The mobile web is growing untap­ped. There are already five billion mobile phone users worldwide and they’re gradually starting to realise that the device in their hand can give them access to all the riches of the web.

A December 2009 report by Morgan Stanley estimated that: “More users will likely connect to the Internet via mobile­ devices than desktop PCs within five years”.

However in order to exploit that growing market you need to understand mobile and that is why so many businesses are looking to produce mobile strategies for their organisations.

But sheer force of numbers isn’t the only reason to adopt a mobile strategy. ­Mobile users are also driving additional revenue. An IDC report found that people who access sites via a mobile are twice as active on a site than non-mobile users, and last year Amazon became the first business to turn over­ more than $1bn solely through mobile channels.

While this figure is undoubtedly due largely to a company-wide strategic approach, it is a figure that helps rubber-stamp mobile commerce as a new growth sector, and one that businesses should consider carefully before ­rejecting.

There are two different strands to a mobile strategy for your business: there’s the strategy for your customers and there’s a strategy for your own employees. We’ll deal with both, but first let’s look at the strategy for your customers.

Creating a mobile strategy isn’t just about putting your existing website into a mobile format. Many businesses merely assume that an end user will have the same needs and behaviours on a mobile as they have with their PC at home. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Rich Holdsworth, CTO at mobile website builder Wapple, emphasises the need to rethink your site from scratch. “Mobile is a new medium and when you move to a new medium you need to create content that’s most appropriate for the medium. When you make a film from a book it gets rewritten, and that’s what you need to do with mobile,” he explains.

Usability studies
Rikke Helms, managing director global telecom and VP EMEA at mobile business Antenna Software thinks that doing mobile­ properly requires businesses to turn their thinking around so that instead of ­focusing on technology and functionality, the business instead needs to look at ­usability.

“Building for mobile needs to be looked at in terms of mobility-in, rather than infrastructure-out. You have to decide who the users are, what are they going to use it for, and where are they going to use it,” she says.

The assumption that just because someone has a mobile it will be a state-of-the-art smartphone with email and a browser is going too far. Although the standard upgrade cycle for users on a contract is 18-24 months, there are still plenty of users (around 60-65 per cent of the UK total) who are on pay-as-you-go tariffs, and who may have a phone that is only capable of SMS text messaging.

You also shouldn’t underestimate the power of SMS. In the UK in 2009 we sent and received over 265 million SMS messages a day, and even with the popularity of email on phones it’s still increasing: the total for 2009 was 96.8 billion, up from 78.9 billion in 2008. 

Michael Tomlins, CIO at mobile media company InfoMedia, has strong feelings about SMS. “Don’t try to overcomplicate what you do using technology. Our ­advice has always been to start at the bottom with the most-available, widespread technology, which is SMS. It’s a very basic technology­ but it delivers exactly what you want nine times out of 10,” he says.

“Phone users can text in a keyword and get a response back based on that keyword and if it’s a small piece of information they’re looking for – maybe a price, or an address, or an entry to a competition — it’s perfect.”

However as Tomlins points out there’s one drawback to many businesses using SMS, and that’s the customer’s contact number.

“A lot of companies collect email addresses but they don’t collect mobile phone numbers. Without a user’s mobile number there’s no SMS.”

You also need to think of the way you communicate with your end user. A mobile phone is a very personal device. People tend to keep their mobiles with them at all times and they regard communications via their mobile as personal, says Matt Clark, principal consultant at integrated marketing and technology company Amaze.

“A mobile device is the most personal of personal devices and people use it for sorts of different reasons, it’s not just about being out on the road and being mobile,” he says.

People browse the web on a phone in a different way to the way they browse on a PC or laptop. With a mobile the key is to think about location and situation. If you do a search on a PC for a restaurant, the key return you’re looking for is a web address, and you can then take time to look at the restaurant’s website and peruse the menu before you make a decision.

If you make the same sort of search on a mobile, you really want a phone number that you can click on and call to make a booking.

You also want to see a link to reviews and the menu high up on the page rather than hidden further down the site. Links are crucial to mobile: typing in anything — even on a smartphone — is difficult so if you make your users’ lives easy then they’ll keep coming back.

“With the web users are happy to sit in a big chair with a 19-inch display and they’re comfortable to explore. With mobile you need to give them information­ that is rele­vant to a mobile user and it needs to be easily accessible,” says Holdsworth.

Model concerns
After considering where people use their mobile you next need to decide what mobile they have. With a normal website you may need to think about the web browser’s capabilities and the size of a typical user’s screen.

But with a mobile you can’t guarantee anything other than the fact that no two phones will display a web page in the same way. To produce a web page for a ­mobile you need to know the make, the model, the screen size and the capabilities of the phone.

Will it display graphics, is it colour, can you see video, and if so, what formats does it support? There are tens of thousands of different phones, but luckily there are businesses that exist who do nothing but identify phones so you can create the right format site for the phone.

The app route
Apps are the flavour of the moment in ­mobile. Everyone wants an app, but is it really the best decision?

There aren’t as many different things to consider when producing an app, as there are when producing a web site for mobile devices, but the process can be just as confusing.

To get around the different options many businesses decide that they’re going­ to hedge their bets and instead just deve­lop for a single phone type, normally the iPhone. InfoMedia’s Tomlins is strongly­ against this.

“The iPhone does deliver good solid reach, but ultimately if you’re a UK-based business you will just get a small proportion of your customer base by looking at iPhone, and you will alienate the rest of your audience,” he says.

With apps, one size doesn’t fit all, and if you build an app for the iPhone it won’t be easily transferable to any other phones; now that the iPad is available you will also have to produce an iPad-friendly version.

If you decide to instead on a more open app store like Google’s Android Market then you need to create different apps for the different Android screen sizes and the different versions of Android.

The next alternative is to develop for an app store like Ovi that in theory puts you in front of hundreds of millions of Nokia users worldwide. In truth, there are nearly as many different variations here than there are with a normal mobile web solution.

“The industry doesn’t really know where­ it’s going,” says Tomlins. “People aren’t sure what’s going to win. Will it be handsets, will it be mobile operators or is it going to be operating systems? Our advice is that it’s going to be a mess and continue to be a mess because there are too many stakeholders in place.”

There is of course another element to a mobile strategy and that’s how you approach the problem of your own use of mobile. Most business executives now ­regard the BlackBerry as a tool of the trade, and according to IDC, mobile devices are becoming the new enterprise desktop for more than 50 per cent of the workforce.

Bob Tinker, CEO at Silicon Valley start-up MobileIron, explains that mobile access will soon be a given for most employees.

“The issues that are driving the move to mobile are twofold; you need to enable employees to go get information, and more often than not that’s via mobile. Secondly it’s almost becoming a recruitment tick-box requirement,” he claims.

“The millennial generation — anybody under 35 — expect mobility and it almost becomes an employee satisfaction and HR situation. You can’t imagine a company that is trying to recruit a younger workforce saying ‘No, I’m sorry, we don’t do ­mobile’. It’s not a very sound strategy.”

The upshot of this is that users are starting to make increasing demands on their businesses to use their phones to do more than just read email. As Helms says: “The market has dramatically shifted. Users and business users expect mobility, and it has to be part of the CIOs agenda.”

Is it part of your agenda?

Marcus Austin is a mobile media consultant at specialising in creating mob­ile strategies for business