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Reaching those on the go: Mobile Web users present next major challenge for public relations


April 23, 2008

Copyright © 2008 PRSA. All rights reserved.

The following article appears in the May issue of PR Tactics.

By Tim Newton

Last year’s introduction of the iPhone was much more than the launch of the latest high-tech gadget. With its touch screen and zoom-in, zoom-out capabilities, the iPhone was the first handheld device that advanced the Web browsing experience.

It signaled the beginning of a new era for Web marketing: the mobile Web.
In the months and years to come, expect others to follow Apple’s lead, offering easy-to-use handheld Web browsing devices at more accessible prices. In fact, experts, such as Brian Fling of blueflavor.com, predict that 60 percent of mobile phone users will be browsing the Web on their devices at least once per month within the next two years.

Just as Google changed how Web users search for information, Really Simple Syndication (RSS) changed how Web users managed information overload. The emergence of social media also changed how information is generated and shared online. Now, the era of mobile Web browsing devices is beginning to have a profound impact on how PR practitioners communicate with their target publics.

The new normal
Being connected around-the-clock has blurred the line between work and life. Think about it: Some college graduates entering the work force never knew a time when cell phones were not ubiquitous.

Inevitably, mobile Web browsing is going to be the norm and you want to be able to deliver your messages to people on the go.

More people have access to the Web today via mobile phones than through personal computers. Highly capable cell phones with at least some Web browsing capabilities are in nearly everyone’s pocket or purse already.

Therefore, it is a good idea for PR practitioners to start thinking about how their organization’s Web site performs in the mobile environment.

The Web marketing community is still coming to terms with how user behavior is changing and the full breadth of strategic adjustments that may be advisable. However,every organization must be aware of this important trend and begin tweaking their Web site to ensure that it’s accessible to users of mobile devices.

How is it different?
Though the mobile Web is the same Internet on a handheld wireless device, those who think of it as simply a smaller Web browser will not have much success to attracting mobile Web users. Users approach the browsing experience differently. Browsers using personal computers tend to be attracted to a Web site’s content. Eye-catching flash animation and vibrant images can prompt people to spend more time learning about a company’s products and services. They will often read lengthy pages of text if it is relevant to their interests.

Those same elements can have the opposite effect on mobile Web users who tend to be on the go and need information fast. So far, plug-ins such as flash are not supported by mobile devices, so pages with animation or photographs can frustrate mobile Web users.

Immediate needs drive behavior
The best way to approach the mobile Web is to focus on the context of the user at the moment. Users tend to access the mobile Web for information based on their specific circumstances.

For instance, a person heading to the airport might check their flight status, the weather in their destination city or restaurant reviews. Their needs at that moment drive their online behavior. Ultimately, the content on the mobile Web has little value if it ignores context.

What to do?

  • Focus on the user. Think of what the user needs to do on the site rather than what the association thinks they need. Mobile Web users need you to deliver brief bursts of value.
  • Test the site in realistic circumstances. Try it with a variety of devices.  Ask users what they do and how they use the site on their mobile device.
  • Think about context. Since the mobile Web is more about the user’s context, think about what is going on around the user. What will they need to find out? For instance, make it easy to get to addresses, phone numbers and event locations. Target the needs of people on the go.
  • Start over if necessary. Approaching the mobile Web as simply the PC on a cell phone is a bad idea. The two are fundamentally different and demand individual attention. As we grow more accustomed to the mobile Web, the differences will become clearer, so adjust now.
  • Keep it simple. Limit your links and categories, and prioritize links by activity and popularity. A streamlined site serves the need for easy navigation.

This is the right time for PR practitioners to examine whether their sites properly serve the users who access information on mobile Web browsers.

The era of the mobile Web is here to stay, and it’s going to get bigger. For any Web site to effectively communicate with mobile users, its creators must examine how the site performs on this new platform, listen to the Web audience and move quickly to make necessary changes.

Tim Newton is the creative director of Schipul — The Web Marketing Company. Details: www.schipul.com. E-mail: tnewton@schipul.com.



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