Mobile is the fastest growing, and most widely adopted media channel of all time. But it hasn’t always been perceived that way by agency suits, brand experts, and mass-media marketers. Just as brands were getting into a groove with digital, cellphones went from talk and text to pinch, snap, flick, and zoom. If the Internet revolutionized communications and media, mobile is fulfilling that promise by putting these tools and features into the hands of billions.
Today, mobile is so much more than a device or technology that makes this experience possible. It is a concept, a growing framework of always-connected things. Mobile increasingly drives changes in user experience and interfaces across the digital realm. While the industry at large pays lip service to the opportunities that mobile brings to the game, the channel remains woefully neglected and underserved.
Before the rise of smartphones, mobile marketing and advertising was way out on the fringes. That also holds true for the men and women who embraced mobile early. These trailblazers didn’t just cop out and check the box on mobile under their emerging or experimental budgets; they pushed toward mobility while most held back.
Here at ClickZ, we wonder where these Mobile Trailblazers are today. Was it worth the struggle? After going against the grain for so many years, are they finally beginning to see the world they always imagined? These are their stories about all things mobile.
Eric Bader isn’t afraid to say what’s on his mind, even if it’s something like, “Banners suck. They always have sucked and they always will suck.” His successful career in digital media and mobility shows little deference to myopic thinking. Even though in many ways he is still fixated on the same questions and challenges that sparked his journey into the land of brands and consumers more than two decades ago. The chief executive and founder of Mobilize says mobile is best when it is direct. For him, mobile has never been a be-all-end-all channel for marketing. Bader views mobile as a complementary tool that, when used effectively, can close the gap between interest and action - the pitch and the sale.
ClickZ: Walk me through your career in media, marketing, and advertising. What have you learned about consumers and brands along the way? When did mobile first spark your interest and how have you fostered that into a deep area of expertise?
Eric Bader: There’s a theme that runs through my career. My whole career has really been about the relationship between brands and consumers. I like that, I’m fascinated with that. I just think that that puzzle between brands and consumers is a fascinating puzzle and there’s a bazillion ways to solve it. It’s like any fun, compelling, addictive puzzle. There’s so many ways to do it, so many combinations.
For me, all the places that I’ve worked, from ad agencies to startups, every one of those has been an opportunity for me to figure out, along with brand clients, what new channels can do to improve those relationships and frankly help them sell more. I was at a web shop…but then I went to Ogilvy because the problems were bigger, the money under management was bigger, the brands had bigger problems. It was kind of stepping up to the big leagues. Then I went to a startup because I wanted to learn how to operate a business. Every step is really about that relationship and every stop has been the role of new media for me.
There are a million people who understand traditional media. There’s phenomenal television, and print and out-of-home people out there who are incredible practitioners and strategists. It wasn’t just, let me find a way to differentiate myself, but I just kept seeing clients stumbling over new media. And by the way, the same questions that major clients were asking in the early ‘90s persist today.
I got exposed to mobile back when I was at Ogilvy in the early 2000s. My colleagues in Japan were doing some really clever programs for CPG clients and honestly it’s stuff that would still be excellent if it were done today. Mobile was already a viable and relevant channel for brands in Japan because devices, bandwidth, and consumer usage were way ahead of the West at the time. I was hooked, and I just knew it was a matter of time before we could use mobile to do things that weren’t previously possible in any other channel.
I had the benefit of a few years to think about and experiment with the way that mobile could make a difference for brands. There was a gap there between what was possible in Scandinavia and Japan, where they just had better connectivity and better devices, and back here we were still using the Motorola RAZR flip phone and nobody could get mobile Internet. I was inspired by great stuff that I saw in the early days and then when the American markets caught up, I was like, “Finally, it’s time. Now we have broadband, we have 3G services.” And in 2007, boom, finally we got the iPhone and now a huge number of people have smartphones. That made a really big difference.
I incorporated mobile wherever it was important in the years after that first exposure, and then in 2007, John Haidl, my partner, and I launched Brand In Hand to help clients navigate mobile planning and buying and business development. We just thought it was a really underserved area; clients had serious questions about it and they were holding back. They were holding back money, they were holding back the green light on programs that were being proposed to them because they just didn’t know how to navigate it. They didn’t know who the publishers were, they didn’t know who the vendors were, they didn’t get the technology, they couldn’t differentiate between “Is this a good one, is this a bad one?” Unless you help them navigate, it takes a long time for brands to get it.
ClickZ: What does mobile mean to you? Where does it (or where should it) sit in the general framework of media and brand marketing?
Bader: For me and for brand marketers, mobile devices are really just vessels. I believe that mobile is about consumers who are mobile. It’s not about phones. I want people to have the device that they love to use, and I want them to have a very powerful device, and I want them to have multiple devices, and I want them to use them a lot, but I don’t care what they have. What I care about is that consumers are mobile and that really matters to brands because it’s not just, “Oh, man we’ve got to catch up with them, we’re falling back.” Consumers are now reachable, and they’re now interested and they’re now active in places where they didn’t used to be. That’s the purely optimistic view.
There is a pessimistic view, which is like, “Holy crap, here’s 15 more things that we as brand managers and media managers have to chase and spend our money on. This is awful.” But I see it as pure opportunity. Mobile is an excellent complement to mass media’s reach and storytelling. I don’t think it’s a replacement for it. You still need mass media, you still need the reach, and you still need the storytelling that happens in other channels. Mobile is this great complement to it because it can be effective at managing a customer’s interest after that initial awareness, and then carrying it all the way through to a transaction.
What I care about is that lag time between when you or I see a television commercial and when we go take action on it. If we have a tablet in our lap on the sofa, and we have a mobile device in our hand because we’re already doing something else, and the second we see an ad that matters to you, or you’re in the market for something, or it piques your interest, or you see that iTunes commercial and you go, “Damn, what’s that song?” and you hit Shazam. “I love that song, I’m downloading it.” A transaction just happened. It used to be the lag was you saw something you liked and then you sort of made a mental note that said “OK, next time I go to the store or next time I’m near an auto dealership I’ll remember to stop in,” and 90 percent of the time you forget. I want to close that gap. What I don’t believe is that mobile is the answer to driving your interest in the first place, but it’s a great way to manage that interest once it’s piqued.
The two most important things to me are in contexts and at locations that no other brand can reach. Lots of people say context and location, that’s kind of a popular combo, but here’s why. Let’s take, on the way to the store, at the gym, commuting, or running through the airport. Those are all perfect contexts and they’re real. Those are all perfect contexts and locations for mobile. Historically those have been frustrating and nearly impossible for marketers to master. If you talk to a CPG marketer selling personal care, trying to reach people at the gym is impossible. There’s no media at the gym. The thing we know from research is that most people are using their device for music while they’re working out. They’re not necessarily checking the screen, but the thing that we absolutely know is, the first thing that people check when they’re done with their workout is social networks - they’re checking Twitter, they’re checking websites to get information, they’re checking the weather. And, boom, you’ve got a context all of a sudden where people are worrying about themselves, they’re concerned now what their hair looks like, what their skin looks like. Just to use the other example, if you’re running through an airport you’re not worrying about your hair, but you might be worrying about a rental car…that’s perfect for mobile.
ClickZ: What are the trends in mobile that you find most fascinating today, and what are the biggest challenges holding it back as a marketing and advertising channel?
Bader: I’m most fascinated with in-car mobility. I think there’s enormous opportunity for content, shopping, transactions, social sharing, on-demand, local marketing. The opportunity’s just going to get greater and greater as these functions all become embedded in the on-board computer and then it’s enabled by cellular or Wi-Fi service in the car. We’re seeing some of it today. It’s coming on slowly and the reason is there are multiple platforms. From a brand and a buying standpoint, each element has to be separately negotiated. It’s just so difficult. That was our reason five, six, seven years ago: “Why isn’t mobile bigger?” Because you’ve got to cut nine deals and you have to have creative and messaging that’s optimized for all these platforms. Frankly, there’s going to be a day when Android or iOS is going to become ubiquitous across the car models as the platform.
ClickZ: How can mobile match the interests of consumers and brands without degrading the experience?
Bader: I think many of the things that consumers love about having and using mobile devices and services are the things that are generated or underwritten by brands. For an example, nearly every check-in on Foursquare involves a business or a commercial venue. A huge amount of mobile entertainment is in that intersection between brands and consumers. And entire experiences such as holiday shopping and car buying, those are the things that consumers love to do the most on mobile. We’re seeing people participating with the Super Bowl advertising. The truth of what people really do is they shop their ass off, they tweet about commercials.
Whenever we check in on Foursquare, what are we doing? We’re advertising a restaurant or a concert. That’s totally commercial and that’s what I mean by being underwritten by brands. But that raises the standards for brands, and that means they can’t be cynical or careless. Brands don’t have that many opportunities to either satisfy or piss off consumers. You still need to entertain, you still have to offer satisfying opportunities, you have to save people time, and you have to connect like-minded people.
One thing that never changes is the need for brands to do great things. Not just routine, not just by-the-numbers programs. At some point after enough meaningless and uncreative and interruptive messages, consumers are going to vote with their thumbs and their wallets. And they’ll click even less than they do now, and bail out before completing transactions. Brands can’t be complacent and say, “Well, mobile’s awesome because it’s all commercial and we belong there.” Are you kidding me? You’ve got to blow people away. You’ve got to earn it. The state of mobile is not totally recognizing that there’s an amazing opportunity to entertain people, to tell stories that people want to hear, and be incredibly relevant to people when they’re in the market for something. And those happen to be some areas that are just really underdeveloped.
ClickZ: Why is mobile such a prevalent consumer channel, yet still largely elusive for brands? How are the dynamics different from digital media, and what should brands be thinking about as the industry grapples with how to leverage such an evolving and fast-changing opportunity in mobile?
Bader: It’s more than one thing happening at once. One thing is that ads are not very natural to mobile websites and applications. They’re not natural to this stuff and, by the way, we’re learning that ads aren’t natural to Facebook either. They’re really not. Good for them that they’re making some progress on improving that. Now, what is natural? Google is really natural. But running ads, cramming in ads is just unnatural to the mobile experience. You see them, they’re bolted on, and most of the time they don’t serve a benefit to the user in exchange for her attention or interest. There’s a lack of clear planning, and at the moment, there’s no real role for mobile. We hear this a lot. Brands want to see mobile on a media plan, or they want to reuse a campaign from another channel in order to save money, but mobile’s just not planned or executed to take advantage of what mobile offers. Most brands are still not using it the right way. They haven’t incorporated it in the role in which it’s actually going to deliver for them.
There’s this misunderstanding that mobile is a subset of online media. For my money, online when used well delivers effective reach; you can do immersive storytelling and you can do attention-worthy experiences, especially when it complements messages in another channel that the consumer is exposed to. But mobile doesn’t also do those same things and certainly doesn’t do it at scale.
Mobile can be the most effective way of reaching the consumer in contexts and locations that are hard to reach with other media, or other channels. It can be effective at things like generating a lead, converting a lead, driving sample and trial, generating names into a database, making local brands and services relevant. So the way I look at it is, if you take productive budgets away from digital to feed mobile programs, it dilutes both because there’s never enough money to adequately fund everything. Therefore, funding for mobile in my experience needs to come from other sources. I like taking underperforming dollars from other direct-response channels and also local-market efforts like newspapers.
I often look for the underperforming dollars…in email marketing, banners, search, direct mail - stuffing people’s mailboxes with dead trees. There is a lot of money that is still being used in those channels that is not performing. The redemption rates, the conversions, and everything are tailing way off. But brands still spend hundreds of thousands and millions of dollars after the points of diminishing return. They do it anyway because there’s no alternative. I see mobile as an alternative. Now, that’s a very direct-response statement. There is some role for brand building, and for exposure and for brand metrics in mobile, but to me mobile is incredibly hard working when it comes to direct.
ClickZ: What is your vision for mobile marketing? How should brands be thinking about it, and what special skills or talent are required to succeed in this space?
Bader: I can see richer ad units coming. Ones where you can tell better stories, there’s more functionality into whatever these ad units are going to look like and behave like. I think what that’s going to do is inspire more interesting, creative, and attractive ideas for marketers because the palette is going to be richer. It’s just going to be a better platform. I think branded applications are going to actually increase, but they’re also going to be challenged by startup brands that aren’t burdened with legacy business like brick-and-mortar that they need to nurture. I think more and more of the apps we’re going to use, you’re going to care about the brand. It’s going to be a brand relationship that matters. From the consumers’ standpoint, we consumers are going to have a very seamless mobile experience. It’s going to be a lot less of the tapping and constantly opening different apps, trying to make unrelated apps work with each other.
ClickZ: Finally, we would like to close each of these features in our series with a simple question - what makes you a mobile trailblazer?
Bader: I didn’t stop at display ads and apps. I knew immediately that brands needed to do some really productive other stuff like acquiring customers and managing relationships, distributing samples and trials, putting names in databases, and selling more products via mobile. My partners at Brand In Hand and elsewhere, and I, we delivered on very productive uses of mobile beyond just brand exposure media and I’m really proud of that. When I have to describe why Brand In Hand, for instance, was important to me in my career, my greatest pride was we helped marketers accomplish eight different business objectives, only one of which were paid media. I guess if that qualifies as being a trailblazer. I think the difference is there are a lot of people working on the problem of display advertising and brand advertising and apps in mobile. If I blazed any kind of a trail, it was the one that did help marketers have an opportunity to do some of those other super productive things. Again, that’s why I like working with brands and consumers. That’s at the top of the list for brands. Brands don’t say, “Help me find another way to put the same ad up on yet another place.” In the end, they’ve got to sell stuff and that’s primary.