To understand mobile marketing, you need to get under its skin

There is no doubt left that we are now, nearly all of us, addicted to our mobile phones. It’s estimated that we interact with our little slabs of metal and glass between 40 and 80 times a day – and that’s just an average. The real figure for many of us is probably much higher.

It’s easy when we think of addiction in general to imagine it as something internalised within a person – something predisposed, out of our control, a mix of nature and nurture. But actually there is a massive social aspect to addiction; the chance of a nicotine addict making a full recovery is often most dependent on the social circles he or she mixes with while trying to quit.

I believe that we are addicted to our mobiles because they are inherently social vehicles. We make our purchasing decisions – from which handset to buy, to which apps we pay for — based more often than not on influencers issued by our peers, digital periodicals we respect, or people we admire (be it Bond or Bieber). Too many conversations about mobile marketing focus on the individual needs of brands and customers. Mobile is a social medium, and should never be seen by advertisers as merely another channel from which to sell to consumers.

A few months ago, in the subways of New York, I saw a poster advertising bed bug treatments. The prominent billboard invited the passerby to scan a QR code for more information. Who in their right mind would want to be seen doing that, in public? Brands need to think harder about the context in which they employ mobile marketing tactics, about when the content can be standardised – and when it should be customised. It should never be about using the technology because its simply there. There are established prescriptions for success that can be followed and are encouraged.

But with all prescriptions, there is room for misuse, abuse, or minimally, creative application. Our mobile devices are becoming extensions of our human social circles. They are performing almost human roles. For example, mobiles are the new nanny. Give a crying child a kid-friendly app to play with and he is (usually) instantly calmed and appeased. Our mobile phones can even control our homes remotely: turn the heating on or off, switch on the porch light, or activate our PVR so we don’t miss the Christmas episode of Downton.

For advertisers and marketers, the trick is to work out how to assess the human-like roles our phones are playing and learn to monetise them, but in a non-invasive way. This isn’t going to be an easy task – given that, for example, our devices are rapidly turning into mobile wallets, and the last thing any of us want is a brand marketer popping up uninvited between our Barclays’ Card and the Marks & Spencer gift card mum granted us for the holidays. We’re talking about finding ways to reach the two most intimate objects that we have in our possession – our mobiles and our purses — and this must be done with intention, deliberation and ideally, with respect.

What helps the process is that mobile interfaces are becoming more intuitive by the second – to the point where they understand where we are and what we need at a particular moment. To give a straightforward example, many smartphones have the capability to sense when we are in a darkened room, and adjust its brightness setting accordingly.

On a more sophisticated level, interfaces are beginning to understand and respond to human gestures. I spoke on a recent panel during Internet Week here in London and Stuart Miles, founder of Pocket-Lint, shared two relevant points. He mentioned how users of the upcoming BlackBerry 10 operating system, for example, can access a feature called ‘Hub’ – where with a right-angled hand gesture users can ‘peek’ at their email and other message notifications.

He also focused on a recent iPhone app ‘Clear’, which had technology writers in a frenzy because the entire app is button free. Users control the app – which is like a personal organiser for their phone – with swipes, pinches and pulls – all now considered common human gestures used to control our mobiles.

Salient points that further confirm that mobile – and therefore mobile marketing – should be approached as a social science. Only then will brands be able to reap tangible rewards from this new untethered reality.

Doug Grinspan, Mobile Publisher – Global Solutions, Say Media