Sometimes it’s hard to believe that the smartphone is - give or take - a mere 10 years old. So embedded has the modern mobile phone become in our lives that it feels almost impossible to imagine life without it. And don’t take my word for that, I read recently that a full third of UK residents would rather have their car stolen than lose their smartphone.

Just a moment’s reflection is all it takes to remind us how extraordinarily powerful the smartphone is, and how incredibly useful it can be. Sure, it can waste a lot of time too, but the ability to take it out of the pocket (some 150 times a day) and find our way, arrange a meeting, hail a cab or order in some groceries is genuinely liberating. The smartphone can be considered an unambiguously good thing, until….

Marketing Spoils Everything

Here’s the thing about marketing. Marketers love talking to people and getting them to buy things. We can talk fancy all day long but ultimately that’s what is going on. And how convenient that pretty much 100% of the people marketers want to sell to have decided to carry around a digital device in their pocket! What better way to talk to people and get them to buy things!

The smartphone represents a wonderful opportunity for all of us in the marketing business, because it is a personal device that is always with the consumer. It also represents a terrible danger for the same people - because it is a personal device that is always with the consumer.

Think about it. We reach for our phones when we want to get something done, even if that thing is just consume a little content and waste a little time (that’s why, incidentally, in many cases the competitor for a game isn’t another game - it’s a social media platform or publication). In that task-focused environment, marketers would want to be very, very careful about introducing their brand into the conversation.

We should be honest with ourselves. Marketers have an amazing ability to spoil everything. And whilst that might be tolerated on old-school broadcast media such as television, in the mobile environment, where the consumer engages on their own terms - it isn’t good enough. At best your campaigns will be ineffective. Somewhere in the middle you are teaching 99% of your audience to ignore you. At worst, you are dealing with deleted apps annoyed potential customers. As marketers, we have to do better.

Mobile Personalization To The Rescue

At this point I’d like to step back and think about the consequences for brands of the new mobile reality. In a sense, for many organizations there is a double bind at play. On the one hand, our customers are on mobile, and in the mobile app, and in a way that typically reduces traffic to more traditional channels. But on the other, they are less tolerant than ever of communications and campaigns that interrupt and irritate, because as we noted above mobile is task-driven medium that puts power in the hands of the consumer.

So what’s the solution? Simply put, it is to offer relevant, helpful experiences and services, and do so when the customer needs them. Easy to say, harder to do - and requires unlearning an awful lot of what we learned at marketing school.

But the necessary first step is relatively uncontroversial: personalization. Whether we are talking about the campaigns we send or the app experience itself, delivering something unique to the individual is the bedrock of smart, effective mobile marketing. The rest of this blog piece will look in more detail at what that might look like in practical terms, but first - a word about listening.

Why All Good Conversations Start With Listening

All of us, and marketers in particular, love to talk. But when human beings open our mouths in the real world, most of us (there are honorable exceptions) usually do so based on not just what our conversation partner has just said, but also influenced by all our previous interactions with that individual. It's like magic.

Marketers need to aspire to that state, and to do so requires listening. In the context of mobile, that means having an intimate knowledge of user behavior on both mobile and indeed any other relevant channels, and that knowledge comes from the recording and storing of events. Some Swrve customers send us billions of events every day - from a single app. Each of those events can potentially tell us something important about each of the individuals we want to build a relationship with.

But that can only happen if we take the time to study, read, analyze and act on that data. That sounds obvious, but it is surprising how many organizations collect huge amounts of data and don’t make proper use of it. Instead it might be used to satisfy idle curiosity or dusted off when somebody needs to win an argument.

To personalize - and communicate - effectively, that won’t be good enough. It is essential to collect and interrogate data, and be able to act on an up-to-the-minute understanding of each individual you want to build a relationship with, and whose behavior you want to influence. Because personalized effective communication must be relevant and timely.

What Personalized Campaigns Look Like

So how do I know if the native mobile campaigns (such as push notifications and in-app messages) are effectively personalized? There are probably three ways to answer this question.

The first would be to think of it from the end-user’s viewpoint. If the campaigns such a user receives are considered by them to be helpful and relevant, then you can fairly conclude that you are doing a pretty decent job of delivering personalized content. Note of course the key words “by them”. You don’t get to decide whether you are doing a good job on this front. You need to get feedback - even if it’s just in the form of unsubscribe rates - from your actual app users.

The second approach would be to apply a rule of thumb based on audience sizes. The smaller the better, so if you’re sending campaigns to large groups that compose the majority of your total audience, something is probably wrong. Not necessarily - but probably. As a quick short-cut, thinking about audience sizes is a decent way to answer the “am I personalizing my campaigns enough?”

The third way is to list the features of a typical personalized campaign - and this approach has the benefit of showing the way for those who want to develop personalized campaigns themselves. Ultimately, following the advice below is how you will get to the stage of sending relevant, helpful campaigns to small audiences. Here’s a few characteristics of those campaigns.

They Are a Response To Meaningful User Behavior.
This is the single most important factor to consider. That behavior can be an aggregate of choices over time: “this person appears to like this particular kind of music”, or it can be something that is happening right now: “this person just checked their balance and saw it was under $100”. Or it could be some combination of the two. Whatever the case, this knowledge is what triggers a ‘campaign of one’. In the latter example, the in-app message that might be delivered at this moment is truly personal and useful.

They Are Timely
To some extent this is a continuation of the argument above. Mobile is an immediate medium, the time to let a user know about a specific promotion, offer or service is at the very moment they need it. That in turn means processing data in real-time and being able to deliver push campaigns and in-app messages at precisely the right moment, or on the back of a specific trigger action in the app. By taking this approach, each individual receives a communication at the right time for them - not at the time a marketer ‘scheduling’ the campaign feels is appropriate.

They Are Personalized
A small but important detail. Using the customer’s real name, and perhaps more importantly referring specifically to the items they have viewed, or the trips they have made (to give just two examples) immediately makes any communication more effective. Of course to make this happen you’ll need to integrate the mobile marketing platform with existing systems of record.

They Deliver Customized Creative
Whilst behavior is usually the basis for initially determining who receives which campaign, that doesn’t mean that each person in that group receives the same creative. To continue the musical example above, do women who like jazz respond to the same creative as men who like jazz? Of course ultimately there is only one way to truly answer that question - by testing alternative creatives for alternative demographics. But the principle - of experimenting with creative for different audiences - should always be followed. To take one more very obvious example - communications should always be localized into the language specified by the phone user.

They Are Delivered In The Right Channel
This may seem obvious, but needs to be remembered. Different people respond in different ways to communications depending on how they are delivered. I may not typically respond to push notifications. Another customer may ignore email. It may be established that one individual is particularly responsive to communications delivered the moment the app opens - whilst others particularly dislike this approach. Which is all a way of saying that it is possible to know which customer groups want to be communicated in each channel and act on that knowledge - and as a result deliver campaigns in the way each individual wants to receive them.

Bringing It All Together

Personalization at the campaign level moves us towards the end goal: the ‘campaign of one’, or the native-mobile prompt at just the right time, offering just the right promotion or service. It is always important to keep this goal in mind. As a rule, we must move beyond the idea of large segments of users, receiving campaigns ‘scheduled’ for specific times, and rather think in terms of a complex interaction engine. That engine processes large amounts of data in real-time and delivers the right interaction to the right person at the right time.

What’s next? Clearly machine learning will play an ever greater role in the mobile future. And personalization of the mobile app experience itself will become more and more prevalent. I will write about both those topics in the near future. But for the moment, just remember to get personal!