At a recent all things digital conference we hosted for Purina, Jon Steinberg, president & COO of Buzzfeed, was asked: "Every year, people say 'This is going to be the year of mobile,' and it never pans out. What are your thoughts on mobile and will this year be the year of mobile?"
Steinberg's surprising response: "Last year was the year of mobile."
He cited a few facts to support his claim, most notably that 32 percent of Buzzfeed's unique visitors arrive via a mobile device. If that doesn't impress, Mashable cites a HighTable infographic that claims by 2015, usage of the mobile web will outpace desktop usage.
Given this, marketers clearly see mobile as an important marketing medium with budgets and KPIs reflecting that, right? Not exactly.
Currently, the average mobile advertising budget for a major brand campaign is $75,000-$100,000, a fraction of the typical $3 million to $10 million total campaign budget including media and production. When looking at how the average mobile ad dollar is distributed, the norm is 49 percent to search, 33 percent to display, 12 percent to SMS/MMS (or, as I think of it, "spam") and 6 percent to video.
So, marketers to date have put a stunning 82 percent of their mobile budgets into low quality, direct-response formats that do little or no brand building - on the platform that is expected to become the leading digital platform in three short years.
When brands do go above and beyond the strategies reflected in the above distribution, their initiatives are typically "experimental" and largely include rich display ads and apps. The folks who put coin into mobads, iAds or similar mobile banners find most users see these types of advertising as at best annoyances, and, at worst data leeches. And the folks who invest in branded mobile apps find themselves competing with commercial app producers -- of which there are many great ones -- and having to advertise the advertising, or market the hell out of the app, to overcome the considerable download barrier. Additionally, even successful apps are often seen as tactical or lacking scale.
Truth is mobile marketing has become very frustrating for these reasons and most brands are still simply dabbling in it. At best, it has been dismissed as a cute, below the line medium well-suited for the occasional shiny object that can maybe earn some innovation points and an award or two. At worst, it is seen as a waste of money.
But those who dismiss it are missing out on an opportunity. The experiments brands have undertaken show not that mobile marketing doesn't work, but that mobile apps, banners and other direct-response, brand-weak tactics don't work.
The good news is that the keys to success lay in some existing digital marketing fundamentals with which marketers are already familiar.
1. Look at what users are doing. In mobile, that's consuming newsfeeds. Thirty-five percent of mobile web users use their phone for social networking. In fact, a recent Comscore study found that 12 percent of mobile device time was spent on Facebook -- somewhere north of 440 minutes per month.
Add to that the time mobile users are spending on other social networks -- namely Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest- and you've got some serious attention being paid to newsfeed-based content. Brands need to take advantage of this by publishing relevant, snackable content to these platforms. Facebook and Twitter newsfeeds are ideal for both mobile platforms and behaviors, so brands have to crack this nut.
2. Find white space -- not crowded space. iOS has become one of the top gaming platforms around -- will the path to engaging with mobile users be creating a branded game, an expensive and difficult undertaking? Not really. Instead, brands need to look at users' mobile behavior and identify needs that are unmet that match up with what their brand can provide.
3. Be valuable. Value means lots of things. Sure, discounts and expensive premiums are valuable, but so is a humorous photo, an amazing, emotional video or an entertaining link. In fact, things that can be shared and make the user look cooler, more interesting or more in-the-know become social currency and are very valuable in the social space. Brands should look to create content and apps that are indispensable to mobile users, if only for a few seconds.
4. Don't expect direct response. This is a fundamental that is still not well understood in digital marketing overall, let alone mobile. Truth is, just because a user can link directly from a banner ad to an ecommerce site to buy something doesn't mean that direct response journey is the optimal use of digital marketing.
In fact, digital marketing's strengths go far beyond traffic driving. Yet we continue to measure advertising effectiveness in CTRs. The same is true of mobile. Mobile marketing can be effective in awareness, consideration, understanding, conversion and loyalty. Not just in driving traffic. And it can do all of these things without ever using an ad. Marketers need to understand the breadth and depth of the mobile ecosystem and find ways for their brand to live within it that will be authentic and natural to users.
This sounds overwhelming, but it is simpler than it seems. Brands currently enjoy the benefit of very well lubricated and largely free platforms that have huge user bases and are visited regularly on mobile devices by people they are likely targeting. Of course I'm talking about social networks. To really make good on the promise of mobile, brands simply need to develop a content strategy focused on short, valuable content, and then deploy it in a way that balances scale and engagement.
Obviously this takes some thinking, but the returns on such an entry into mobile will typically be higher and the risk much lower. Brands should still create fun apps, mobile websites and even occasional mobile ads -- but only with the right objectives in mind and as part of a mix with smart content marketing.
If a brand is looking to test mobile -- or even exploit what still might be an opportunity to create an early-mover advantage -- doubling down on smarter social media content programming is the right way to do it.
Hey, we might even finally usher in the year of mobile. Again.