Originally posted on the Harvard Business Review
While the globe grapples with uncertain economic realities, "mobile" appears to be gold.
Facebook is expected to announce their uniquely targeted mobile advertising model before the end of the month. Amazon is talking to Chinese manufacturer Fox Conn with ambitions of building their own mobile device to serve as a complement to Amazon's considerable digital ecosystem of products and services. China itself has surpassed the US as the world's dominant smartphone market with over a billion subscribers and roughly 400 million mobile web users. Advisory firm IDC predicts that by 2014 there will have been over 76 billion mobile apps downloaded resulting in an app economy worth an estimated thirty five billion in the same year. Mobile business will become big business in the not so distant future.
However, there will be blood as the business world pursues the mobile gold rush.
We've seen this movie before. In the early days of the web, it was the website that created a browser-fueled gold rush — until organizations realized that maintaining a website that provided real value was more difficult than launching something quickly. The same story is now playing out in social — getting something launched on Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest is easy, but building an engaged and meaningful following isn't. And the same will happen in the rush to mobile if companies take a "channel" approach vs. a behavioral approach. In short, it's not about mobile as much as it is about understanding mobility.
In the early days of digital, the core behavior we needed to understand was that people wanted information at their fingertips and the convenience that came with digital transactions. In the social era it was all these things plus social connectivity. Mobility means information, convenience, and social all served up on the go, across a variety of screen sizes and devices.
Mobility is radically different from the stationary "desktop" experience. In some cases, mobility is a "lean back" experience like sitting on a commuter train watching a video. In other cases it can be "lean forward" — like shopping for a gift while you take your lunch break at the park. And in many cases, it's "lean free" when your body is in motion, or you're standing in line scanning news headlines or photos from friends while you wait for your turn to be called.
Mobility trumps mobile. The difference between mobility and mobile is like the difference between hardware and software. Mobile is linked to devices — it is always one thing, wherever it is. But mobility changes with context: cultures incorporate mobile technologies differently. For example, in Africa, SMS technology helps farmers pay bills electronically. In America, it helps teenagers keep up with their friends — an average of 60 times a day. Mobile itself is the nuts, bolts, and infrastructure, while mobility is the context which determines if it all works together or doesn't.
To avoid "bloodshed" in mobile, learn from past lessons in Web, digital and social. Improve your understanding of the nuances of mobility and mobile behaviors before you ramp up your investment in mobile. Resist the temptation to rely too much on a guru; hiring a guru will only take your organization so far. Many of the organizations who brought in "social media gurus" learned this lesson the hard way. A single individual cannot scale. However, if the organization is willing to put real teeth behind their mobile efforts, a single smart person can help form a center of excellence. Establishing a center of excellence that puts mobility at the core, and integrates it with other business initiatives, can get a business thinking about mobile more strategically.
Secondly, realize that going mobile is not the same thing as having an app. In fact, avoid the temptation to "app everything." A lot of content — whether video or text-based — can easily be optimized for mobile consumption. Popular apps such as Flipboard or Pulse point to a future of consumer "appgregation" — using one app to aggregate many sources of content. Instead of creating a whole host of apps that few are likely to download, invest in making your "digital ecosystem" more mobile-friendly.
Lastly, don't put mobile tactics in front of strategy. In the early days of the web, every site seemed to have an animated GIF or a clunky site-counter. In the early days of social, companies spent millions on costly Facebook apps with cute gimmicks but no real utility or sharing value. Today, companies are scrambling to come up with something "mobile" whether or not it makes sense for their long-term business goals, and whether or not users will actually want it. The outcome is the same in across all of these examples: a low number of visits/installs/downloads and ho-hum business results. Tomorrow's winners of today's mobile gold rush will boast significant (and sustainable) usage numbers due to the value of their content, whether it's sheer utility or impossible-to-ignore entertainment value.
Today's mobile realities are stark. Competition is fierce and users are demanding. If your company wants to put out a fitness app, you're competing not just with Nike FuelBand or Run Keeper, but with dozens of other apps put out by scrappy start-ups.
Before doubling down on mobile, any business should first ask themselves if they really understand mobility as a behavior and lifestyle, followed by tough questions about the role mobile plays in their business. From there, a strategy for mobile, built on an understanding of mobility, can take root.
Build on the expensive lessons learned from past bubbles and there will be less "blood" all around.