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Is mobile-first becoming a cliché?

Mobile-first is becoming a popular phrase that marketers have been using over the past few months. However, few have truly taken the key steps needed, and continue to see the medium as a great add-on instead of necessity.  

Companies such as Starbucks, Disney, Target and Gilt Groupe have done a good job of putting mobile at the forefront of their overall strategies. Mobile should no longer be seen as just another marketing channel to drive consumer engagement ? and over the past few years, the channel has proved to be so much more.

?There are marketers who still view mobile as ?just? another channel,? said New York City-based Chia Chen, senior vice president of mobile practice at Digitas. ?And we find the term ?mobile-first? problematic because it makes it feel like a media channel prioritization issue.

?We prefer to use the term ?mobile at the core,? because mobile is more than just a channel, it?s a technology-driven cultural phenomenon that is changing how people connect with brands and each other,? he said. ?We are finding that more and more marketers are taking the idea of having a ?mobile at the core? strategy seriously.

?These marketers are also asking the hard question of what it means to be ?mobile at the core.? The good news is that, having been through figuring out what being ?digital at the core? is all about, we are in a better position to answer what being ?mobile at the core? is in a more fundamental way than just including mobile in the media plan.?

The right approach?  
Similar to ?this is the year of mobile,? marketers have coined the term ?mobile-first.?

However, many still do not know what that exactly entails.     

Gone are the days when companies simply dip their toes in the mobile space and test out how the channel can help them boost consumer engagement and interaction.

Mobile has proven to be an integral part of all marketing strategies and a great way to not only help brands deepen the relationship with both new and existing customers, but also further interact with them on a device that is personal to them.

?Many marketing organizations are just beginning to operationalize a mobile first approach to marketing,? Mr. Chen said. ?But, currently, I?d say that American Express, Mead-Johnson Enfamil and Delta have really done good jobs of embracing a mobile at the core approach to marketing.

?By that, I mean that they are integrating how mobile is changing behavior and attitudes into their marketing and channel strategies,? he said. ?For example, American Express?s Twitter Sync program is built around the idea that people are using Twitter on their mobile devices to get ?content snacks.?

?So why not deliver offers via a platform that delivers content that people actually want??

According to Mr. Chen, it is not a matter of ?whether? marketers should have a mobile at the core strategy.

For most brands, it?s a matter of when.

?We believe that mobile will be the dominant way that most people connect to digital in the near future,? Mr. Chen said.

?So, if you?re going to create a digital-centric marketing strategy, it?ll necessarily be mobile at the core,? he said. 

Front-seat action
Since mobile, generally speaking, makes up about 10-20 percent of most Web traffic, it is easy to see why it takes a backseat, per Wilson Kerr, vice president of business development and sales at Unbound Commerce, Boston.

?The key is to understand the trendlines and to internalize the pace at which mobile is growing,? Mr. Kerr said. ?As device technology and access bandwidth speeds increase, so will mobile engagement.

?Smart marketers should see mobile as a powerful opportunity to connect in new ways that can be attributed directly to incremental sales lift,? he said.

The executive believes that eBay has done a great job in capturing incremental sales and real hard dollar increases in their bottom line, due to mobile.

Not only has the company invested heavily in mobile, but it has also generated $6 billion in sales last year, without any significant drop off in their standard online ecommerce sales.

?Mobile offers eBay a here and now real-time way to reach their customers and their customers need to stay abreast of the sales they are bidding on,? Mr. Kerr said.

?Leading a sales and marketing strategy with mobile at top of mind is a very good thing,? he said. ?The most powerful opportunities in mobile engagement are ?real-world trigger points? and the ability to link standard, established consumer touch points such as point-of-sale signage, printed collateral, tweets, Facebook posts, SMS messages, and even email to mobile-designed, commerce-enabled landing pages where sales can be converted at the click the button.

?All of this can translate very easily into standard online engagement, but it does not as easily work the other way. Mobile should be first because mobile is everywhere, all the time and is growing extremely rapidly.?

Mobile strategies
Many marketers are certainly taking the concept of a mobile-first strategy very seriously. However, they are finding the execution of mobile-first strategies challenging.

?In many respects, the term ?mobile-first? emerged due to the uniqueness of the mobile environment,? said Craig Palli, vice president of business development at Fiksu, Boston.

?Real estate for creative and user interface is far more limited and existing marketing infrastructures are largely incompatible, and as a result, desktop marketing proficiency can actually hinder mobile growth,? he said.

To have a successful mobile-first strategy, marketers must first let go of everything they know about the desktop and develop a mobile-first perspective from the ground up.

This includes rebuilding desktop familiarities for creative-unit best practices and the infrastructures that enable mobile marketing.

For many companies, this is very difficult. However, when done right, it will also prove to be effective.

According to Mr. Palli, there are many companies marketers can look up to when developing their own mobile-first strategies.

Take Hotel Tonight for example ? it is a mobile-first company in the purist sense.

The entire company was built from the ground up to revolutionize how consumers book hotel rooms.

There is also Zillow, which initially started on the Web.

Zillow got an early jump on mobile and has currently, mobile users are three times more likely to contact a realtor than desktop users.

Additionally, Coca-Cola is a great example.

The company has established a Mobile Center of Excellence to ensure their mobile engagement is best in class. The company has rolled out dozens of apps that engage consumers through music, games, and current events.

?Having a mobile-first strategy is not only a good strategy, it?s the only strategy,? Mr. Palli said. ?All the data suggests that digital engagements are quickly transitioning from the desktop to mobile devices.

?Many have called it the post-PC era, and as consumers increasingly favor phones and tablets to desktops and laptops, marketers must transition to mobile now or risk extinction,? he said. ?Fortunately, most marketers are committing to mobile and the strategic choice in front of those marketers is to adopt either a mobile-first strategy or a mobile-too strategy.

?What's become clear is that those marketers choosing mobile-first thrive, while those choosing mobile-too are getting left behind.?

Mobile shift
There has been a clear shift in mobile marketing.

Marketers and executives can see that the data around mobile adoption shows undeniably that customers are already mobile and only becoming more so as that adoption grows.

?We're still in a period of catch-up, though,? said Patrick Stack, manager of digital strategy at Acquity Group. ?Many organizations are still trying to break down the silos that make a truly digital-first strategy possible, much less mobile-first, and so there's an opportunity there for marketers who can leapfrog that process by breaking through silos and recognizing that an effective digital-first strategy today is mobile-first strategy.

?A good example of a brand that embraces Mobility is,? he said. ?They've been able to take the core elements of the Amazon shopping experience beyond the standard ?big-browse? format and translated it across their mobile sites, mobile apps, tablet apps and even onto hardware itself with the Kindle and Kindle Fire.

?Customers don't see their interactions with Amazon and their Amazon account as limited by channel format, but as a consistent brand experience that nonetheless transcends any single interaction point. It's important for marketers to study digital innovators like Amazon, Apple or Google, because these are the brands that are creating customer expectations for brand interaction across all industries.?

Companies need to maintain a system where core transactions on the back-end are easily translatable across customer-facing formats, whether that be mobile, big-browser, tablet or a customer-service agent, according to Mr. Stack. 

?A mobility-first strategy helps companies thrive in this reality,? Mr. Stack said. 

Final Take
Rimma Kats is associate editor on Mobile Marketer, New York