Without a doubt, mobile as a channel should be part of any B2C company’s customer strategy in 2011. As companies wake up to the threats and opportunities posed by social media they are realising that these are enhanced by social media on the go, whereby customers can provide spontaneous criticism, insight and questions via their mobile phones. It is critical therefore to consider a mobile channel strategy as a key component within a company’s wider channel strategy.

There has been plenty of debate whether to focus on the mobile web or mobile apps – I’m going to argue the benefits of companies needing to do both and how to deliver a good quality experience across the mobile channel.

Investing in mobile apps

Mobile apps should be seen as an extension to an existing company web strategy, as important an extension as the web was to instore selling early in the last decade. As with the development of the web as a customer channel over the past 10 years, we should expect rapid development and innovation in applications, with an increasing focus from acting initially as an information source, to being a dedicated transactional opportunity, providing as important a revenue stream as websites do currently. Early adopting companies will learn from the experience and feedback they receive, and benefit from an established position far more than if they wait to learn from others.

Maintaining a focus on the mobile web

As fast as the uptake in usage of mobile apps is (The iPhone has helped stimulate 10 billion mobile application downloads in the three years following the opening of the App Store), the percentage of users as a proportion of total customer engagement remains small. There will always remain those customers that remain wedded to the traditional web experience over the concept of applications, and it is understanding the desired mobile experience of different customers that will ensure you can deliver the appropriate mobile experience for each.

So how are companies using mobile to engage with customers?

Mobile offers enormous opportunities for gathering customer insight and using mobiles for marketing opportunities. Companies need to examine what differentiates mobile users to customers using other channels and need to tailor their approach accordingly.

Mobile is, by its definition, on the move. Augmented reality (AR) has been written about previously on this blog but will be an increasingly important method through which mobile customers interact with the environment around them. Being part of this environment is therefore essential, enabling customers to use AR on mobile devices to identify local promotions relevant to your organisation. Another concept, Near Field Communications, has been around for a while, but is now starting to be used more widely by companies, enabling contactless payment to become mainstream.

Mobile location-based marketing is more relevant than ever before and if you use the AroundMe or Toptable app on your smartphone, would you like to be contacted when near to a location of interest? The next level is to understand your preferences in more detail, in order to push local promotions of interest to you at a time that is relevant to you (who’d have known there was a takeaway open on your walk home at 1am on a Friday night?). This ping marketing – as mentioned by David Kunzmann on the blog back in December – has become increasingly prominent over the last year and added personalisation could take this to the next level.

Mobile also offers the opportunity for gathering customer insight on the go, either through feedback on the website, through an application or through comments on social media. It offers a valuable, instant channel for companies to engage with customers directly at any time and it is time to start considering when it would be appropriate to do so, either through a text message with a link to a site to provide feedback, or through dialogue on social media.

From a customer experience perspective, companies must include some key considerations to deliver mobile services. More advanced devices, browsers, and faster connectivity have increased user expectations. As with many users of mobile services, I am not always patient, and by its nature mobile is used to access services when users are on the move or requiring information at short notice. Therefore speed and ease of use is critical – the mobile web needs to be easily navigable and apps should contain relevant content that can be quickly accessed.

Service and content should be tailored for the context that they will be used and need to be based on the behaviours of the user. Marketers should also be developing applications that enable more intelligent decisions on targeting customers, by requesting information on customer preferences in applications. Cross-referencing with existing data held by a company about individuals is a logical next step, though will not be without privacy concerns.

Developing the next generation of services for engaging customers by mobile should be a focus for B2C facing companies in 2011. In the UK, the likes of Tesco and Ocado were early adopters in this space, with home delivery services and product searching available through applications. Their competitors need to keep up or fall behind as the growth of smartphone use continues, with the US mobile Internet audience expected to reach 134.3 million users by 2013, normalising the use of the mobile web and mobile applications. Those that don’t will face the same challenges of catching up that those that were not early adopters to web selling did a decade ago.