawara says. Amidst all the hype, it's tempting to jump in too quickly, without having a firm grip on how mobility can truly benefit your business strategy and your customer base.

"There have been some initial forays that didn't convey the right thing for the brand or yield the desired end result," Nawara says. "That can be done away with if you do the upfront planning."

Brandel is a Computerworld contributing writer. Contact her at marybrandel@verizon.net.

This story, "Got a mobile strategy? Connect with customers' smartphones" was originally published by Computerworld.

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