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Mobile Customer Engagement in the Physical World; Beyond the App-based Economy


In this latest piece from Christos Symeou, Founder of Blupath Ltd, he shares his vision for the future of mobile engagement. He discusses the embedding of a digital experience onto a physical object, accessible through the native capabilities of a phone.This, he argues, negates the challenge brands face in getting an individual to install their brand app in the first place.

We live in a world surrounded by content. We’ve all heard many times how the average consumer is inundated with hundreds of marketing messages competing for their attention throughout the course of a normal day, from all sorts of different sources. As stewards of our brands, our primary concern is how to stand out from the crowd, and how to do so in a way that truly engages our target audience. Digital technology is an indispensable tool in our arsenal to achieve this goal, as is our ability to stay up to date with the latest digital tools that can help shape our communication strategy.

Let’s get some basic things out of the way first: I’m not here to argue that technology is the answer to all our challenges. There are some things in marketing that are universal; whatever the tool or communication channel you use, your message needs to be consistent, it needs to be relevant, wherever possible it needs to be personalised to the individual consumer… and basically, it needs to be a ‘good’ message. If the content of what you are saying itself lacks quality, whatever the technology you use to say it, you are unlikely to find much success.

So, there will always be an art to customer engagement, a soft quality that’s hard to pin down. Having said that, technology gives us those capabilities that can help us create a ‘good’ engagement experience. Technology helps us gather the data that allows us to personalise our content, opens new channels from which we can remain more consistently visible to consumers, and gives us the tools to create experiences and content that are richer, more interactive, and more engaging for our audience.

Technology, as we know, also moves in cycles, with each new generation bringing with it new paradigms and capabilities to drive new marketing efforts. If we go back some near two decades, we were just beginning to enter the era of web based, Internet marketing. We then started to talk of social media marketing, and of mobile marketing and, after the success of the iPhone, of an app-based marketing, and even of an ‘app based economy’. Apps allowed us to deliver rich interactive experiences and content that our customers could carry with them on their phone wherever they would go, and soon any brand that valued itself would have its own app released for the major smartphone platforms.

I believe that we are on the brink of a new technology paradigm in mobile marketing that can start driving us away from the app-based model, while opening new capabilities for increasing our marketing reach and the relevance of the content we communicate. In this new way of communicating, the physical items or locations in the world around us are the source of the rich digital experience that the consumer receives on their phone, rather than a software app installed on the device.

Apps are powerful because they allow us to deliver a fine-tuned, beautifully designed interactive experience that fits in the palm of the consumer’s hand. And yet I would argue that mobile apps are more about strengthening brand loyalty amongst already converted fans, than creating market awareness in the first place. Ignoring apps of services like Facebook, Youtube, or Twitter, which are of course important tools themselves but which I consider more broadly to fall under the umbrella-term of ‘social media marketing’, one of the greatest challenges any brand faces when releasing its own app into the market is how to get the consumer to download it in the first place. Studies show that out of the hundreds of thousands of apps available on the market, most individuals barely use more than a handful a day, even if they’ve actually installed hundreds on their phones. As the app market matures, and the number of apps available to download grows ever larger, this situation will likely become even worse. Even as your app is meant to be a tool to make you stand out from the crowd, you start facing the same problem in reverse – how does your app itself stand out amongst the myriad of other apps available out there? In most cases, the customer who’s installed your app on their phone had already been converted into a fan before doing so. The app itself helps to establish his continued loyalty, but not his initial awareness.

Now imagine a world where the same kind of complex, fine-tuned, interactive experience that you deliver through an app was instead embedded and available from within the physical products you sell, or the spaces you sell them from, and available to consumers without the need for a pre-installed app.

Let me try and give you an example: I go out to a cafeteria, dressed in my pair of jeans, a pair of shoes, and a shirt. I sit down at my table, and take out my phone. And right there on my phone, just as I can access all the apps I have installed on my phone, I can find options to open digital experiences delivered by the designer of my shoes, the manufacturer of my jeans, or even the cafeteria I’m sitting in.  Furthermore, these experiences are just as rich as what I can get from any mobile app, are personalised to me, available without me having to preinstall anything on my phone, and only available when I’m near the physical object or place they’re relevant for.

What I’m essentially doing is ‘browsing’ the physical world, just as I could browse the web, but rather than being delivered with simple and generic content, I’m presented with experiences that are just as rich and interactive as an app installed on my phone.  Location and proximity marketing solutions are nothing new after all: as the simplest example, we’ve been able to use Google Maps to get information about the things around us for years now, and there are many apps available out there to similarly allow consumers to find out more about the various products and points of interest around them. What I’m describing differs from these examples in two key ways:

  • The consumer’s ability to receive content (and conversely, the ability of the business to send it), is not dependent on the user having pre-installed any app on their phone.
  • The experience with which a consumer is engaged is rich and personalised, and not restricted to a simple message within the confines of the user interface of a pre-existing app.

There are two technology developments that make these possibilities possible. First, the wide-spread availability of mobile internet, and our approach to an ‘always-connected’ society. Mobile apps used to have the advantage of being able to work while the user was offline. Soon, this advantage will be rendered meaningless as most individuals never find themselves disconnected from the online world. Digital experiences can therefore be hosted as web-based rather than mobile-based apps, available on the cloud through any web browser.

The second development is the rapid growth in inexpensive, embeddable connectivity devices, that can be attached to any product or location, and which enable communication through the native capabilities of a phone, rather than through a pre-installed phone app. I am talking of technologies like Google’s Physical Web project, which can allow phones to receive pointers to online content either via a Wifi network or an Eddystone beacon (which are themselves becoming ever smaller, cheaper, and more energy-efficient), or even simple NFC tags which can be attached to nearly any product, of any size, and require little more than a tap to point the consumer to content. Such technologies are becoming natively supported by smartphones at an ever increasing rate, and allow us to bridge the physical and digital worlds, driving mobile experiences that are relevant to a consumer’s immediate context, and available without the need for intermediary software.

What this paradigm does is solve problems plaguing businesses and consumers both. As a consumer, what I don’t want to end up with is a phone with a list of hundreds of apps installed on it, which ends up a nightmare to navigate rather than a useful tool. And as a business I want to be able to reach out to as many consumers as possible, at the relevant time, with content and experiences that are under my control. What we therefore do is embed the digital experience not onto an ‘app’ that the consumer must first become aware of, find, and install, but directly onto the physical object and world itself, making it accessible through the native capabilities of a phone, to just those consumers who are near it and to whom it is therefore the most relevant. After the consumer has been engaged, if they’ve been ‘converted’ as fans, we can then give them through the web-based experience the ability to download an app on their phone as well, to carry with them after they’ve moved away from the relevant object or place.

What I’m describing is a paradigm that requires not just a shift in technology, but a shift in our thinking as marketing professionals as well. Technologies such a beacons and tags have been around for more than a couple of years now. I remember first reading about ibeacon back in 2013, and of the capabilities that it could open up for marketers. And yet I think that the capabilities of what technology can do for us are held back by our wrong-headed approaches to it.

First, we must stop looking at proximity marketing through the lens of the mobile app. One of the greatest weaknesses of the ibeacon protocol compared to Google’s Eddystone, is that it is only useful for interacting with some apps pre-installed on the user’s phone. Arguably, that defeats the whole point of proximity marketing, which is the ability to be digitally engaged when in the exact geographic proximity where that engagement is relevant to an individual. Proximity marketing should be more ideally thought of as a tool to create brand awareness, rather than to drive brand loyalty amongst already converted consumers. If proximity marketing requires the consumer to have pre-installed an app on their phone, it pre-assumes that an engagement with the consumer had already occurred before they’ve arrived at the relevant geographic point of engagement. That is rarely going to be the case for those individuals not already fans of our brand and whom we most want to reach to. We must therefore look at connectivity channels that touch the phone, and not a specific app installed on it.

Secondly, we must stop searching for that one magic technology or tool that will help solve all our problems, but start looking at proximity marketing as well through an omni-channel lens. There are many possible technologies to connect a consumer with online content based on their location or proximity to a product. Rather than trying to figure out which one is the one and only tool which we must focus all our attention on, we must instead think of strategies that allow us to utilize all of them in a coordinated fashion to reach out to as many individuals as possible.

Finally, we must think of the quality of what it is we want to say. Often when I see examples of what proximity marketing can do for a business, I see things like discount offer announcements, and special offer one pagers. Do we really think that what most consumers are interested in is constant popups on their phone about random ads and discounts? What a perfect way to do the opposite of what we are setting out to do, annoying the consumer and getting them to hate our brand at the point at which they are closest to our product. Instead, I suggest to you a proximity engagement paradigm that’s not based on popups, but on silent notifications about the things around us, that the consumer chooses to see and access when and if they want to; and which point to digital web-apps that drive experiences that are as personalised and rich as what we can drive through a mobile app, rather than simple special offer announcements.

The technology is here to help bring about a new mobile marketing revolution, based on proximity and digital functionality embedded on the physical world around us. It is what we decide to do with these capabilities that will determine whether these new possibilities will truly break out or not.

Lydia Mageean Lydia Mageean has been part of the WhichPLM team for eight years now. She has a creative and media background, and is responsible for maintaining and updating our website content, liaising with advertisers, working on special projects like our PLM Project Pack, or our Annual Publications, and more.Joining mid-2013 as our Online Editor, she has since become WhichPLM’s Editor. In addition to taking on writing and interviewing responsibilities, Lydia has also become the primary point of contact for news, events, features and other aspects of our ever-growing online content library and tools.