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By: Katjusa Cisar
Now that the majority of U.S. mobile users have smartphones, marketers are under increasing pressure to engage potential consumers digitally and find ways to help them navigate the avalanche of information available at the flick of a fingertip.
Take as an example an app feature that Atlanta-based The Weather Co. is tweaking. The company, which operates The Weather Channel and weather.com, is transforming the formerly one-way conduit of the traditional weather forecast.
Say the current forecast in the Atlanta region calls for a 26 percent chance of rain but shows no rain falling yet. The Weather Channel app asks if this is accurate, based on what the user is experiencing.
Cameron Clayton, president of the digital division, said in this scenario he'd walk outside his home, maybe see that it's actually raining, and then tell the app that.
"I basically crowdsourced the weather forecast from my location in Marietta," he said. What was once a one-way dialogue is now a two-way dialogue. Eventually he'd like The Weather Co. to facilitate a three-way dialogue by connecting app users to each other.
"It's a big mind shift," he said, and it requires that the company view weather as "dynamic content," think in terms of providing more than a utility service and give reasons for people to use this service even when it's 75 degrees and sunny.
A study conducted in late 2011 by the Advertising Research Foundation found social media is expanding the range of people we trust to make consumer decisions and that shoppers are always "on" due to their near-constant digital interaction with brands.
"People seem more and more comfortable with trusting information from people they don't even know," said Don Gloeckler, chief research officer at the foundation. The study also revealed that the ease of accessing vast quantities of information online leads consumers "into a state of analysis paralysis."
But the lessons from the study aren't too different from time-tested marketing wisdom: The consumer is boss, so know your consumer.
"That honestly hasn't changed since the days of Ivory soap," said Gloeckler, who did market research at Procter & Gamble, Ivory's parent, for more than three decades. What's different now is the number of mediums people use to access information and the challenge of keeping messages consistent across mediums. It's as important as ever not to bog down people with extraneous information or make them do their own digging, he said.
The Home Depot Inc. has found success with a smartphone app, rolled out in August, that targets professional contractors, installers and remodelers. Pros make up only 3 percent of the store's customers but account for more than 35 percent of total sales, the company reports.
The Pro app is focused on solving what J.T. Rieves, vice president of pro business, describes as the top demand from pros: "Get me in and out of your store fast."
Home Depot has a whole team focused on making sure the store is an "everyday low-price leader" - a task that requires quick reaction time with the proliferation of smartphone technology - but Rieves said price isn't as important to pros as speed and ease of shopping. The Pro app's features include a store finder and ways to view and locate inventory, take measurements, and make and track purchases.
This opens up a wealth of data on each individual user - data Home Depot can then use to tailor the shopper's experience and start a conversation, Rieves said.
Making purchases directly with a smartphone or tablet is the frontier of mobile marketing, but consumers have so far been slow on the uptake, even though a Strategy Analytics study found 67 percent of smartphone owners use the devices for shopping.
"It's not something that consumers are used to. It'll take a while to build trust," said David MacQueen, executive director of apps and media at Strategy Analytics.
MacQueen's colleague Christopher Dodge, associate director of the wireless media lab for user experience, said some retailers are partnering with mobile payment apps to encourage repeat visits and continued use of the app with incentives such as a $10 credit when the user spends $100.
The more features a company can offer in a single app, the better.
"Payment on its own is not a winner," MacQueen said. A holistic approach that includes payment, coupons, loyalty cards, maps, routing, current deals and more "adds both value and utility."
Chick-fil-A Inc. is currently testing features for an app with just this kind of holistic approach, including mobile ordering. Jon Bridges, who oversees customer experience at the restaurant, compares it to the efficiencies Delta Air Lines Inc. developed with checking in at the airport.
"Think about Delta check-in. The counter is your last resort," he said.
Chick-fil-A is testing mobile ordering at select stores. At one mall location, the restaurant even has a parking spot reserved outside for mobile orders.
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