This article by Caitlin Kaluza was published in the Fall 2013 edition of The Public Relations Strategist. It is posted here with permission.
October 22, 2013
Facebook Chair and CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently joined other tech innovators to launch a bold plan to connect every person around the world via the Internet. An estimated 5 billion people — approximately two-thirds of the world’s population — lack Internet access today.
If these efforts have any chance of succeeding, then mobile devices will be a core part of the plan. The explosion of mobile audiences — not only in emerging nations, but also in developed economies such as those in North America, Europe, and Asia — is the most important communications trend in a generation.
Just as the advent of the Internet browser and email challenged PR practitioners 20 years ago, today PR pros must also quickly adapt to and embrace the changes that mobile has in store — many of which are still evolving.
Mobile’s recent growth
Data from a variety of sources indicate that close to 80 percent of Americans currently have Internet access in their homes. From 2008 to 2012, that number increased by 18 million, a year-over-year increase of only 3 percent. Forrester expects that consumer PC penetration has peaked and is starting a slow decline.
By contrast, smartphone penetration in America, which is lower — about 55 percent of the total U.S. population — is rapidly growing at nearly 50 percent year-over-year. Unlike PCs, smartphones and tablets don’t require dedicated space in the home and can link to high-speed wireless or Wi-Fi networks, meaning that they are not beholden to the availability of hardwiring broadband connections, which do not reach many households.
The latest numbers from the online statistics portal Statista reveal that mobile devices accounted for 17.4 percent of Web traffic worldwide in July 2013, which was a 57 percent jump from a year ago. Mobile devices accounted for more than 20 percent of traffic to websites powered by Tendenci content management software during the first half of 2013. Different types of organizations are seeing different user behavior:
- Nearly 30 percent of traffic to business-to-consumer websites is mobile — up 55 percent year-over-year.
- Nonprofit organizations saw a 61 percent increase in mobile traffic, with mobile users making up nearly 20 percent of website traffic. This includes one association customer who saw an increase in mobile traffic of more than 500 percent.
- Business-to-business websites, which people most often access from the workplace, saw the lowest percentage of mobile traffic at 13 percent — but that was a 62 percent increase from the previous year.
I expect this trend to continue, which presents challenges for organizations that fail to accommodate the growing demands of mobile. Websites that frustrate mobile users not only miss the opportunity to connect but also risk lending a negative brand impression.
The second screen
App analytics firm Flurry recently found that people spend 23 percent of their time on mobile devices — second only to TV. Most of that time (32 percent) is spent playing games. Facebook and other social networking apps take up 24 percent of the time, and mobile users spend about 20 percent of their time browsing the Web.
As recently as early 2012, conventional wisdom was that mobile users were “on the go” and that they typically sought information related to their particular circumstances at that moment — with an emphasis on location. They didn’t need all of your information, just the information tailored to their needs, such as directions, hours of operation, phone number, and email address.
While people are still connecting wherever and whenever they please, mobile users today are far more likely to connect while sitting on the couch. This is mostly driven by the rapid adoption of tablets, which have become a second screen in the living room.
According to Nielsen, 85 percent of U.S. tablet owners use their devices while watching TV, and they spend 30 percent of their total tablet time using the device while watching TV. These mobile users expect their entire online experience to be as seamless and enjoyable as using social networking tools, games or other apps. If they visit a website, then they expect to view the entire site, not just a small slice of it that is tailored to mobile users.
If a website takes more than a few seconds to load, has elements that are not supported by their operating system (such as Adobe Flash), or is not formatted to the size of their screen, then users will leave and may never come back.
Beyond the text
All of us are familiar with person-to-person (P2P) mobile messaging (or texting) and probably have the calloused thumbs to prove it. But there are significant developments that every PR practitioner needs to understand:
- Person-to-application (P2A) messaging: This type of communication typically involves community engagement initiatives, enabling mobile users to opt to receive future texts, enter sweepstakes or participate in decision-making by voting or responding to a question.
- Application-to-person (A2P) SMS: These are messages sent by a company or organization to subscribers who have opted in. With text message open rates at 98 percent, according to Frost & Sullivan, SMS is an excellent way to gain people’s attention — but there are risks. Typically, these messages must be highly valuable to the recipient and have at least some degree of urgency. If they don’t, then expect people to opt-out.
- Over-the-top (OTT) apps: An entire category of apps has emerged to solve the problem of high costs associated with domestic and international voice and messaging. Tools such as Apple’s iMessage, WhatsApp Messenger, and dozens of others use the Web to deliver text and voice messages, which not only saves on plan minutes but can also make a cell plan unnecessary when Wi-Fi is available. According to a report by Informa, messages sent using OTT services now outnumber SMS texts, with up to 50 billion daily chat messages anticipated by 2014.
Implications for public relations
If you haven’t yet brainstormed how to connect with and engage mobile users, then now is the time to start.
- Review your website traffic: Chances are that your data will reflect a rapid increase in the percentage of mobile users attempting to access your website. If more than 15 percent of your traffic is coming from mobile devices, then optimize your website for mobile users.
The next time you refresh your website, incorporate responsive Web design, which automatically adapts the look and functionality of your site to the size of the screen accessing it. If you launched a new website within the past year without responsive design, then do yourself a big favor and implement a separate mobile site as a short-term solution.
- Consider the value of Google results: PR practitioners who value mobile search visibility should understand that Google has started to reward mobile-optimized content in mobile search results. On the flip side, Google has begun penalizing sites that are not mobile-friendly.
- Know the pros and cons of apps: Flurry found that 80 percent of the time people spend on mobile devices is on using apps. However, 26 percent of apps are downloaded and used just once. So before you hire a team of developers, consider how compelling your app will be and how you plan to cut through the clutter to promote it. Consider all the different platforms you’ll need to support, too. Not all apps can be Words with Friends or Spotify.
- Understand that fun can be powerful: Despite that previous warning, consider that mobile users spend 15 times as many hours playing games than consuming news. PR teams need to embrace the concept of gamification. Tap into the inherent human desire to achieve and compete. Just as Foursquare uses badges, points, and titles to reward check-ins, companies are having success using games to incentivize and test message delivery and retention in employee training programs, marketing efforts, and public education campaigns.
Public relations has been navigating a series of disruptions. The adoption of PCs, fax machines, email, the Web, and social media has radically changed how we operate and interact with the communities our success depends on. Likewise, mobile is revolutionizing our profession.
Zuckerberg’s efforts to connect every human, and mind-boggling experiments such as Google Glass, make it clear that we’re just beginning to penetrate the surface of the technological advances and behavior changes that mobile will make possible for generations to come.