Over the past decade, the media industry has suffered continuous set-backs. Like a powerful hurricane, digital disruption has ripped through the media landscape leaving a lengthy list of casualties ranging from Blockbuster, to local newspapers, to the print edition of Newsweek.
In addition, the digital tsunami has generally decreased the reliance of businesses on the media industry to attract customers. Firms create their own websites as consumer destinations, and through a variety of channels, often work to attract consumers without involving traditional media brands. Yet, one thing remains constant. Advertisers are delighted to work with media entities that help them to build their businesses in unique ways, and businesses still look to media companies to develop innovative marketing opportunities.
Now, the media and marketing industries are experiencing one of the most significant shifts of the past decade: The rapid explosion in smart phones (iPhones and Androids) as the source of direct access to the Web. With enhanced screen resolution, larger screen sizes, nationwide 4G access (providing higher broadband speeds) and always on-hand convenience, smart phones have rapidly become a central means of consumer access to the Web.
Indeed, the statistics on growing smart phone use to access the Web are extraordinary. Numerous studies have concluded that by next year more U.S. consumers will access the Web directly through smart phones than through PC's, while over 90 percent of consumers have their smart phones near them at all times (providing immediate and convenient Web access).
In essence, the mobile revolution of direct Web access is not the next big thing. It is already a big thing and a rare event: The development of an entirely new, clearly important channel for delivering content and relevant marketing messages to consumers.
Unfortunately, the growing industry response, of many media properties and marketers, to this potentially once-in-decade evolution is fundamentally flawed.
Within the digital industries, there is general agreement on important aspects of consumer behavior in a mobile environment: Smart phone visitors expect websites to be mobile friendly (which means no frustrating pinching and zooming), site visitors using smart phones will quickly leave sites that are not mobile friendly, and the consumer is clearly in control of the process.
Media brands and marketers (creating destination sites) are rapidly responding to this mobile tsunami. They recognize that microscopic versions of their desktop websites, which must be enlarged on smart phones through difficult pinching and zooming, are no longer acceptable.
For many companies, there is a potentially fatal flaw in the means they are using to approach this evolution turned revolution.
Media and marketing companies essentially have two options: They can create what are called "responsive" websites. These are sites which are programmed to automatically reformat themselves according to the device used by the consumer. With responsive design, a site looks different on a desktop computer, a tablet, or a smart phone. The second and far more effective option for both media properties and marketers is to create dedicated mobile sites, which are designed to take advantage of the difference consumer experiences in desktop access to the Web access on a mobile device. They are designed, as well, to fully use the inherent, specialized capabilities of smart phones for the benefit of consumers.
This may seem like an arcane distinction that should properly be debated by Web developers at in specialized blogs and meetings. But, in fact, it is a distinction that will have ramifications for the future success of many media properties and the success or failure of many marketing efforts.
At first glance, a responsive site seems like the appropriate solution to the proliferation of devices consumers now use to access the Web. Since a responsive site will reformat itself based on the device used to access the Web, the site owner provides a device friendly experience no matter how consumers access the site. These are real benefits and often appropriate. Nonetheless, in many cases, this also reflects a short-sighted approach to engaging the mobile consumer.
As detailed below, there are at least five separate reasons firms hoping to effectively engage mobile visitors should avoid responsive sites:
First, a responsive site is a camel. Inevitably, the creation of a one-size-fits-all design requires trade-offs related to the many platforms served by the site. As a result, the website does not provide the best possible experience on any single platform. In today's difficult business environment, it's a clear error for firms to spend millions of dollars on advertising to bring potential customers to their websites, and then have the websites offer an experience which is not as effective as possible. It may be no exaggeration to say that some seemingly sophisticated companies now spend more to ensure the lighting or location are perfect for a single TV spot than to ensure the most engaging experience when consumers respond to all of the company's marketing efforts and visit the firm's website, particularly on a mobile device.
Second, a responsive site does not take advantage of the best, inherent capabilities of different platforms. Every medium has unique advantages and disadvantages. Innovative media entrepreneurs, together with marketers, have recognized these distinctions at least since the dawn of radio, when this new media was created and advertising spending shifted to it from magazines and newspapers. With the creation of television, the unique value of different platforms became even more apparent. Similarly, smart phones offer specific values for engaging consumers, both as media vehicles and as marketing platforms, that are absent on PC's.
We are at a crossroads: On the one hand, media companies and marketers can treat the mobile revolution as an extension of the Web. The net result will be the ongoing disruption of existing media properties and (most likely) ineffective mobile marketing efforts.
Alternatively, insightful media executives and marketers will recognize that mobile devices are effectively a new media, with all of the attributes this description implies. Smart phones inherently provide a wealth of opportunities for engaging consumers that are not available on PC's. The best means for accomplishing this objective is still uncertain. But will a responsive site, which is most often geared toward meeting the needs of the desktop visitor, incorporate and realize the full potential of this new media? It's hard to imagine this is a realistic outcome. The most effective uses of this new mobile media will almost certainly involve designing capabilities and experiences that are unique to the mobile environment, the province of dedicated not responsive sites.
Third, responsive sites lack the flexibility needed for effective mobile media or marketing. While there is general agreement on the importance of the mobile revolution, there is also general agreement that right now mobile media and marketing are equivalent to the early days of radio in the 1920's. The medium is in its infancy and no one can predict how it will evolve. Dedicated, mobile friendly sites are designed to enable extensive experimentation and fast changes in content and capabilities. All of which facilitates new learning and the implementation of resulting insights. If this new media is to advance, rapid testing of multiple approaches must be easily undertaken. This approach is the antithesis of responsive design.
Fourth, responsive designs are more expensive. We have seen companies respond to the mobile revolution by electing to create responsive sites. To do this with any semblance of quality, inevitably requires these companies, which may already have terrific desktop sites, to rebuild all of their sites. The cost for this complete makeover can easily be ten times the cost of simply adding a new, dedicated mobile site. For example, a new responsive website might cost $250,000 while a dedicated mobile site (which will be more effective on smart phones) might cost $25,000. Second, even when it's appropriate to create a new desktop site, the extra cost for good responsive coding and design can outweigh the cost of a dedicated mobile site based on the content of the desktop site. In effect, companies spend more for less.
Finally, the creation of responsive sites often cost companies an unnecessary, entire year of development time. As firms move to create single platform responsive sites, the development time, from decision to full implementation, can be a year or more. In contrast, a terrific, dedicated mobile site can be designed and fully deployed in 10 weeks or less. As media companies and marketers say "they are going responsive," they might also say "and "we will lose a year of business from potential customers visiting our site via smart phones."
There may be readers who are tempted to discount the above discussion, because my start-up firm is in the business of developing dedicated websites: First, I encourage every reader to evaluate this discussion in light of any perceived bias on my part. Second, as an industry analyst and bestselling author of Internet related books, I identified this issue long before I became involved in my current business. In fact, it was discussions about this seeming anomaly with technology leaders that led me to conclude it was valuable, and possible, to develop a proprietary technology to rapidly create dedicated, effective mobile friendly sites.
As the mobile revolution continues to evolve, there is an easily understood temptation to treat the Web as a single medium, whether accessed on a PC or a smart phone. The creation of responsive sites is often one reflection of this inclination. In fact, effective media and marketing executives will recognize that smart phones create a distinct medium, with unique requirements and capabilities for consumer engagement. The firms populated by these executives will prosper as they design their mobile Web services according to the distinct needs and opportunities this new media presents.