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Digital Insights: Mobile Is Not a Channel – It’s an Attitude

As a digital strategist, part of my job is to keep up with digital trends so that I can paint as clear a picture as possible of how and why consumers are interacting with the latest technology. If you’re familiar with interactive marketing, you probably know that this is an elusive goal. The current digital landscape is changing so rapidly that trying to pin it down can be a bit like a kitten chasing a laser pointer – you pounce on the latest data, and just when you think you’ve got it under your grasp, a new trend takes things in a totally different direction. Tablet-adoption is currently in everyone’s cross-hairs, and it provides a good example: over the past year, comScore has consistently provided data that delineates tablet users as young, male and affluent. A narrative starts to emerge, no? Now add this piece of data from eMarketer: a higher percentage of Hispanics and African Americans currently own tablets than do Caucasians, and this is predicted to hold true through 2013. Same story, or did it just shift a little?
One thing that I really like about my job is that it is a good blend of analysis and intuition. I read a lot. And then I read some more. Sometimes data from one source seems to challenge data from another, but in all that reading, insights do start to emerge. Insights allow for a healthy balance of the head and the heart – it’s applying your gut feel to all the data you absorb to provide perspective on where to focus next.
I can tell when a new insight is brewing when I begin to wince internally at the way people are talking about a particular topic (the wince is my gut telling my head that something is wrong). Lately, I’ve been wincing a lot when people talk about mobile as a channel. Or when they talk about developing a separate mobile discipline. Or when “mobile strategies” focus on native application development vs. HTML5, app vs. mobile Web, brand sites vs. mobile sites. My gut is insisting that there is something fundamentally wrong in the way we are approaching the consumer relationship with their smartphones.
And here’s what my head has been able to figure out is wrong: while developers of digital properties make a big distinction between mobile interactions and “fixed Internet” interactions, users do not. Developers see all the potential in the functionality that smartphones can provide (geolocation, voice recognition, code scanning and more); users see a device that allows them to skip a trip upstairs to turn on the computer, or that lets them check off an item on their to-do list while they’re waiting in line. When consumers interact with a brand online, their focus is less on leveraging the capabilities of a specific device, and more on accomplishing what they set out to do with that brand.
Mobile is not a channel because I don’t believe that consumers are making a distinction between their mobile and their fixed Internet experiences – from a consumer perspective, it’s the same Internet accessed through different devices. When marketers approach their mobile properties as separate from their Web presence, they run the risk of providing their consumers with a fragmented experience that ultimately can weaken their brand. It’s not about websites vs. mobile apps; it’s about designing a positive digital experience for your customers that leverages the strengths of each. It’s our job to understand what-to-leverage-when to provide a positive experience, and I believe this involves shifting our focus from what a device can do, to the attitudes and expectations a user brings to that device.
Mobile is an attitude. It’s “always on.” It’s task-driven. It’s do it now, do it here, do it quickly. Sometimes – but not always – it’s about context.
Delta Airlines understands this. Their mobile website is task-oriented, focusing on a subset of the tasks addressed on their brand site that are quick-and-easy – check flight status, check in to your flight, check baggage rules. Their app augments these tasks with the unique functionality available on a smartphone, including “context specific” functionality like scanning your baggage tag to track your luggage, and taking a photo of your parking spot to remember where you parked. Compare that to their brand site, where the highlighted tasks are to book a new trip, or to sign up for Skymiles.
Playing to the strengths of mobile needs to be wrapped into your larger digital strategy. Your mobile properties shouldn’t replicate your brand site; nor should they depart dramatically from it. They should complement the experience of your brand in a way that seems consistent to your consumers. While users are more open to exploration and extended tasks on a PC, on their smartphone they just want to get it done. (I should probably mention here that I think tablets are closer to a PC experience than they are to a smartphone experience – but I’ll have to save that for another blog entry.) As you complete the task analysis of your various consumer segments, identify those tasks that consumers may want to do Here-Now-Quickly. Once you know what your consumers may want to accomplish on their mobile devices, then think about how you can leverage mobile technology to enhance the experience.
Providing a smooth experience across Web and mobile also may affect infrastructure decisions. How you think about enterprise data, how you think about middleware, how you think about security all may be affected by how mobile fits into the bigger picture. Should data for key interactions that include mobile implementations be stored locally or centrally? If a key expectation of mobile users is Here-Now-Quickly, are your middleware APIs up to the task of real-time response (10 seconds is an eternity on a mobile device)? As more key functionality is implemented on mobile devices, perimeter security may give way to a more layered security. If mobile becomes part of your digital strategy rather than an afterthought, you won’t have to “re-think” fundamental decisions like these.
It may seem like I’ve taken a number of paragraphs to belabor the obvious. If so, great – the best insights often seem obvious. Let’s stop talking about mobile as a separate channel and start designing digital experiences that incorporate mobile the way it obviously needs to be done.


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