Can marketers climb the mobile mountain?

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In 2002, world-class mountaineer Alison Levine attempted to reach the summit of Mount Everest but came up short by about 200 feet, turned back by bad weather. On her second climb eight years later, she got caught in a snowstorm 26,000 feet high in the infamous “Death Zone,” took off her goggles and felt her corneas starting to freeze. When the storm subsided, she pressed on.

At 8 a.m., Levine stood at the top of the world.

“Fear is OK, but complacency will kill you,” Levine told marketers at Marketing Nation Summit in Las Vegas last month. “You have to be able to react quickly in environments that are constantly shifting.”

In the marketing world, mobile has emerged as the most critical yet unpredictable challenge facing marketers. It is the Mount Everest of digital marketing. Once thought of as merely another channel, mobile has become infrastructure that informs other marketing efforts and stands at the pinnacle of customer interaction.

With so many important mobile technologies such as mobile analytics evolving rapidly, companies have to be prepared to fail fast and adapt quickly. Those that can’t won’t make it to the top.

“Mobile is the foundation of your marketing strategy.” -Mike McGuire, Gartner

Consumers spend nearly three hours every day on smartphones and tablets, according to Gartner. Mobile is a top three vehicle in all phases of the purchase cycle. By 2017, mobile commerce will account for more than 50 percent of digital commerce. Last year, Google reported that over 50 percent of searches were coming from mobile devices.

Marketers, too, are feeling the pressure to make mobile marketing pay off.

Three out of four marketers own or share profit-and-loss responsibility, reflecting an increased accountability for driving growth, Gartner says. It’s no surprise mobile marketing commands 10 percent to 13 percent of marketing budgets. At the Code Conference this week, Kleiner Perkins Partner Mary Meeker reported that mobile media pulled in 12 percent of ad dollars last year, up from 1 percent in 2011. Meanwhile, print ad dollars slipped to 16 percent of ad spending last year.

“Mobile is the foundation of your marketing strategy,” says Mike McGuire, vice president of research at Gartner.

The rapid rise of mobile

Of course, it wasn’t always this way. When The Home Depot launched its $1.5 billion digital business transformation a few years ago, mobile was assigned to a small team that incubated, tested and iterated on mobile technologies and practices. There were some successes and failures, such as a digital magazine built specifically for the iPad that couldn’t attract enough eyeballs.

Like Levine, The Home Depot reacted to changing conditions.

“We pulled the plug on it,” says Matt Jones, senior director of digital strategy and mobile applications at The Home Depot. “If you don’t course correct and pull the plug on things that aren’t working, that’s actually more damaging than not taking a swing.”

Last year, The Home Depot hit an inflection point with mobile: Mobile devices had reached 50 percent of traffic and are now moving to 55 percent, with desktop falling to 45 percent.

Jones now faces the daunting challenge of scaling mobile responsibility across the company, from line of business executives to store managers, from a mobile app that helps in-store customers to the mobile web for search and discovery. He has to set up a mobile organization for the next five years.

“We’re in the midst of the journey right now,” Jones told marketers at the Adobe Summit in Las Vegas this spring. “Personalization is a big thrust for us this year. We’ve done some good things over the year using contextual, geo and things like that. But we have miles and miles still to go.”

Mobile analytics leads the way

One of the most critical marketing technologies is mobile analytics, which came out of the mobile gaming world as a way to measure visitor engagement with mobile apps and mobile websites. Mobile analytics is fast evolving, and McGuire says marketers have to reinvest in mobile analytics to go deeper and more granular.

For instance, today’s marketers need to know the difference between mobile website visitors and mobile app users; older mobile app users and younger mobile app users; an older mobile app user and another older mobile app user.

By going deeper with mobile analytics, marketers can leverage mobile as the great connector to other marketing functions and ultimately deliver better customer engagement. Mobile analytics vendors are already starting to link mobile behaviors so that a customer activity might trigger an email campaign or notification.

“If you’re interested in how technology and businesses evolve and react to change, mobile marketing analytics is an interesting sector to watch,” McGuire says. “There’s been tens of millions of venture money going into this space in the last couple of years. We’re seeing a certain amount of consolidation. In the next couple of years, we’re going to see mobile marketing analytics providers add some very interesting capabilities.”

Missteps can doom companies

Like every journey along an uneven and unpredictable path, the risk of falling is high. What’s the biggest misstep marketers tend to make? Mobile presents lots of possibilities, from personalization to geo-fencing to mobile payments, and so marketers often overdo it. In other words, they don’t consider the context of, say, a mobile marketing message.

Consider the avalanche of mobile marketing messages today. Forrester found that 96 percent of U.S. smartphone owners receive some type of notification, with the vast majority coming by way of SMS and email. But nine out of 10 smartphone users have opted out when notifications were not timely or contextual.

“We’re quick to adopt new technologies and brands, like Uber, and just as quick to abandon brands that don’t perform for us,” says Rusty Warner, principal analyst at Forrester.

Yet time and again marketers hit the panic button and send mobile messages to the masses without any regard to the context of these messages. Marketers need to have a clear understanding of personas and profiles via mobile analytics, in order to have some balance and control with mobile messaging.

“Just because you get an opt-in doesn’t mean you should be targeting the user all the time,” McGuire says. “We want to know when it’s the right time to push and when to let the customer prospect pull from us.”

Mobile mountaineering isn’t for control freaks

It’s important to note that balance and control aren’t the same as playing it safe. Too many companies aren’t taking on the mobile challenge. Only 7 percent of companies are prepared to serve customers in their mobile moments, Forrester says.

One of the reasons is that companies haven’t grasped the magnitude of mobile. Mobile also requires the freedom to fail fast and go off plan, which flies in the face of risk-adverse corporate cultures. (For more, check out Mobile Disruption: Will You Survive?)

Says Gartner’s McGuire: “I asked an [executive] at a major sports retailer, ‘Who’s in charge of mobile?’ He said, ‘Well, everybody.’ That means it’s no one. I think people hesitate, because they aren’t figuring out the mobile value proposition.”

Hesitation can be deadly, too, says mountaineer Levine, who also earned an MBA from Duke University and has authored “On the Edge: The Art of High-Impact Leadership.” She draws a parallel line between climbing a treacherous mountain and traversing the shifting digital marketing landscape, where conditions change suddenly and adaptability is key to survival.

When climbing a mountain, Levine says, storms arise and are always short-lived. But when you’re at such a high altitude and trying to navigate past huge open crevices and precipitous drops, a sudden storm can cause you to instantly rethink your game plan for reaching the summit.

“Mount Everest is a really bad place for control freaks,” Levine says, adding, “You have to be able to take action based on the situation at that time and not on some plan.”

(James A. Martin contributed to this report.)

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Tom 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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