Mobile: Great expectations vs. reality check

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Partygoers at the famed South By Southwest festival last month got to put on virtual reality goggles, step inside a prototype McDonald’s Happy Meal box, and play paintball. This is the latest idea to sprout from McDonald’s mobile initiative, part of a sweeping customer experience transformation that McDonald’s began 18 months ago.

Today, McDonald’s is a social and mobile powerhouse, a standard-bearer for digital transformation. McDonald’s is mentioned in social media every 1.5 seconds. Its mobile app has been downloaded 10 million times in the last four months.

Despite its success, the real story behind McDonald’s mobile revolution isn’t very exciting. McDonald’s CMO Deborah Wahl says the most impactful benefit for its 26 million daily U.S. customers has been pedestrian deals over the mobile app, such as an offer to buy five beverages and get one free. Not quite the sci-fi appeal of virtual reality.

“In digital, there’s a lot of shiny toys, but we really had to step back and focus on the idea of timing and balance,” Wahl told marketers gathered at Adobe Summit 2016 in Las Vegas last month. “It takes a lot of discipline, not doing so much of the sexy stuff. Bigger gains will come from very practical, day-to-day optimization.”

Time for a reality check

That’s the central theme with mobile right now: great expectations undermined by a hard-scrabble reality. McDonald’s isn’t alone in its slow wade into mobile. Lots of companies are struggling to get even the small stuff right. While mobile has a lot to offer, such as GPS, as well as camera and messaging, only one out of three companies uses location to make mobile services more relevant to consumers, Forrester says.

Problem is, there’s a gulf between consumers and companies. Mobile disruptors, most notably Uber, some retailers such as Home Depot and Target, and airlines such as United Airlines and Delta Air Lines are leading the way with mobile. They’re setting consumer expectations that the vast majority of companies can’t live up to.

Today, many people whip out their phones, fire up one of more than 1.5 million available apps and expect to get information or services in their moment of need. Nearly one out of five U.S. adult consumers have this expectation, Forrester says. In places like Hong Kong, China and Korea, where the mobile phone has leapfrogged traditional communication infrastructure, this number jumps to nearly half of adult consumers.

Yet Forrester says only 7 percent of companies are prepared to serve customers in their mobile moments this year, up from 4 percent last year.

To be fair, it’s not the fault of companies. Taking advantage of everything mobile has to offer is a years-long journey wrought with technical, organizational and cultural pitfalls. It isn’t cheap, either. Only one out of five marketers has the necessary budget for mobile initiatives, Forrester says. That’s because most marketers struggle to demonstrate the return on investment of mobile.

Marketers dream big

Nevertheless, mobile will continue to evolve rapidly over the next five to seven years, potentially leaving even more companies behind. In the next decade, the planet will be home to some 6 billion phones. Half the population will carry one. The phone will be the central station, the main interface of the customer experience.

The way we use the phone will be very different, too, says Forrester. In a report, “The Future of Mobile,” Forrester envisions a mobile world where people no longer use a standalone app from a single brand. Rather, they’ll have a personalized ecosystem made up of multiple brands and Internet of Things sensors serving up blended, mobile-centric experiences that proactively anticipates needs.

Confused? Here’s an example of how it might work, as you make your way from the gym to the home to the kitchen to the store, courtesy of Forrester:

  • You’re listening to music in the car on your way home from the gym. The home audio system detects the media playing in the car, and the music continues to play based on your proximity to various speakers inside the house. Mobile is the “brain” that ensures the continuity of the music.
  • The home thermostat detects the textile sensors in your shirt and your heart rate through your fitness band, senses you are too hot (great workout!) and lowers the temperature of the room.
  • It’s time to cook dinner, and so mobile curates a recipe based on the ingredients you have and shows a video of the recipe as you cook. As you use ingredients in the kitchen, Amazon Echo adds them to a shopping list.
  • Convenience stores will offer incentives to buy these products when you are nearby. In the store, your wristband guides you to the items on the list and pushes promotions for those items.
  • Your shopping list is color-coded based on impact on the family budget, accessed through a connected banking service.

So goes yet another great expectation for mobile, another vision of consumer delights, another example of what mobile can be—not what it is.

At Adobe Summit 2016, executives took the stage and showed how outdoor retailer REI can surround its store with a geo-fence, connect its mobile app to a smart shopping bag via Bluetooth, and enable a shopper to bypass the check-out line. There was a product rack and a smart shopping bag on display. REI’s logo flashed on the big screen.

There was just one problem: All of this was fake. It was about what a retailer like REI could do, the possibilities of a connected mobile ecosystem. Once again, marketers were left staring at the widening gap between mobile’s promise and practice.

Five2ndWindow logoTom Kaneshige is editor of Five2ndWindow, Penton’s independent news site helping marketers and line-of-business executives get ahead of the mobile disruption happening to the customer experience. You can reach him at

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