In an Ever-Changing Digital World, Marketers Find Stability Tracking Mobile Trends

Understanding its nuances will offer brands insight into consumer behaviors

In a world where audiences are always available through their phones, marketers have an entirely new arena to take advantage of. Getty Images
Headshot of Scott Swanson

Not all that long ago, if you pictured a commuter on a train platform, they would likely be reading a newspaper or sipping coffee. Flash forward to now and the same commuter might be planning a party, test driving a car or fighting for survival in a zombie apocalypse—all from their mobile device. Thanks to smartphones, consumers are carving out new and sometimes surprising behavior patterns. Along the way, they’re putting brands to the test.

Marketing strategies have historically relied on some very basic assumptions of consumer behavior. For example, a person in a car will most likely be facing forward—toward a billboard. At a grocery store checkout, idle shoppers browse impulse buys. And on that train platform, rail advertising posters or the daily paper served as reliable points of winning attention. Marketing has never been easy, but because the mix was defined from a fixed set of ingredients, choice—and therefore risk—was limited.

That’s all changed now that smartphone screens have captured our attention, but that doesn’t mean everyone is fluent in new behavior patterns. Marketing is a large ship that doesn’t make fast turns, and simply targeting mobile consumers doesn’t address fundamental shifts in behavior. To influence in the modern landscape, brands need to embrace some basic new truths.

Everyone is doing everything and anything, everywhere

According to an omnichannel report from Square and BigCommerce, 67 percent of millennials shop in bed, 32 percent shop in a car (let’s hope they’re passengers, not drivers) and 33 percent shop in the bathroom. Yes. You got that right. Gen X has similar habits, with 50 percent shopping in bed and 31 percent shopping in the office. Even baby boomers (28 percent) bring their mobile devices to bed. Today, everyone is doing everything everywhere, and the flexibility can be liberating.

For marketers, though, this means that location offers less context into the consumer experience—an interesting plot twist since location targeting was one of the great promises of mobile. In an era when people are shopping on their devices inside a retail store, engaging with dating apps while on a date and taking selfies at funerals, location has become just another variable that contributes to—but does not fully inform—consumer behavior. This means marketers need a better way to evaluate their engagement opportunities. That’s where “receptivity” comes in.

Receptivity insight is essential

Back in the day, ads were delivered without consideration of timing; marketing moments were already established and limited because, of course, consumers weren’t constantly accessible. Today, however, marketers who factor audience receptivity into targeting have a clear advantage. In an always-on world, knowing when to—or not to—engage a consumer can significantly boost the impact of a campaign. Additionally, understanding the nuances of receptivity is essential to optimization. For example, there’s a common assumption that if rich media is supported, then it should be delivered. But if the consumer would be more receptive to a simple (and more cost-effective) display advertisement, why not deliver that experience instead?

Marketing is a large ship that doesn’t make fast turns, and simply targeting mobile consumers doesn’t address fundamental shifts in behavior.

Receptivity is relatively new to targeting, so there’s still an opportunity for education and surprises. For instance, you might not consider a person in a crowded train as receptive, but a study documented in Anindya Ghose’s book Tap: Unlocking the Mobile Economy revealed that “the purchase rates went up 45 percent when we went from two people per square meter to five people per square meter.” Ghose attributes this phenomenon to crowd anxiety—the more someone needs an escape, the more likely they are to be responsive to their screen. It’s an insight that begs the questions: What other opportunities set the stage for this kind of boost in impact, and how do you find them?

Machine learning works—if you know how to use it

It’s easy to take pause at “machine learning” at a time when it’s so often invoked to create the illusion of sophistication. But the reality is that there are practical applications that can improve the value of your data. You just need to look past the buzz to get there.

For marketers, machine learning presents an opportunity to better understand the mindset of the mobile consumer. At a time when mobile and media experiences are highly personalized, machine learning makes it possible to analyze the full set of mobile data signals, along with first- and third-party consumer insights, in order to help predict receptivity to a brand’s message.

There is a lot happening behind the curtain—large volumes of data running through complex algorithms to draw actionable and constantly-optimized conclusions—but the end game is simple. Machine learning helps you identify patterns in behavior that you simply can’t uncover in a pivot table. And, importantly, it’s smart enough to adapt to the continuous changes in consumer behavior. Which leads us to the next fundamental truth…

Change is the one constant

Mobile devices may feel integrated into our lives, but how and where we use them continues to evolve as we shift more of our entertainment and tasks to the small screen. At the same time, we’ve yet to see the full impact of rising tech like smart homes, automated cars and drone delivery. That’s why the most fundamental truth of marketing today is that change is the only constant.

While this puts enormous pressure on marketers, it also has a positive impact in that it drives the case for strategies, technology and data frameworks—like receptivity—that can evolve with consumer needs and expectations.

To be influential today, you can’t approach marketing with the predictable serenity of yesterday’s coffee-sipping commuter. You need to be more like the zombie-apocalypse-fighting commuter: always ready for whatever surprises may be around the next corner and willing to develop new strategies to win.

@swanson_scott Scott Swanson is CEO of Aki Technologies.