Will Harris: Embracing the mobile future

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Let’s start with the basics. Where and how does a marketer even get started in mobile?

Mobile in emerging markets is a huge opportunity. We’re entering the Asian century. Think about places like Indonesia and Vietnam, Thailand, to a certain extent, Bangladesh, and Malaysia. Many of these markets have invested in good mobile coverage ahead of fixed infrastructure. They have completely skipped fixed line phones; their first experience on the Internet is through their phones. So the people in Indonesia, for example, are way ahead in their adoption of Facebook and Twitter through mobile. Social networking for them and elsewhere in Asia has become what text messaging was to the Europeans or what instant messaging was to the Americans.

So mobile is their native tongue. What does that mean for marketers?

It means that if you land an exciting campaign in that part of the world that appeals to the right kind of people, it catches fire and spreads very, very quickly. In the developed markets, we’re only at the foothills of mobile. Now, everyone has to build an app, which is really the most elementary form of marketing. What you’ll see in the next five years is a much more sophisticated, much more meaningful and granular form of micro-marketing where people talk to consumers using the mobile devices, sending messages that only make sense for an individual consumer, and I believe it’s going to take root in Asia.

How does a marketer get started down that road?

The first thing to remember is that it’s important to take advantage of the measurability of the medium. A good way to start is by deploying different messages or particular offers to different parts of the country to see what happens to traffic patterns or sales data and then course-correct as you go. This sort of real-time marketing is the most exciting aspect of marketing, in my view. You can develop a really, really powerful new way of thinking. You can use your Foursquare check-ins and RFID to identify where someone is in relation to another store. That shift in capabilities and mindset opens fantastic possibilities.

For example?

Think about the power that comes with knowing when someone is exiting a store and walking past a theater or a restaurant. There are a few seats available, and there’s an immediate opportunity to draw them in for dinner or a film or both. I don’t believe anyone has fully realized this sort of possibility yet, but it’s hovering around the corner. When you get to that source of intelligence, the whole game changes because no longer are you pushing out thousands or hundreds of messages to the community in hope that someone will hear you.

What makes you so sure people will accept this kind of marketing?

Look at how mobile has so radically and quickly changed our lives already. You can take a photo of a check and it goes into your bank account. Mobile is just mopping up things that were tiring and boring and making them phenomenal. As a result, our mobile devices have become indispensable and our expectations of how we communicate – and how we’re communicated to – are changing dramatically. For instance, I’ve allowed Delta to get into my phone to display a boarding pass. Would I let them play me a promotional video about their new airport terminal in exchange for some type of credit? Absolutely. Delta knows I fly from London to New York every other week. They know I’m flying in the big seats at the front of the plane. When I pull out my mobile at check-in, why not offer me a Starbucks voucher for a decaf at the other side of security?

You make it sound simple, but implementing that scenario would involve managing a lot of moving parts and partners. Any advice on how to do that?

You’re right. It requires a lot of conversations with Starbucks, with the phone company, with the IT people. In fact it’s quite a complicated process. Honestly, many marketers will shy away from following this path because once you have to get someone in finance and legal and billing involved—not to mention Starbucks—well, it’s just easier to let someone else go first. But I think it’s up to the CMO to pick a couple of interesting, innovative projects. And you need to insist that they get done in an ambitious timeframe, like a year, because if you’re the CMO of Delta, well, you never know if that project is going to become the difference between a valuable customer flying Delta or not flying Delta. So yes, it’s difficult, undoubtedly, especially for anyone looking for a magic wand that will stitch the infrastructure together. That’s not going to happen. It has to be glued together with a ball of string.

What’s your advice for working with the IT department?

The most important advice I can give is to have a basic understanding of technology. Certainly I’m into technology. When I’m having conversations with technical people about platforms or billing systems or various other interactions, I at least have the first idea what they’re talking about. If you’re not interested in technology and you’re not able to speak their language, then a tough conversation becomes even more difficult. Those guys have a list of 100 things to do and 100 things to be fixed today and they run at a furious pace. So you either have to get in line or you find a good business reason for why what you want to do is important and therefore jump the queue. Working with IT requires planning. In marketing, you can improvise and make stuff up. That’s part of the fun of the job. In IT you can’t really do that. It’s a much more controlled, methodical process.

What common mistakes would you suggest watching out for?

It’s a bit presumptuous for me to say what’s a mistake, but I think there are some golden rules to remember. They apply to marketing generally, but they’re exaggerated in mobile. The first one would be: Don’t invade personal space. You don’t want to cross that line. You also need an understanding of the local culture and what is acceptable in various markets. If you’re a CMO trying to gain a foothold in Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand, you need to realize that each of those countries has particular cultural dynamics and norms that affect behavior. So don’t think of those countries as a region; they’re a collection of co- located nation states. It’s as though you were building a European marketing strategy. You would approach the Spaniards differently from the Italians or the Brits or the Germans. Except here it’s even more important, because if you get it wrong, your mistake gets sent around at 100 miles an hour. Having said that, you must try things or you’ll never get anywhere. My best advice is to get on with it; you’ve got a lot of learning to do. We all do. People were advertising on television before everyone had televisions. Don’t wait until everyone else is already there or you’ll be playing catch up.

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