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Mobile marketing may be experiencing an identity crisis. Is it push marketing, delivering banners and messages to distinct on-the-go targets? Is it a convenient ordering mechanism or primarily a facilitator of social networking? Or is it less than the sum of its parts, the next “big thing” that will likely disappoint?
Marketers disagree about its functions and seem uncertain as to its possible advantages. The use of mobile marketing to complement other channels is more confusing today than social media marketing was a mere 12 months ago. But the explosion in the use of portable computing devices makes it imperative for marketers to try to make sense of it all.
“There are so many vendors eager to help with marketing strategies, but marketers don't know where to turn,” said Melissa Parrish, senior analyst-interactive marketing at Forrester Research. “Most marketers today are not putting huge budgets behind their mobile marketing strategies because they don't know what they want to get out of mobile yet.
“But mobile has moved so quickly, even more so than social, that it's almost an embarrassment for marketers not to be involved,” Parrish said.
Mobile's potential is huge. The Mobile Marketing Association, in its “2012: The Year of the Mobile Imperative” study in January estimated that there are currently 5.3 billion mobile devices in use in the world.
According to MMA, global tablet shipments reached almost 65 million units in 2011; by the end of the year, MMA estimated 54.8 million Americans, or 25% of the population, will have a tablet.
Marketers are beginning to show signs of recognizing the latent power of this vast medium.
“Back in 2001, my impression was that most marketers hoped somebody would kick the plug out of the wall and the Internet would go away,” said Greg Stuart, CEO of MMA. “And why not? The dot.com guys had basically destroyed their 401(k)s.
“Today with mobile, marketers have gotten over that resistance,” Stuart said. “Even though they don't know how to apply it yet, there's a whole different tone. What we have now is a knowing-versus-doing gap.”
Stuart said marketers are embracing the mobile version of that most basic of channels: email. But when it comes to the prevailing mantra that a mobile-optimized website is essential for effective click-throughs, he's dubious.
“We've found that only 14% of mobile users ever clicked through to a corporate website, and just 4% of that group had an attitude change about it,” Stuart said. “Yes, it depends in part on the product being sold. Many objectives of b2b advertising are oriented toward lead-gen, and so be it. But on brand, attitude shifts; mobile websites aren't critical.
“The value of mobile advertising and email is a branding message, mainly,” he said.
Srini Dharmaji, CEO of advertising technology company GoldSpot Media, agreed. He said the nature of on-the-go interaction with marketing messages is spotty at best. Even click-throughs are problematic because they may be accidental due to the “fat fingers” phenomenon.
“When somebody is jumping into a cab and checking their stock portfolio, what type of ad is good at that time?” Dharmaji said. “Can I really present a very rich ad there? Even loading rich content in a densely populated city is a challenge.”
Dharmaji said the primary value of a rich media ad on a mobile device, perhaps with animation and other modern elements, is the impression it presents.
“The key is to engage the viewer before the click,” he said. “If the user clicks on it, it's a bonus.”
Regardless of marketer trepidation about mobile, and the so-far fuzzy utility of mobile advertising, advertisers seem to be jumping aboard the mobile train.
The global mobile ad market is poised to jump from the $3.4 billion logged in 2010 to $22.0 billion in 2016, according to a forecast from telecom research company Berg Insight. Representing a 37% annual growth rate, the surge will take mobile advertising from 3.8% of all worldwide ad spending to 15.2% in the next five years, the company predicted.
Moreover, mobile is playing directly into last year's darling—social media. MMA estimated that mobile accounts for 55% of Twitter usage and 33% of Facebook viewing.
Email, the workhorse of b2b marketing, is also finding a sweet spot in mobile. According to email deliverability company Return Path, email opens on mobile devices grew by 34% in the final six months of 2011 compared with the previous six-month period. Meanwhile, opens on webmail and PCs decreased by 11% and 9.5%, respectively, in that time period as users switched to their portable devices.
Forrester's Parrish cautioned marketers to think about the different ways smartphones are used compared with tablets and to seek hard answers from their agencies—whether pure-play mobile shops or general creative agencies—about their mobile capabilities and recommendations.
“Marketers are still learning about their mobile customers and how mobile fits into their marketing practices,” she said. “At this stage, it's extremely important that marketers demand from their agencies case studies with results that are relevant to their own objectives.”