In the Palms of Their Hands


The average smartphone user looks at his or her screen 200 times per day, according to Forrester Research. Advertisers might think that represents 200 opportunities to advertise, but as Mike Parker, former global chief of digital marketing for McCann Worldwide, cautions, “In our industry, we mistakenly think that every place is a place to put an ad.”

The movement away from traditional, interruptive advertising to a participative model driven by engagement and relevancy was the focus of a day concentrating on mobile at this year’s SXSW Interactive conference, held in Austin, Texas, March 11-20, 2015. “In these mobile moments, [consumers] expect companies to understand their context and offer relevant, as well as both curated and streamlined, experiences on mobile devices,” Forrester analyst Julie Ask said at the show.

SXSW’s series of panels, organized by mobile engagement leader Urban Airship, explored this idea in depth. As Brent Hieggelke, the company’s chief mobile evangelist, explains it, today’s consumer is “firmly in control,” and this shift in power from marketer to individual has summoned what he characterized as a new era of “Un-advertising.”

The Eyes Have It
Un-advertising has a huge audience, and it’s growing by the day. Smartphone penetration worldwide is estimated to be nearly one-third (29.2 percent), according to Statista. But in the United States, penetration is already estimated at 77 percent, representing a whopping 187.5 million people. These figures run even higher for young adults—often considered elusive to advertisers—with Nielsen estimating smartphone ownership among adults 18-24 at 85 percent, and adults 25-34 at 86.2 percent, respectively.

If those figures don’t turn your head, then consider this: U.S. consumers now spend an estimated 4.7 hours on their smartphones every day, according to Informate Mobile Intelligence—significantly higher than the 2.8 hours per day spent watching television that the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in June.

What are they doing on their devices? According to Hieggelke, some 87 percent of the time devoted to mobile devices is spent in apps, with Facebook, YouTube, and Google leading the way. Before jumping on the app bandwagon, however, a marketer must consider this sobering statistic: without an engagement strategy, 70 percent of customers will abandon apps within 30 days of downloading them, Hieggelke says. Thus, mobile creates a unique challenge: How does a marketer create stickiness amid a sea of apps now estimated at 1.5 million and growing?

The Magic Moment
The answer, Hieggelke says, is to create “magical moments.” Crowdsourcing transportation pioneer Uber is an example: Using its app, consumers can summon a car, get immediate notification of the vehicle type and who’s driving it so that they are easy to identify, and then trace their progress, street-by-street, so that they know exactly when the car will arrive. No money changes hands, making the transaction über-quick and über-convenient. While the instinct of many marketers might be to ask the question, “How can we use an app to drive sales?,” the Uber example illustrates the need to ask a different kind of question: “How can our app add value for customers?”

“We want to create an experience not only we love, but our end users love,” says Arlie Sisson, former associate director of mobile application strategy at Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide and now vice president of Emerging Products for publisher Condé Nast. “Mobile is mandatory. It’s something that you have to do to stay in the game. It’s something you have to continue to push the boundaries of, otherwise you’ll be forgotten as a brand.”

In the hotel chain’s case, third-party travel booking sites were pre-empting the company’s direct line of communication to the consumer. The hotelier considered the amount of time spent during the typical check-in experience, when an individual must wait in line to provide his or her credit card information and ID to an agent. Realizing that it often already had the customer’s information, Starwood realized that the process was redundant and inefficient; it created an app that not only allowed guests to bypass the front counter at check-in, but also use their smartphones to unlock the doors to their rooms. “By helping our guests save time, we stay sticky on their home screens,” Sisson says.

Similarly, Starbucks has created an app that allows patrons to pre-order and pay using a smartphone, then go straight to the pickup counter to get their preferred libation. Such moves allow it to treat the most loyal consumers with a kind of virtual white-glove treatment that offers utility and simplicity. The message? Lines are for suckers, and the end user really gets to put the “smart” in smartphone.

The Feedback Loop
At the same time, apps like these create a two-way street that gives the marketer the ability to collect data that can then be used to architect even more relevancy. “We focused on where we can win, and asked our customers what they wanted us to build,” Starwood’s Sisson explains. “It sounds remedial, but it worked really well. We continually refine and re-invent based on feedback from our guests.”

There’s a fine line for when content changes from an ad to when something adds value.

But mobile must deliver more than a long tail of loyalty that increases customers’ lifetime value, panelists suggest. Mobile must also be capable of adding to the bottom line in the near term. “Proving the value of mobile to our organization ultimately comes back to revenue—we’re a retailer, and [revenue] is huge,” explains Brendan Wright, director of international mobile product management at Walmart.

Walmart’s U.K.-based grocery subsidiary, ASDA, uses an app that’s based upon online grocery shopping and repeat behavior. “For many of our customers, what we’re doing is magical,” Wright explains. “They can order online, pick up their groceries at the store, and have someone load [the order] into the back of their car. That’s powerful.”

Another way brands are creating relevancy is by piggybacking advertising on content that their user base is passionate about. Nike’s soccer app, for example, aggregates news and information about the world’s most popular sport. “This is Nike Football in your pocket,” Nike CMO Davide Grasso explains. “The app will allow members of the Nike Football community to be the first to access the latest product, stories, and event experiences.”

In one instance, the app allowed subscribers early access to purchase a limited gold shoe in honor of Brazilian footballer Ronaldo. The exclusive offer leveraged two powerful levers direct marketers are intimately familiar with: the scarcity mentality and the desire on the part of consumers—in this case rabid sneakerheads and soccer fans—to get their hands on something that most people can’t.

However, this sort of mix of content and advertising can be a delicate tightrope to walk. As Sonia Nagar, vice president of product at RetailMeNot, the globe’s largest coupon site, explains it, “I think advertising has a lot of connotations associated with it. There’s a fine line for when content changes from an ad to when something adds value. If there are messages we can target to a relevant audience, then we can add value and make it a mutual benefit.”

The proof of the RetailMeNot app’s success is a metric that says the average shopper saves $20 per transaction—a windfall that keeps them coming back for more. “We’re solving a real problem for shoppers by helping them save time and money,” Nagar says. “That’s what makes it sticky—we’re getting users to content that will quickly help them generate savings.”

Push, Don’t Shove
One way marketers can facilitate such engagement is through push notifications and in-app messaging, whereby the app notifies a user of news or a relevant, real-time opportunity. Urban Airship has developed an ethos around this permission-based, mobile customer communication channel, the “Good Push.” The company’s Guide To Good Push espouses this mantra: “Push is a privilege and must be treated as such.” When a customer agrees to receive push messages, the marketer has access to a customer’s “most intimate communication channel.”

Think of push as a tap on the shoulder that doesn’t annoy. “Push notifications should be about [the customer’s] life and what’s going to help them at that moment in time,” says Stephen Riley, of BBDO Proximity. A good push would be “alerting someone at the breakfast table to avoid a traffic backup by taking a different route to work,” Urban Airship’s guide says. Conversely, bad push would be “interrupting a parent putting their child to bed with a blast: ‘Limited Time Offer!’” One approach is focused on the benefit to the customer, and the other—consumer savings aside—is about the marketer’s agenda.

Among the tenets of Urban Airship’s Good Push are the following:

Surrendering control. Apps should offer end users an easy-to-use control panel that allows them to choose when and how they receive push messages. Instead of giving consumers the ability to shut a marketer off, Urban Airship promotes the idea that this approach builds trust and loyalty.

Relevancy. “Think about what the customer wants to hear, not what you want to say,” the guide says. Again, apps should give the end user the ability to specify what is meaningful to them.

Personalization. Hand-in-hand with relevancy is the ability to push content that is personalized and therefore, more meaningful. The ABC News app, for example, now allows users to “star” stories of interest to them, and then receive updates. In a study conducted after the first 100 days of this protocol, video views increased 300 percent over the previous version of the app.

75 percent of iPhone users take their phones to bed with them.

Brand consistency. A uniformly executed brand voice, look, and feel is essential, but it should be customized to the mobile experience. For example, push notifications from ESPN’s SportsCenter app alert users with a one-second recording of its ubiquitous jingle.

An entertaining payoff. In the aforementioned ABC News app example, this author, riding high from the U.S. Women’s World Cup victory, starred the story. One push notification led to a video of the team’s New York ticker-tape parade, extending the sense of a feel-good celebration and national pride.

Continuous improvement. A commitment to refinement based upon consumer behavior—a fundamental tenet of good direct marketing—should be taken into consideration. Given how nascent push messaging is, best practices will no doubt evolve that all marketers should learn and observe. The end game is to produce an experience that serves the consumer “better and better,” reinforcing relevancy that fosters deeper loyalty.

Adaptability. The location of the user changes his or her context, and marketers should consider this when customizing push. That doesn’t mean customers want to be tracked every step of the way, which might seem intrusive. However, by judiciously using beacons, geofencing, and historical data to target messages based on proximity, marketers can leverage a whole new world of customer insight.

Unbreakable Attachment
How deeply attached are we to our smartphones? A study from Stanford University found that 75 percent of iPhone users take their phones to bed with them, and a 2013 Mobile Consumer Habits survey even concluded that one in 10 smartphone owners have used their devices during sex. The smartphone has become a “remote control for our lives,” Hieggelke says, and consumers are demanding customized, individualized content that matters to them and them only.

With the advent of wearables such as the Apple Watch, another mobile screen resplendent with opportunity is presenting itself. With all forms of mobile supercharging the consumer’s ability to conduct on-the-spot research and price comparisons using such devices in the retail aisle, on the couch, or at the beach, marketers who leverage those screens to nurture a long-term relationship will get a leg up in the Un-advertising world. While building such affinity properly may not be easy, the answers reside in the palms of our hands.

Rick Petry is a freelance writer who specializes in direct marketing and is a past chairman of ERA. He can be reached at (503) 740-9065 or online at and @thepetrydish on Twitter.