Your Future Is on the Phone

Comcast (CMCSA). Redbox. Fandango. (AMZN). Bloomberg. WebMD. The Weather Channel. Runner's World. Chipotle (CMG). Starbucks (SBUX). ESPN. Southwest Airlines (LUV). Hertz (HTZ). A list of my favorite brands? Sure. But only a handful of several dozen apps I've downloaded to my iPhone in the two years I've owned it.

That makes me an above-average app user, although some people I know have downloaded literally hundreds more. According to Nielsen's App Playbook, the average smartphone user has downloaded 37 apps. Multiply that number by the 53 million (and counting) smartphones in the U.S. and you get into some significant opportunities for customer interaction.

Just think about all the things we can now do on our phones: take a picture, send a text, surf the Web, play a game, read the news, scan our e-mail, record a video, check the weather, play our music, watch a movie, and thousands and thousands of other activities. This has huge implications for marketers of every size, but most small companies have failed to consider the possibilities. Whether due to oversight or intimidation, that's a mistake.

A More and More Mobile Web

Take something as simple as making sure your website is optimized for smartphone use. David Engel, a partner at Brand Anywhere, says his company's research shows that just over 3 percent of the fastest-growing private companies in the U.S.have taken the trouble to create mobile versions of their websites that are compatible with iPhones—and even fewer for BlackBerrys and Droids.That's a problem, especially when you consider the claim by Morgan Stanley (MS) research that within five years there will be more mobile Web users than desktop users.

If you're still not convinced, consider the now-quaint-by-comparison technology of texting. Using a simple call to action (send a text, donate $10) the American Red Cross generated more than $30 million for Haiti after last year's earthquake. Those are some big bucks, but not nearly the amount of money expected to be generated through the mobile channel during the upcoming holiday season.

Gretchen Scheiman of OgilvyOne Worldwide says in a webinar that this Christmas the mobile channel will drive more in-store activity than even salespeople will.That's a remarkable statement, but not when you consider how fast the channel has been developing.In the same webinar, fashion retailer Steve Madden reports that traffic from mobile devices represents more than 10 percent of the company's total Web traffic, a 250 percent increase from the previous six months. During that period the company generated nearly 8,000 mobile transactions, and it expects performance during this Christmas season to dwarf those numbers.

Tech Impact

Yes, the mobile advent is moving at lightning speed, and that makes it intimidating. And a bevy of confusing acronyms makes it worse, from SMS to GPS to QR. But remember that text-messaging was Greek to most of us as recently as three years ago, and roughly two of every three people now use it regularly. As fast as the mobile marketing river is flowing, no company can afford to stay on the bank.

True, big companies have more resources to spend on R&D and experimentation in this arena. But unlike the early days of the Internet, affordability is less of an issue with mobile media. Inventiveness is what's required, but in order to be inventive you must first gain an understanding of how the technology is already impacting your industry. Here's a back-of-the-napkin R&D effort that you can kick off today.

First, make sure you have, and use, a smartphone. The single best way to understand mobile as a medium is to use it. After all, most of us who use texting didn't set out to use texting; we simply received a text message and had to figure out how to respond. We came to understand the Internet in much the same way.

Second, begin to actively and deliberately seek out mobile applications for the products and services you use in the course of your daily life. Some are obvious, like airline reservation apps; some less so, like the ESPN app that will allow you to eavesdrop on the radio broadcasts of your favorite team's games from anywhere in the country (a great find for long drives on lonely country roads). Spend time browsing the App Store (there are new releases literally every day). Use every new Facebook feature. Try location-based apps from Foursquare and Yelp. Don't worry at this point about how any of them work; just use them as you go about your everyday tasks.

Ideas for Your Business

After a few weeks of actively seeking, finding, and trying a variety of applications, find some quiet time and consider how the functionality of each could be used to move your business forward. For example, if an app is news-based (The Wall Street Journal), it might suggest some type of news you could provide to your customers and prospects. If it's GPS-driven (MapQuest), consider how you could use location-based services to reach out to customers when they're in your neighborhood. And if it's a favorite game you use to pass the time standing in line (I don't care how much it dates me, Pac-Man is still king), think about what kind of similar application could serve as an engagement platform for your business.

The point is not to begin throwing money at every new idea, or even to make any decisions at this stage. The point is to open your mind to the possibilities. You don't yet have to know any terminology or spend any money; all you have to do is become conversant with what's out there so you can understand how it might transform your business. If you don't, your competitors will.

Make a pre-New Year's resolution to spend the next several weeks actively exploring and engaging with the mobile channel. If you do so, by the time 2011 arrives you'll have primed your innovation pump and you can begin considering how to incorporate and integrate mobile into your overall marketing efforts. You may even come up with the next breakthrough idea. And that would be something to call home about.

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