Mobile marketers still need to think of functionality over frills

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Apologies for the absence of a column from me last week; I was holed up in hospital for a few days. With lots of time on my hands for pondering, the incredibly dull experience bizarrely got me thinking about mobile marketing and something too many brands seem to have overlooked when building their offerings for devices: poor network coverage.

When you’re not being prodded, or poked, or drained of blood, there’s not an awful lot to do on a hospital ward. A smartphone can be a real lifeline.

But as I discovered to my horror when I was trying to get live updates of the Arsenal v Borussia Dortmund match, a smartphone with limited to no 3G signal is about as much use as a drip that is going into the tissue rather than the vein (as I also discovered to my horror, two swollen arms later).

It is all very well brands like ESPN producing apps that play back the football highlights as soon as the final whistle is blown, or sites such as Yahoo! placing editorial focus on professionally produced video content, but unless the user has a super-reliant signal, they’re unlikely to be able to access such content at all. An error message or a perpetual egg timer is a real turn off.

Earlier this year Ofcom decided to postpone – yet again – the multibillion pound auction of the 4G mobile phone spectrum, meaning the UK continues to lag behind the major European economies when it comes to mobile download speeds and high quality web browsing.

The sale is now not expected to take place until the end of 2012, which means 4G services are unlikely to become available until late 2013.

In the meantime, unless mobile users are in city centres or linked up to WiFi, their mobile internet experience is fairly ghastly. Apps that are meant to act as functional aids while people are out and about are going unused.

There’s an obvious opportunity for brands in the interim. WAP may be largely unused following the abundance of smartphones that support HTML browsing, but there is definitely still a market for lower-bandwidth browsing and smaller sized apps that do not rely as heavily on the mobile web.

Of course, most brands have now rolled out mobile versions of their websites that include bigger buttons and less of the media that takes longer to load, but often this also means that the amount of content easily accessible is reduced – which seems a pretty raw deal.

In the same vein, much of the focus on branded apps has been on the bold and beautiful – video, live updates, audio – which can be stunning for a user that is on the strongest 3G signal or hooked up to home broadband, but what about those consumers on the move in a rural area or stuck in a buildings that limit their coverage?

It would be nonsensical to suggest that mobile marketers should rip up the rulebook and adapt all of their apps so they are purely text based or just produce Snake-like games that can be downloaded in a flash, but offering the option would be a start.

For every frill that mobile has to offer, marketers should never forget functionality.

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