Interview: Are brands ready to engage consumers on the mobile web?

Smartphones now rival their non-smart counterparts for uptake and use and consumers are increasingly turning to hand-held devices for more than just their emails but are brands mobile ready for us yet?

Barbara Apple Sullivan

Barbara Apple Sullivan, founder and managing partner of the Sullivan brand engagement agency.

To find out we spoke to Barbara Apple Sullivan.  Barbara is the founder and Managing Partner of the award winning New York and Washington DC based brand engagement agency, Sullivan (Linkedin | @sullivannyc | Facebook).  With clients as diverse as American Express, Bayer, Bloomberg, Disney, and Human Rights Watch, Sullivan manages big campaigns for big brands.

So, with the continued expansion of smartphone and tablet devices how can companies engage their existing customer-base, as well as expand it using these technologies?  We started by asking Barbara just what mobile brand engagement is and how it challenges and provides opportunities for both brands and consumers.

Barbara explains mobile brand engagement isn’t just about building apps, it’s about providing genuine value to customers.    She also explains that mobile isn’t just about customers – a strong mobile strategy will help employees engage with their employer inside and outside the office.

Mobile brand engagement
Q. How do you explain mobile brand engagement to a new client?

Mobile presents a unique opportunity for brands to increase customer loyalty, for five major reasons:

Customers
Customers are already on mobile, so brands should be there, too. Brands don’t have to convince consumers to use the platform/channel; only to use/download their apps.

Accessibility
Mobile presents the potential for an unprecedented level of access to customers. People take their smartphones everywhere, and it’s culturally acceptable to use them virtually anywhere, anytime. Through apps, brands can engage with customers more frequently and more directly.

Lovemark
People are mentally, emotionally, and physically attached to their smartphones. When they download an app, they invite a brand into their personal space. With the right mobile experience, brands can become a fixture of an individual’s daily routine. The brands that successfully enter this space are the ones that tailor their apps to the user’s needs, likes and behaviors.

Interaction
The inherently interactive quality of mobile makes it an essential channel for reaching today’s conversation-seeking consumers. Mobile serves as a forum for developing a brand’s reputation as “modern” in the sense that the brand appears both tech-savvy and responsive to customer opinion.

Engagement
Use of mobile devices and the possibilities for mobile brand engagement are only expanding, so it’s wise for most brands to extend their communications to this key channel—to both increase engagement and prove that they are changing with the times.

Managing Engagement
Q. Looking at engagement, the mobile field is constantly changing, just look at the release of the New iPad; how can companies stay ahead with their mobile activities?

Most brands don’t need to stay “ahead” with their mobile activities. That’s expensive and requires a complete and thorough commitment, which many are not equipped to do. Instead, a brand needs to think deeply about what it is, what it means to its customers, what its customers want, what its customers need, and what its customers are saying. Often want, need, and say are very different things. Give them want they want and they may only be satisfied. Solve for what they need and they’ll love you.

If you do update your mobile technology to adapt to enhanced device capabilities, be careful not to lose sight of your app’s core function. Keep in mind why people use your app in the first place. Don’t feel obliged to use all the technological features of the phone if they don’t make sense or if they distract from the experience. Stay aware of tech developments that can improve or expand your mobile offering, or help your brand better communicate its message and identity.

Q.  What are the minimum services a company should offer on mobile?

At the core of mobile success is a responsive website design which can effectively serve content to mobile and traditional browsers. Mobile versions of websites are often problematic, since they may require parallel and often less complete content.

Clients
Q.  A lot of digital agencies talk about digital strategies—just how important are they?

Having an overarching strategy in place is critical for any effective marketing effort. Designing one-off communications that don’t fit into a larger structure, or complement other communications, rarely works. Digital shouldn’t be considered as separate from the overall communications strategy, and companies that isolate it will end up with a fragmented brand expression. Digital strategy has a lot to do with content strategy: What do you want to tell people about your brand? How do you stay consistent without being redundant? In what forums do you want to start conversations? How can technology support customers’ interactions with your brand—online and on-the-go?

Users
Q.  Received wisdom would say that users of mobile devices are young and affluent, is this necessarily the case?

The mobile audience has skewed younger, but it’s changing quickly. College graduates (ages 18-35) and those with annual household incomes of $75,000 or more have stronger adoption rates to mobile, and are more likely to use smartphones, but every major demographic group is showing growth in use of mobile devices. 46 percent of Americans use a smartphone as of February 2012. Two likely factors influencing this growth are:

1. The cost of smartphones has gone down significantly, as more competitors enter the market and drive down prices, and more carriers offer them (e.g., AT&T no longer has exclusivity for the iPhone).

2. Businesses, including some of Sullivan’s clients, are beginning to use tablets and mobile apps internally and externally—for document sharing, quick and easy communication with colleagues who are working remotely, and interacting with clients (e.g. Sales).

Plus, employees are expected to have email and internet access after hours and outside the office—and the easiest way to do this is with mobile. This means that people across all age groups are becoming accustomed to the technology.

Q.  Looking at how consumers interact with a brand (on mobile or social), is there a fear that companies can lose control over their brands? How would you allay clients’ fears?

Brands perpetually fear “losing control.” However, their fear is usually misplaced. If a groundswell of opposition to a brand is going to rear up, being involved in mobile or the social ecosystem will not stop it, nor will it facilitate it. There have been brands, such as Skittles, that have taken huge risks with social media: while not everything Skittles produced was “on message,” it still had a lot of interaction with consumers and caused extensive conversation. Ultimately, a brand’s mobile or social life will be a reflection of what people think of the brand. If a brand doesn’t engage socially because it is afraid of what people might say, then that brand is basically admitting that customers don’t like it.

Measurement
How do you measure (qualitative/quantitative) a successful mobile engagement campaign?

Quantitative measurements are easy: downloads, repeat usage and time spent engaging are all major metrics. Other metrics really depend on the business model—it could be shares/likes, or it could be commerce conversions.

Qualitative measurements are highly subjective and entirely dependent on a brand’s goals. Is the brand trying to reposition itself? Is it trying to embrace or reject a stereotype (think: Old Spice’s social campaign)? The extent to which a brand succeeds may not be measured in numbers, but rather in a subtle change in demographics or some other less-tangible goal

Q.  Are there greater/fewer rewards for brands on mobile?

Mobile has rapidly become the primary method of digital interaction for most people. If a brand is not responding to that, then it is going to fall behind.

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