The Current State of Mobile
To fully appreciate the importance of mobile in the global communications landscape, three recent statistics are highly illuminating. There are over 4.1 billion mobile phones currently in use globally. By comparison, there are approximately 1 billion personal computers in use globally. Equally impressive is that 74% of all electronic messages are now sent through a mobile device. This is a massive increase over last year’s 59% of all global electronic messages.
Though Canada lags behind the rest of the world when it comes to mobile phone penetration, some 72% of Canadians have a mobile phone (with numbers even higher in urban centres) and the total number of mobile phones in use is greater than the number of conventional land-lines. While Canada has a long way to go when compared to many European and Asian nations where mobile phone penetration is typically near or even exceeding 100%, impressive year over year growth in mobile penetration and increasing feature use shows that Canadians are mobilizing in ever-growing numbers.
In particular, Canadians have embraced text messaging (SMS) with over 77 million SMS sent daily according to CWTA.ca. Mobile internet and application use is also on the rise. The launch of Apple’s iPhone in Canada ushered in new levels of awareness around the potential of the mobile internet and early signs show it to be addictive upon discovery. Harris Decima’s study of Canadian attitudes towards mobile usage shows that adults who browse the mobile internet do so, on average, four times per day.
Encouragingly for the mobile industry, Canadians are wanting even more out of their phones. They are looking to sophisticated handsets (often referred to as ‘Smartphones’) as their devices of choice. According to a study by research firm TNS, “The increase in the breadth and leading-edge nature of demands appears to have occurred relatively quickly, in direct response to the well-publicized capabilities and lifestyle aspirations conveyed by the iPhone and similar devices.” The outcome of this consumer groundswell is the emergence of an audience equipped with media creation and consumption devices that are defining how they interact with each other and with the world around them.
First to capitalize on this shift, from a professional communications point of view, has been the marketing and advertising industry. Ever since consumers have been sending text messages there have been marketers looking for ways to reach this audience and get them to ‘buy-in’ to whatever is on offer. The real breakthrough moment for mobile in North America was text message voting being included in the popular television program American Idol, says Brady Murphy, founder and managing partner of Toronto-based mobile marketing firm Vortex Mobile. “In 2005, there were over 40 million text message votes for the season finale. This number surprised a lot of people and really opened marketers eyes to the fact that mobile was a viable channel to engage consumers…provided you can offer them something of value, something that they’re interested in,” adds Mr. Murphy.
Today, the majority of mobile marketing programs still include some sort of text messaging element. It’s by far the most widely used mobile feature and, as a result, will reach the widest consumer audience. The marketing and advertising community has also embraced more advanced forms of mobile communication. Many brands are launching mobile-optimized internet sites. There is a growing revenue stream for mobile advertising on publisher sites and portals such as Yahoo! and Microsoft’s MSN. The mobile application environment is punching above its weight in terms of awareness due to Apple’s iPhone and App Store and every major manufacturer is launching a similar storefront to sell downloadable applications to consumers. So where does the public relations community fit in?
One view is that the lines between marketing and public relations are blurring. Mary Sachs, U.S. Chair and Worldwide Director of Marketing Communications at Hill & Knowlton says that corporate marketing leaders are recognizing the link between brand and reputation. Discussing the modern, digitally savvy consumer, Ms. Sachs says, “These consumers and audiences can drive and talk about your reputation. They are actually in control of it, because they can shape what people think of it. That means they also impact brand. That’s the link. So this is another area where PR as a discipline can really support the brand-and where other disciplines aren’t as well positioned. Put simply: Marketers aren’t used to dealing with these audiences that inform reputation and brand-but PR sure is.” In this view, public relations practitioners need to start using more conventional ‘controlled’ media tactics in order to properly shepherd an organization’s reputation.
A second view would be that a channel like mobile offers opportunities for increasing the effectiveness of traditional public relations practices. Public relations is not so much being re-defined by emerging technologies and changes in consumer behaviour as being empowered with more tools to achieve its objectives. Jennifer Wasley, a senior consultant at Porter Novelli in Toronto seems to support this latter perspective when she says that, “Every touch point with your brand must be consistent. Mobile gives us another opportunity to communicate with stakeholders because, at this point, you need to be available ‘on demand’ wherever and whenever consumers may want to talk with you. If you’re not communicating consistently, consumers will call your brand out on it. This applies day to day but becomes even more critical when you consider your brand’s reputation.“
This article is not the place to argue for one view or the other. Both have merit and how new technology and communication channels are used will likely depend on the organization, agency or individual practitioner. Regardless, it is important for public relations practitioners to understand mobile as both a technology and content platform and the implications their business.
Up Next: Discussing mobile as a technology platform and its implications for PR.
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