How to plan your mobile strategy

Creating an effective mobile-friendly presence takes more than just making your website smaller. Here's some advice for moving to mobile

In case you weren't already making your websites mobile-friendly, you (along with the rest of Corporate America) have gotten several wake-up calls over the past months.

Late last year, Gartner predicted that by 2018, half of all Internet users would access the Web exclusively via a smartphone or tablet. Then in April of this year, Google announced it was changing its algorithm for searches conducted from smartphones. If a webpage isn't mobile-friendly, it drops in the rankings, a change that had such a far-reaching effect that it got its own apocalyptic nickname --"mobilegeddon."

Google was preparing the industry for its landmark announcement in May: That in 10 countries, including the United States and Japan, the number of Google searches on mobile devices exceeded those on computers. Google didn't list the other countries, but Gartner's prediction noted that in emerging economies, users are adopting smartphones as their exclusive mobile devices, presumably resulting in a lot of searches.

So it's no longer a question as to whether to make a website mobile -- but rather, how. Over the last two years, companies have taken a scattershot approach. Some built so-called m-dot sites, or sites designed exclusively for mobile devices; some adopted responsive design, re-coding sites so they would automatically adjust to whatever device was used to view them; and some decided to build apps as their primary mobile channel. Some have done all three (and some have yet to do anything).

In fact, these choices need not be either/or propositions.

"It's not a competition between native apps and the mobile Web," says Tim Kadlec, a consultant who has advised large corporations on mobile website design, wrote the book Implementing Responsive Design, and is now employed at Akamai as Web technology advocate. "I think most companies probably need both. The website expands your reach. It allows you to get your company's content onto a wide range of devices, in front of everybody."

Apps, on the other hand, target users who are looking for very specific information or who want to purchase your products or services. With apps, you can create a very focused and customized experience for your power users.

In fact, creating an effective mobile online presence can and often does incorporate elements of responsive design, apps and simply optimizing content for display on mobile devices. The element that has been lacking for most companies is an overall strategic approach to the process.

"Many companies are still behind in terms of moving toward mobile in effective ways," says Jason Wong, a principal analyst at Gartner. "We see a lot of siloed approaches to addressing mobile needs across the enterprise, like a one-off mobile site here or developing a mobile app there."

But Google's algorithm change, along with the fact that it favors responsive design sites, goosed corporations into action, says Kadlec.

"It suddenly became a lot easier to sell the benefit of why corporations should invest so much time and energy in making this big shift," he says. "Developers and designers could say, 'Google says this is the way to go and they're going to flag us if we're not.' That's a big deal."

Start with a strategy

Whatever the status of your websites, the best place to start is with a high-level mobile plan, analysts agree. "We are starting to see enterprises putting some formal strategy, process and governance around [the creation and management of mobile websites]," says Wong.

Indeed, some companies that have tried several different approaches to mobile are now adopting a more unified strategy.

For example, SAP, a well-known enterprise application software company, had accumulated 600 different websites by 2014, with no consistency in how they served up mobile, says Maggie Fox, senior vice president of the SAP Experience in global marketing. Fox was hired that year to help launch a digital transformation project. It has so far pared down the number of sites to 100, and is redoing all sites to be fully responsive. "Our team is focused on helping the business deliver the right thing in the right place at the right time," says Fox.

SAP is also optimizing its sites for mobile search, which is becoming increasingly important, says Fox. Rather than typing in a search term, mobile search is often by voice. "With voice search, people will say search terms differently than how they type them," she explains. "Very few sites are optimized for mobile, let alone optimized for mobile search. We believe there's a big competitive opportunity there."

As part of its first mobile initiatives, retail company QVC redesigned its websites in the U.S., U.K. and Germany in early 2014 using responsive design. But it didn't start with a clean slate. "When we did responsive the first time, in the U.S., U.K., and Germany, we started with a desktop design," explains Alex Miller, senior vice president of digital commerce at QVC.

Today, however, over half of QVC's traffic is mobile, so new websites, such as one the company just launched in France, are designed for mobile first. The company also is going back and redesigning those original three sites to be mobile-oriented.

"With this redesign effort, the goal is to start with a mobile-optimized design, even at the expense of a desktop experience," Miller says. They can then scale up, adding more content if the user has a larger screen and/or a more robust broadband connection.

But by starting with the smartphone and using responsive design as well as techniques like adaptive image compression, a company can make the experience better for all users. "Users will see only the content that is needed on that device, ensuring a faster response time and a better experience," says Venkatesh Natarajan, vice president of IT commerce platforms at QVC.

Building a sound mobile strategy

A sound mobile strategy is based on answers to some basic questions, say experts. Once you've got the answers to these questions, you should have solid groundwork for beginning to build an effective mobile presence.

Who are your users and what do they need?

Often, a company will have a variety of users and it should consider what is the best approach for each type and their needs. For example, QVC does both mobile sites and apps, says Miller. The app is for loyalists who have an established relationship with QVC, he explains. "It's optimized to be a companion experience, whether you're watching it live with the iPad app or being able to have a second-screen experience" -- that is, using a mobile device while watching QVC on TV. The mobile-first website, on the other hand, offers fuller capabilities and better customer service.

The company also uses the app and the mobile website together. "One of the big advantages of designing a mobile-first website has been that when we do want to offer the full functionality of the website, we don't have to design all of that natively for the app itself," Miller explains. "We are able to utilize parts of the mobile website to easily build out that complete experience in the apps."

Where speed is critical or particular actions are specific to a device, the functionality is built directly into the app. "If we want to really provide a differentiating experience on the apps, we do that native to the platform," says Natarajan. But for functions that are common across all platforms, such as checking the status of your order, QVC uses a hybrid model. "We leverage [the work] others have done on the mobile website to show up on the apps," he says. "But the experience is very seamless. The customer doesn't see a difference."

Other companies rely exclusively on their mobile website. Virgin America has no app, says Mike McGuire, research vice president, Gartner for Marketing Leaders. "It's one of the very few airlines that don't, but they argue that they don't need it," he explains. "With the evolution of HTML5 tools and the practice of responsive design, they believe they can get the functionality they need." After all, designing and maintaining apps for multiple mobile platforms is an ongoing investment in time and money.

Where are your users?

In some areas of the world, the majority of Internet access is done through mobile phones. So if you're a bank targeting customers in Kenya, you might well design an exclusively mobile site. In developing countries, it's best to use responsive design to accommodate a variety of platforms and to consider apps as well.

But context is also important, according to John Cardwell, a consultant who worked on mobile sites for several large companies and is now a software development engineer at DreamBox Learning. People may be in the car trying to access a map, for example, or could be sitting in front of the TV and shopping on their tablet.

Indeed, accessing the Internet from a variety of places within a variety of contexts on a variety of screens is becoming an "omni-channel experience" that enterprises will need to accommodate, says Gartner's Wong.

Is your team organized correctly?

Even when an organization has a mobile strategy, it can be hard to implement because of the silos that often exist in large companies. "There are plenty of sites today that are not responsive or even mobile-friendly," says McGuire, "but it's not because these clients have their heads in the sand." Rather, they don't have the technology people working with the marketing people. "There is no single group pulling these different parties together in a single strategy," he says.

Responsive design also requires more and closer teamwork between developers and designers, says Kadlec. It's a huge process and attitude shift, he explains. Rather than working independently, these two groups need to be agile and iterative. "You can't anticipate how all this will play out on all devices, so you need them all working together to minimize issues down the road," he explains.

What platforms are in your future?

Mobile is no longer just about smartphones and tablets, but wearables and other devices that are becoming Internet-enabled. "You want to think in terms of your consumers interacting with your brand in any way possible," says Natarajan. That means building a robust back end and abstracting it from the user experience so that it can be used to serve a variety of platforms. Make sure data and images aren't tied to one particular device platform.

"You know tomorrow you're going to have three new platforms that you're going to need to serve," says Miller. "Today, it's the smartwatch; tomorrow, it's the refrigerator door."

This story, "How to plan your mobile strategy" was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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