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Taking the web to mobile


Taking the web to mobile


This article first appeared in the March 2011 issue of Marketing magazine.


Interestingly, just on two years ago, I wrote about the same issue that I am covering this month: ‘taking the web to mobile’. Except, in the earlier article, I had to focus on trying to convince the market that the mobile web was set to explode and that consumers would become more conversant and accepting of accessing websites via their highly restricted small form factor phones. It was a challenge finding strong supportive statistics and only a few analysts wrote with any degree of conviction. I recall receiving a number of passionate emails dismissing my commentary as mindless soothsaying.

Today, there is little or no need to convince people of the way consumers have embraced the medium. Driven almost entirely by the ‘iPhenomenon’, but now embraced across the broad spectrum of devices, mobile internet has become commonplace and there is a litany of online statistics, research and case studies illustrating the need to expand an organisation’s online channel considerations to now include mobile web.

I recall a discussion mid last year with a major Australian retailer, who claimed that mobile access to their high volume online website was almost non-existent. Sure enough, after pushing to investigate, we discovered that the mobile represented about 42 percent of the access – just under the 50 percent I stated, so I lost the bet! But it did come as a surprise and, when the statistics were further analysed, it showed that mobile users typically viewed no more than two pages, compared to other sessions with an average of 15. Consumers found the site too hard to navigate via mobile.

Let’s just accept the fact that ‘you have to migrate, adapt or redevelop for the mobile web experience’. These days a company’s marketing manager or communications and PR manager needs to not only consider the company’s web presence, but also how it appears in social media formats such as Facebook and Twitter and, of course, just to add to the workload, how to migrate to the mobile.

The more interesting debate these days concerns whether one should use an on-device native application or a cross-device web-based application. And the argument is blurred by the lack of clarity and understanding by most consumers and a conscious blurring of definitions and terminology by the industry. The best illustration of this is the spruiking by banks to ‘download our iPhone banking app’. In reality, you are downloading nothing more than a bookmark, or what’s referred to as a ‘WAP launcher’ that uses either an embedded browser or the native device browser to run a website structured to give the perception of an on-device native application. There’s no real harm in that, but the lines are blurred. There are many ‘iPhone apps’ that are, in fact, websites running through a browser.

The most common thing I am now asked by organisations is: should we ‘mobile web’ or ‘build an app’? Most want applications, inferring an on-device native app, but in reality they would be better served by a web-based app. Misguided perceptions and vague industry terminology often leads to ill-conceived and costly business decisions! Anyway, it’s not the time to start that debate. What I want to cover is as relevant in the concept for an app as it is for the mobile web.

Marketing basics would dictate that across all customer touch points you maintain a consistent and unified message. Unfortunately, this is not the case even with some of the world’s biggest brands. Much like early websites were completely out of band with physical collateral, mobile-enabled websites often ignore an organisation’s well-crafted strategic communications plan and may as well represent a different company altogether.

Now, add to the mix a company’s Facebook and Twitter presence, and no wonder there is confusion and chaos. Amazingly, three of the top 15 brands I looked at recently here in Australia had a different message, pitch or proposition on mobile to those on the web, which again delivers a confusing façade. It shows how tough it is to maintain data synchronisation between mediums when relying on human input. And I don’t mean ‘different to suit the medium’: one mobile site had a competition and tagline different to the competition and tagline on the web page.

Most would say going mobile is getting easier, with more powerful devices and better equipped browsers. Sadly, this is not the case and while certainly some of the basic rendering issues can now be addressed, there are a host of other influencing factors making the whole endeavour challenging.

There is no question that technical challenges exist in migrating web to mobile. Many of these will not be addressed by faster devices or more powerful handsets, as they simply won’t work without a high-end multimedia broadband PC. In fact, the more powerful phones on the market are now starting to struggle with heat issues and battery life. There will be a practical limit driven by weight, size, battery life, heat and other issues for quite some time.

But, almost more significant than the litany and diversity of technical problems is behavioural understanding. I have seen many websites that were migrated to mobile and replicated to make maintenance easier, but the usage became impossible, the navigation too complex and the objective of the site in context of the user was lost.

Up until recently, the mobile market in respect of form factor was divided into three effective groups – the low-end phones with almost no screen real estate, mid-tier smartphones and then the larger touch screen phones encompassing Android devices and the iPhone. Then came the iPad: in many regards, it’s a portable device and in terms of a web experience sits somewhere between a PC and mobile. And then, just as developers were adjusting their minds to four target form factor ‘groups’, out came the Android-based tablets, around half the size of the iPad.

What’s driven this diatribe I am about to embark upon is the sheer frustration that web developers and organisations are treating the mobile as technically restricted small PC screens, instead of taking the time to sit back and appreciate that the mobile is a whole different online medium to the PC. It’s as different as TV is to cinema or radio is to live music.

Everyone is considering going mobile and planning what needs to be done technically, and using tools to simply address the small screen issue and some perceived short-term technical problems. That is short-sighted thinking that retards the industry! And this mindless process to migrate to mobile by addressing just technical issues isn’t the realm of small business or inexperienced developers. My frustration was seeded by no fewer than six major organisations all delivering complete rubbish in early 2011 with their inept mobile websites. It seems to be the rule, not the exception.

I will chant from the highest rooftops until my quest to educate is done! And here is the insightful statement to remember: a mobile web user has different needs and behaves in a different manner to the same person using their PC to access the web. It’s simple enough on the surface, but surprisingly ignored by the masses. I can only assume it’s due to the simplistic thinking that the mobile is nothing more than a little PC with a few restrictions. Well, it isn’t. Let’s consider just a couple of very powerful aspects influencing a person’s behaviour, actions, attention span and absorption of content when using a mobile or portable device:

  1. A mobile is almost always with the consumer, meaning they are ‘ready to surf’ or react at a moment’s notice. Visual prompts may incite someone to check out a website or, while browsing in a shop, compare prices. Often a mobile user will be more focused on gaining instant satisfaction and a result, than they are on wandering through the pages of websites.
  2. When on the mobile web, the consumer is doing no other task. Multitasking on mobiles isn’t the same as having 10 windows open on a PC, including email and maybe Word. The mobile is very much single task oriented and receives the full attention of the user.

Another thing to remember – think of your offering as being a product or a service and realistically consider why a consumer would look at your site. To order? Browse? Review? Now think about the mobile user. What is their motivation? Store locator? Compare prices? Look for specials or vouchers?

This isn’t rocket science, but it seems to be being ignored. This is most likely because the mobile web isn’t considered as a new and different medium to the PC web. Behavioural issues related to the consumer ‘mindset’ when accessing a site from the mobile must be paramount in a mobilisation strategy.

Consumers using the PC to access the web are feasting and gorging on bloated information often with multiple screens and many windows all happening concurrently and sites that are so media rich and engaging that they rely on broadband delivery. Mobile users on the other hand are very singular task focused and tend to be ‘snacking’ on information and looking or seeking very specific functions.

In addition to the general mobile website availability and consumer friendly presentation of targeted content, the mobile web is also a very powerful extension of messaging campaigns. For example, group buying sites have been the flavour of the month for a while. These are sites where a significant ‘deal of the day’ is presented to members and subject to a certain number of people taking up the offer.

For fear of litigation, I won’t mention names, but one site I was asked to look at was a pretty reasonable migration of its PC web to a mobile format. Its designers had taken the site and adapted it reasonably well to a mobile format from a technical standpoint, with all the menus in iPhone format and icons for each task. It was certainly ‘mobile friendly’. But it was getting a very low mobile conversion rate, as compared to the PC web version.

The premise was that, by embracing a mixture of MMS and SMS messaging for ‘super deals’ and sending those out instead of emails or relying on consumers checking websites, they would create that momentary demand to be captured and satisfied by linking through to a mobile web property for easy confirmation of intent to buy.

But, despite all the work on creating a mobile version of the web property, they failed to consider the consumer in context of their access medium. They failed to analyse the behavioural aspects of the site and ignored all marketing 101 principles. Yes, the site worked well, but consumers didn’t want to wade through pages of how the site works and other meaningless data. It was certainly valid data for PC web, but not for a consumer who has just had a call to action MMS and clicked through ready to buy.

A basic restructuring of the site was needed, so that the first thing on the phone screen was a click to buy and an image of the deal. This changed the conversion rate to exceed that of the website. The link passed credentials and, using some other techniques, was enough to identify the consumer and so avoided log-in screens and time wasting menus. It was a single button click to capture the purchase right at the moment of desire – leaving no time to compare, rethink or get lost in the pages of menus and options.

This is a simple example of behavioural planning in the context of the medium. It’s pretty obvious and clearly important to achieve the outcomes. Some mobile web structuring is less obvious, but given the raft of recent mobilisation tasks, it is disappointing to see so little consideration being given to having the mobile web version engaging and yet still usable.

Is it the Flash-skilled, multimedia obsessed creative architects at agencies that fail to really understand mobile? Is it a lack of investment by companies to encourage agencies and developers to think before coding? Why are people putting so much effort and time into a task, but wasting it all by ignoring planning and common sense considerations?

Joe Barber

Joe Barber is a 25 year veteran of technology companies with the last five years focussed on mobile and retail. He is currently CEO and founder of Edge80.com with other notable start-ups under his belt being Third Screen Media, Sniip and Planet Internet. Joe has lived and worked in the US, Malaysia and parts of Europe and talks at numerous trade events worldwide.

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