Another quarter is over, and I’m on a plane again, reflecting on a quarter of travel that included a three-week trip to Asia along with trips to Mobile World Congress, South by Southwest (SXSW) and numerous other customer meetings across North America, Europe and Asia. Over the course of these trips, I had the opportunity to visit with over 50 customers and talk with countless peers in the mobile industry. The great takeaway from this latest journey: our industry is in a dysfunctional relationship with the mobile app.
All anyone could talk about at SXSW was mobile apps. With the exception of my favorite coffee app, customers and companies alike repeatedly talked about disappointing mobile app adoption, app overload, and app aggregation, and modest expectations for new mobile app deployments. Fortunately, our industry is self-critical and has friends that will point out unhealthy relationships and conduct interventions. At SXSW, a couple of these leaders talked about the need for a balanced perspective and exhorted attendees to focus on the mobile Web, too. The discussion highlighted market reach and pointed out the challenges in mobile app adoption. Also interesting were discussions on business value for mobile marketing, mobile customer relationship management and mobile business process outsourcing.
As I look out the window and see the coastline spreading out below, I’m drawn to think about mobile as a solution space. Mobile isn’t about marketing or mobile apps and the Web – it’s about engagement. It’s about engaging with customers at the point of need and delivering the richest, most compelling experience possible. It’s about adding context to the interaction – mobile context. In this way, mobile apps, the mobile Web, operating-system-based apps and SMS have unique attributes and collectively will deliver on mobile’s potential.
The App “Consumption” Process
I grant you that if I can get a user to engage through a mobile app, it should be the most compelling user experience with the lowest transaction cost. That’s a big “if.” Consider for a moment the consumption process for a mobile app. First, a user goes through a discovery phase; then there is the need to learn about the app; then a user goes to the appropriate app store, searches and finds the app, installs the app; then the user accepts the user agreement, approves notifications, and approves location; and finally the user enters credentials or signs up. The user likely already has 50 apps that fill the first two screens and thus has consolidated apps in groups. This is not an easy, low-friction consumption process! Further, the utility of the app itself is diminished as notifications are marginalized with small icons or back pages, or the app is just deleted. Equally challenging is engaging customers before the app is installed, during stalled installations, encouraging waning usage and re-engaging with users after they stop using the app. How does a brand engage with an app “user” when the user is not using the app?
Fortunately, the app ecosystem is getting simpler for users with “light apps” that are included in the operating system. Apple Passbook and Google Wallet are examples in this category. A pass is easily created in any number of platforms and simply triggered by clicking on a link or MMS, or initiated via a QR code. By leveraging the operating system application, a brand reduces friction in the app consumption process. These applications are not “wallets” in the conventional sense of holding money for transport, but “information wallets” that hold data and notifications. On the downside, smartphone penetration represents half of the U.S. market and less elsewhere. For some, this half of the market is the target market. For these brands, mobile wallets represent an emerging compelling solution space.
The Mobile Web
Another option for engaging customers is the mobile Web. This medium leverages a rich and well-understood, technology – the browser. Data access is widely available, and with Wi-Fi there are no or low-cost options for users. Business models, development versions, user interfaces and associated technologies are widely understood. A Web session can be triggered by a variety of interactions, including QR codes, abbreviated URLs in texts, search results, links or simply typing addresses. Content and rendering are flexible and work on a broad array of handsets. Alas, current browsers aren’t on every handset, data sessions are not entirely free, and users routinely turn off data roaming while traveling to avoid charges.
Last, we have the often overlooked workhorse of mobile, SMS. For the at least the near future, SMS will be the backbone of mobile engagement. Only SMS has ubiquitous geographic reach supported by the entire mobile device and network ecosystem. SMS provides brands with a solution for engaging users without data service and before or after using an app. Whether it’s filling gaps in mobile engagement, initiating the app consumption process or being the bridge to a richer more engaging experience, SMS is critical to mobile engagement.
Where We Go From Here
Mobile apps, light clients, the mobile Web and SMS all have a place in delivering the richest, most compelling user experience possible. Whether you are heading home from a trip or engaging customers, be sure to pick the best tool or combination for the journey. Change your perspective and take a look at our industry’s expansive geography of solutions. There’s a lot to take in.