How the lowly iphone will call an end to our seller-centric ways

This Christmas’s must-have item, and its me-too copycats, will usher in mobile, real-time marketing, but not in the way we’re expecting…

In his Northern Lights fantasy, Philip Pullman invents a new type of creature: a daemon (pronounced “demon”) which looks like an animal but which is actually an external manifestation of an individual’s soul. Every individual has his own daemon, and should the two ever get separated they both experience agony.

Fantasy it may be, but many of us are acquiring our own daemons, except in our case they’re not spiritual, they’re technological. Many a modern business executive now feels lost – almost panicked – if his Blackberry slips beyond arm’s reach. Now consumers are experiencing the same feelings with their new Apple iPhones or iTouches.

Probably the biggest selling present this Christmas, the iPhone, has huge implications for marketing, not as a marketed product per se, but for what it represents to the traditional marketing environment. For the iPhone, with its functions, has broken the barrier to the “any time, any place, always-on” internet, and therefore has the potential to revolutionise marketers’ communications channels.

One of Apple’s ads for the product highlights its integrated functionality. It starts with the problem “what shall we do tonight” and it uses its mobile phone/internet access to find out what’s on at the nearest cinemas, connect with friends who want to see the same film, buy the tickets, and arrange where to meet (with the help of maps) beforehand. All done in a jiffy from the handheld device.

Now fast-forward five years. Over this period prices will come down, competitors will pile in, and iPhones and iPhone me-toos will become mass market, not niche, products. The functionality they offer will mature from “cool” and “cutting edge” to become a normal, day-to-day expectation. And competition over new applications will be intense.

But why is it so important?One development that’s been grossly over-estimated is much-discussed personalised real-time communications, where you can walk into a shop and instantly receive a text message saying “Hello Mrs Jones. We have special offers for you [based on your previous transaction history]”. The chances of this ever happening on a mass scale are remote, simply because of the nightmarish hassle it would create for shoppers. Instead, we are likely to see the exact opposite, with consumers choosing to request messages from particular retailers when the mood/interest takes them – and with the clear understanding that this permission to communicate has been granted on a once-only basis.

Global turned local
One thing the mobile internet does underline, however, is the Web as a local as well as a global phenomenon. With mobile devices, often the most important criterion is “is what’s wanted less than half a mile away?”.

It will also blur the distinction between “online” and “bricks and mortar” retailing to the point of obliteration. Once upon a time, bricks and mortar and online retailing were seen as either/or. Then consumers started adopting a repertoire of behaviours. Sometimes, we research and buy online. Or we research and buy in store. Or we research online and buy in store. Or we research in store and buy online. And many of us flit happily from one mode to the other depending on what we are buying, when, for what purpose and so on. Now, with mobile internet, online research (and purchase) can take place anywhere, including in front of the fixture, so the bricks and mortar/online divisions no longer apply.

Inevitably, this will spawn a range of new services. An obvious example: you find yourself standing in a shop muttering “I really, really like that, but oh dear! It seems to be out of stock in my size”. Out comes your iPhone or iPhone me-too. Step 1: Send message to stock room: “Do you have barcode/ EPC number ABC123 in size 12 in the backroom?”. Step 2: Set up a search of other stores in a quarter mile radius. “Which of these stores stock barcode/EPC number ABC123 in size 12? Is it in stock? At what price?” For shoppers who have just walked the length of London’s Oxford Street at peak shopping times, a service like that would be a Godsend.

Other more obvious uses are: “That looks really good, but before I buy it, I think I’ll check the product reviews”. Or, “before I buy it, I’ll just make sure I can’t get exactly the same item a lot cheaper somewhere else”.

Flipping fortunes
But the main effect of mobile internet is that it will help trigger the biggest ever transformation of the marketing environment. Traditional marketing’s approach to information is incredibly seller- and corporation-centric. The company is always in the driving seat: it’s always the company doing the information gathering, storing and sending. The content of this information, along with the processes used (and the timings), are also driven by goals chosen by the company – typically, “sell more at a higher margin”. At the same time, access to the consumer’s attention is taken for granted – paid for via media advertising.

With any time any place internet access, the long-gestating flip to a person-centric information environment now looks inevitable. The information users are now in control, seeking, storing and sharing the information that fit their goals (for example, acquiring the best product at the best price), using the timings and processes that are most convenient to them. And the way to win consumers’ attention is not by blasting messages at them but by fitting and serving their information agenda. This is a new era of brands as information services; where brands earn consumers’ attention and trust via the quality and utility of the information (and information-based services) they provide. It’s a far-reaching transition; far bigger in its implications than the rise of mass TV or database marketing. But thankfully for brands, it resolves into a million and one tiny, practical steps.

At one level, it’s all about efficient interactions – how easy it is to check and pay bills online, organise and check deliveries and returns, organise repairs, order upgrades and so on. At another level it’s about less tedious bureaucracy: easier more accurate admin, record keeping, data entry and access. It’s about logistics: better planning, co-ordination, integration (from the Italian restaurant near the theatre to the complete house move). It’s about easier, richer information sharing. And it’s about quality content: trustworthy, expert, relevant, useful – information that really helps me solve my problems better. The mix depends on brand, category and circumstance.

This is a universe parallel to the one most marketers currently inhabit – the world of media advertising and brand messaging. But when it comes to shopping it’s a world that consumers are increasingly migrating to, clutching their digital daemons closely as they travel. And where consumers go, marketers must follow. 

Alan Mitchell, www.alanmitchell.biz

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