How much is a brand worth to a company? For most small companies it means virtually everything. They are one and all with the brand. Bigger companies often pour massive amounts into building and maintaining brands. According to David Ogilvy, the father of modern advertising, such brand positioning makes or breaks the brand. Something breaks, though, when it comes to mobile.
Companies and organizations that make such huge investments in their brand suddenly realize their website, often times their core offering, looks bad or does not work on mobile devices. In a world where budgets are almost always tight, they look to do something out of nothing to address this problem. They want to be available to the growing smartphones and tablet-using masses. They need something.
Something like a mobile version of the website that drive wads of new business in. That something will work like the existing web application with minimal changes to the existing infrastructure. This something should be cheap enough to look good on the financials and make management happy by launching in as short a time as possible. That something will hopefully not rankle the feathers of the folks in IT. Meetings will thus ensue to initiate the search for options on how to bring that mobile something to life.
The first direction, possibly the priciest, is to rewrite the user interface of the existing site or application using responsive design principles (HTML5 is the term frequently used). That way no matter what browsers and devices are used to access the site, the site will scale its user experience and look good. Aside from its cost, this approach is also likely to be time consuming and risky. The company will be messing with existing, stable, working technology that may be mission critical. The required testing and verification processes will therefore take time, cost money and, well, we don’t want that.
The second direction would be to build or commission a new mobile web application on top, or alongside, the existing core application. Instead of seeing the regular, or desktop, website, mobile device users will be shown this dedicated version. This approach will likely take a fair amount of time, and still cost a substantial amount of money. The site would look great and work quite well. Again, taking a while and still requiring a noticeable financial investment are not what we are looking to do.
The third option is UsableNet, NetBiscuits and services like them. UsableNet is a great fit for brands who want something mobile relatively quickly and without overspending. Instead of developing a new website, UsableNet acts as the go-between on your application’s behalf. Suppose you are Amtrak and want to give mobile users the ability to reserve tickets to your trains. You start out by letting UsableNet take on all mobile traffic to your website. UsableNet then builds the webpage and also connects, or integrates, with your existing application to make the functionality happen. If you’re Amtrak, that means your reservation system. And after some integration work, voila, you have a mobile something.
Now don’t get me wrong. Doing all that is definitely impressive. UsableNet is also nothing else but usable on virtually all connected devices, even those 5 year-old flip phones with a browser. Pretty nifty. And IT is happy because they do not need to deal as much with deviating from the status quo or take on a lot of risk. The crown jewel of an app the company depends on remains safely untouched.
There is just one problem with UsableNet. It looks really, dramatically, plain. Some would even venture off to say it looks quite awful. The desire to support as many mobile devices as humanly possible leads to compromises in looks, sacrifices in user experience. This would be especially jarring to smartphone users who are more accustomed to polished experiences.
|It's just a room for a night.|
And when things do not look too good, when the application may be a bit slow or even clunky to use at times, brand suffers. The brand’s constituency – users, clients, consumers, partners – all have expectations that arise from the brand. The company invested in making those constituents believe in brand values. Does such a UsableNet experience really deliver on those values? Is having a mobile site that is slow and sometimes aggravating, one that is just unpleasant to use, better than not having one at all?
I would contend that no.
While some constituents may bear with the clunky UsableNet experiences, others will just go elsewhere. Worse, they may even get angry in the process. Instead of booking with a mobile device on Amtrak’s UsableNet version, they will go to a mobile-friendly booking site to reserve. This will cost Amtrak commission, a cost borne out of the need to have a something out there. To others, especially in areas like luxury where brand building investments are considerable, a decision to go with UsableNet can be even more harmful.
Tablets make matters even worse for those who make such a compromise. Tablet users often prefer to see the desktop site. Our ‘something mobile’ works on flip phones but all too often ends up making tablet users give up and feel the brand is just cheap. Those users will head on over to the competition or to an upstart capitalizing on the opportunity to do mobile right. Nothing is clearly becoming a better choice.
Suppose you skip UsableNet. What about the flip-phone wielding masses? Doing nothing may leave them out in the cold. That may be true but is increasingly no longer the case for a growing number of brands. The mobile market is experiencing a rapid bifurcation between Internet-enabled and voice-oriented devices. Smartphones are exploding in popularity while a plain mobile phones remain popular.
Devices known as ‘texting phones’, as well as RIM’s Blackberrys, are ceding market share. They are being replaced by lower-end Internet-enabled alternatives. Internet-enabled Android smartphones offered by prepaid carriers like Cricket and MetroPCS lead this trend along with the older, more affordable iPhone variants. This new low-end has capable browsers that can render most mainstream, or desktop, experiences.
Consumers with voice-oriented devices – the flip and candy bar phones – will not normally look to access the web on their devices. There will be less of an expectation to have web browsing capability on the devices’ small screens. Users will also look to minimize costs and as such, not have a data plan associated with their device. The bottom line is that the number of users who access the web on such devices will be minimal. The conclusion: UsableNet’s rich device compatibility list no longer matters. You will not leave anyone ‘outside’ by not leveraging UsableNet.
Usablenet is quite aware of this situation. In the last year the company made strides to make its mobile web solutions more brand aware. American Airlines, Delta and US Airways – all clients – have now substantially different websites on the Usablenet platform. Other brands, though, appear to be more at ease with one size fits all. Hotel chains Hilton, Starwood and Fairmont are just the same site experience. It’s a room you rent, right? How about clothing brands like PacSun and Garnett Hill? The same.
So what direction should one adopt in looking to get something mobile out there? Accept the reality that it will most often cost a bit more in time and money to accomplish. You can finally take a sigh of relief and stop caring about devices with limited capability and aim high. Smartphone users are worth the investment. If you build it and they find it (i.e. invest in traffic generation), they will come and they will spend. It’s a fact. And if you cannot do it right now, maybe do nothing. Taking the middle ground, the compromise may just end up hurting your brand more than helping it.
Tags: .mobi, American Airlines, android, Blackberry, brand image, branding, David Ogilvy, Delta, desktop site, html5, ios, iPad, iphone, it strategy, lower-end Internet-enabled alternatives, mobile, mobile devices, Mobile Internet, Mobile Phone, mobile strategy, Mobile Web, mobile web application, mobile web solutions, smartphone, smartphones, tablet, US Airways, usablenet, web application, web browsing capability