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Hype versus reality in mobile

January 13, 2011

By David Wachs

David Wachs is president of Cellit Mobile Marketing

David Wachs is president of Cellit Mobile Marketing

Mobile marketing is quite the hot topic these days.  Along with social media, mobile is on the short list for marketing executives to roll out in 2011.

Along with this flood of demand has come a flood of mobile marketing firms, peddling their services, proclaiming they alone provide “the next big thing.” 

Text message campaign managers, mobile site and app development, QR codes, location based services, and augmented realitiy are all the latest buzz words spinning in the heads of key decision makers.  How much of this is legit, and how much of this is modern day snake oil? 

How much of it provides a valuable service to the consumer, and how much-quite honestly-is simply “marketing to marketers” who don’t know any better? 

This is the first in a series of columns I will be writing for Mobile Marketer over the next few months. 

2D bar codes
Let me tell you a little story. 

Recently, Cellit was brought in to meet with a manufacturer of small beauty appliances, such as hairdryers and curling irons. 

We offered up a number of suggestions for the company to use mobile to engage the user, such as building a mobile community of hair dressers and providing text-for-information for the end consumer. 

The only idea the company wanted to pursue was putting QR codes (2D bar codes) on packaging.  Why?  “Because we want to do the next hot thing.”  I told them QR codes had been around for years, and really weren’t that “hot”, but they didn’t even want to discuss it. They drank the 2D bar code Kool-Aid and there was no going back.

Any frequent reader of the Cellit blog will tell you that I certainly have an opinion on 2D bar codes. 

The short version is this:  2D bar codes provide a mechanism to link to content, such as text or a mobile page.

However, to get to this content, the user must: 1) Have a smartphone with a camera and “app capability;” 2) Identify the type of code (such as Scanlife, Microsoft Tag, or QR code) and download and install the appropriate reader;  3) The user will then need to stop moving (remember, phones are mobile), and take a clear, focused picture of the QR code, which could take a few attempts.

After doing this, the content will finally be displayed. 

While this does provide the content, in my humble opinion, there are too many hoops to jump through.  SMS can also provide textual information or links to content. 

However, SMS does not require a camera, an app, a clear line of site, or the user to identify what type of bar code the call to action is (and only us mobile geeks can identify the bar code). 

The user simply texts in, gets a link to the content, and opens it.

In addition to providing the same end result content as bar codes, the SMS version also provides two very valuable additional benefits: 1) the phone number is captured for reporting and trackability, and 2) the brand can begin entering a two-way dialogue via text after the information is provided.

Location-based services
Wouldn’t it be great if your cell phone beeped when you walked by that Starbucks, offering you a coupon for $2 off a latte? 

Marketers sure think so. 

However, broad adoption of this idea is still years away.  

Location-based services (or LBS), can operate through one of three methods: 1) Bluetooth blasting, 2) antennae-based targeting  and 3) apps.

Bluetooth blasting is the idea of putting Bluetooth transponders around a location, and constantly broadcasting the availability of content to nearby devices. 

Let me take a hard stance and simply say Bluetooth blasting doesn’t work, neither from a technology perspective nor a consumer engagement one.

The problem is that modern mobile devices, by default, are told not to receive content from every surrounding device as a security measure. 

This is why it is so cumbersome to initially pair your phone’s Bluetooth to your headset or car.

Additionally, Bluetooth has such limited range (300 feet), that if you were walking down the street, and you did receive a request to receive content, by the time you responded to the request, you’d probably be too far away and the content would be unavailable. 

Let’s not waste our time discussing Bluetooth blasting.

Antennae-based targeting is the idea of using the phone’s cell tower location to determine relative proximity of the phone. 

After years of hype, this idea actually is starting to become a reality on a limited number of networks, including Sprint and Verizon, to users who opt-in to the programs. 

The problem here is cost. It costs several times more to determine who is near a location and market to them, than it does to market to the entire group. In fact, for ongoing campaigns, this becomes cost-prohibitive rather quickly. 

I will be writing about the economics of antennae-based targeting in a future article, and providing a couple of limited examples of where it might make sense.  Overall, however, it is simply too expensive and lacks broad carrier adoption.

The third way to geo-target is via an app.  Assuming the application is always running on the phone (which is possible with iPhone 4s and Android devices), the application could constantly “ping” the user’s location and send it back to a central server.

So, if you can convince your audience to remember to leave an app open when not in use–consuming battery and using data resources – you may be able to send offers to the user.  There are several sneaky apps coming out that do not describe why they want your geo-location data. 

I worry this will become the spyware of the future. The other option is to have your user “check in” to a location to see offers, as they can with Foursquare. While this certainly works, this is a very different experience than the “walk by a Starbucks” dream many envision.

You must be thinking: “Apps are hype?  There’s hundreds of thousands out there!  How can they be hype!” 

No, overall apps are not hype.  However, it is often the case that brands reach out to us saying “We need an app! We need an app! We need an app!”

And what they’re really saying (without knowing it) is “we need a way for our consumers to engage with us via a mobile device.” 

To that end, we at Cellit believe a strong mobile web strategy is much more important than an app.  In a future article I will write more on my opinion about apps, and how they were designed to provide “stickiness” to the iPhone. 

Apps are expensive to write, and expensive to maintain.  You must support at least two platforms, if not four or five. 

That’s five programs to write, in five languages, requiring five developers. 

When bugs are found or upgrades are released, the responsibility of downloading the update is left to the user, creating an environment where your bugs may live on for eternity if lazy users forget to update. 

Mobile Web, on the other hand, is relatively cheap to develop, can be written once, and updates can be released immediately.

If mobile Web sites are well developed, they can provide an experience nearly as robust as an app. The ROI on a mobile site can be many times greater than a multi-platform app strategy. Expect to hear more about this from me in the near future, and please be careful when you hear pitches from app design shops that say your brand absolutely needs an app.

I hope this first article serves as a good introduction of what you should expect to hear from me in the coming weeks.  It’s my goal to combine my experience in judging technology feasibility with economic impact. 

I want to steer you clear of common mistakes we see companies make over and over again to appear “bleeding edge”, and instead steer you towards customer engagement and ROI. 

At the very least, we can start a discussion, and I’m eager to hear your opinions on everything discussed, so please comment on this article below or contact me directly at Cellit.

David Wachs is president of Cellit Mobile Marketing, Chicago. Reach him at

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