Many marketers don’t know a best in class mobile solution and specialists in the sector are losing opportunities to incumbents…

Specialist mobile marketing agencies have a window of opportunity but many are missing opportunities because incumbent agencies and platform providers are taking the work despite not necessarily being able to deliver the best in class solution.  Many clients are going straight to incumbent agencies and asking them if they can do mobile, the agencies are saying yes and because many clients don’t know any different the incumbent is winning the work despite not being qualified to deliver it.  And of course, the digital agencies, platform providers, email providers and so on are developing mobile solutions at the clients cost, while the specialists lose their competitive advantage.

Before the 2nd half of 2010, mobile was still arriving.  While the more forward thinking brands were investing, many were not, and many still aren’t.  At the time there had been plenty of buzz in the media for years, with regular features and opinion pieces in marketing and vertical press.  Yet it was very clear to us that marketers’ understanding of mobile was severely limited and many just didn’t see the business case for investing.

In the last 12 months there has been a sea change.  Most brands know they need to invest in mobile now or very soon so it’s less a case of whether and more a case of when and how.  Many have spent time educating themselves through attending seminars, conferences and events but there is a substantial proportion who still don’t understand how the channel can be used and what is necessary to make it work hard.  This is where we’re noticing the trend; this group does not understand that mobile is not just desktop web on a mobile device and bad decisions are being made.

An example of the effects in practice is, a mobile site that doesn’t work on many of the main feature phones.  This is one of many.  We read headlines about smart phone penetration in theUS reaching 40% and in theUK exceeding 30%, yet to me the headline is that brands are not catering to the approximately 30 million non-smart phone handsets that remain.

Another example is Google Analytics driven decision making.  Many marketers are unaware that Google Analytics cannot see roughly 50% of handsets on the market (i.e. most feature phones) so they believe their incumbent when they tell them that smart phones are all that matter.  Another example is brands still launching iOS only apps despite Android outselling iPhone for most of the last year.  Similarly, many brands are still launching native apps where an HTML 5 app in a wrapper would be a sufficient and more cost-effective solution that would work on all platforms.

Through the calls we’ve made for mobile agencies, we’ve asked a good many marketing teams, in most of the major verticals, what they’re doing about mobile.  The response I get from many is ‘we’ve got that covered’ and that little statement hides a much bigger story.  ‘That’ is a whole load of stuff – mobile websites, apps, SMS messaging, mCRM, mobile data capture, acquisition using QR codes and short codes, mobile as part of customer service communication and so on.  In short, it’s many different business needs addressed by mobile.

However, the biggest issue is the ‘covered’ bit.  When we ask how it’s covered, the answer we usually get is that a digital agency is developing something, or a platform provider developing something, or an email provider is doing something – somebody is always doing something.  When they’re asked, the agency says “of course we can do mobile” – then they develop something or they outsource something.    The problem is that not only don’t the clients get this new channel, it’s the agencies too.  I have written examples of agencies saying ‘Smart phones are all that matter’ – this is patently untrue.  Smart phones are not all that matter and although smart phone penetration is still rapidly growing, the evidence shows that feature phones matter too and that SMS matters; people are using them and yet brands are not catering for those customers.

Retail has been one of the most advanced sectors to embrace mobile web but that has been partly driven by the publicity surrounding Usablenet’s M&S site, which largely set the early bar for transactional mobile retail sites.  However, this begs a question: if M&S and most of the retail sector realises that their incumbent digital agencies, platform providers and email providers can’t do mobile as well as a mobile specialist, why don’t others.  It’s can’t be that difficult.

There are parallels here with what happened in the development of web; PPC, websites, affiliates, email marketing.  Back when the desktop web was just starting to go mainstream, marketing teams used to tell me ‘we’ve got that covered’ that their media or creative agencies were doing it for them.  Only it turned out that smart brands got a specialist in and did something bang hot while the rest of the market let their incumbent have a punt at something half decent.  The smart ones leapt ahead; the rest realist a couple of years later…

In my view brands will, given time, realise that they need a specialist in mobile.  The challenge for the specialist mobile agencies is to educate enough people and win enough clients before the incumbent agencies develop a mobile offering that is good enough to compete.  Once that happens the specialists will have lost a big differentiator and it’ll be onto the next big change, whatever that may be.

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