Mobile comms: The way forward - When PR goes mobile

As mobile technology evolves rapidly, Arun Sudhaman looks at whether the PR industry is making best use of this exciting medium.

The Mobile World Congress, the most important event in the mobile business calendar, is well-known for breaking new ground in technological terms.

Last month's event in Barcelona, attended by nearly 50,000 delegates from across the globe, was no different. In his keynote, Google CEO Eric Schmidt exhorted the packed auditorium to think 'mobile first'.

It is a slogan that resonates with a PR industry grappling with the shift from traditional media to online consumption.

The rise of mobile internet, exemplified by the ubiquitous presence of devices such as Apple's iPhone and the BlackBerry, is sharply affecting how people access information and communicate.

Unsurprisingly, the Mobile World Congress showcased these trends. The GSMA, which organised the event, set up a specific mobile social networking app, called MyMWC, which enabled delegates to access vast amounts of information from their handsets - including maps, attendee names, session details and Twitter and blog aggregators. This was complemented by Mobile World Live, which kept 52,000 users updated with videos and speeches from the event, along with dedicated Twitter feeds.

'I don't think we've touched the potential of mobile,' says GSMA director of media relations Claire Cranton.

Weber Shandwick head of mobile telecoms, Hugo Brailsford, who attended the conference, adds: 'It struck me that, as a PR person, mobile simplifies your job and makes it a lot easier to exchange information and communicate.'

With web-enabled smartphones, bolstered by a bevy of new technologies, poised to go mass-market, PRWeek looks at how PR could exploit the world's fastest-growing medium.

INFLUENCERS - EXCLUSIVE PRWEEK RESEARCH

The rise of mobile has created a 'hyper communications environment', according to exclusive new research.

In conjunction with CC Group, a PR and integrated comms consultancy that specialises in mobile, PRWeek surveyed 28 journalists from tech and business media. Their responses indicate that using mobile to reach these influencers can be a complicated business.

'The good news is that 68 per cent of respondents say we get it right,' says CC Group managing director Richard Fogg. 'The bad news is that it means almost one in three PROs are still getting it wrong.'

Significantly, 61 per cent do not use mobile as their primary point of contact, while more than half revealed that, currently, mobile is not a useful tool for reviewing PR materials.

'Many PROs still write for a bygone age when their press releases were consumed on a 15-inch screen by someone sat at a desk,' says Fogg. 'The reality is that nearly three-quarters of the early-adopting media audience will read your materials on a three-inch screen on the tube.'

With that in mind, one respondent notes: 'As more reporters rely upon mobile email, PROs need to change the way they write releases. They must be shorter, with bullet points rather than long descriptions. Pictures must be stored on the web.'

The challenge is moving beyond the basics of mobile communication. The majority of respondents cannot recall many innovative uses of mobile by the PR community, despite the fact that they also view apps and mobile Twitter access as the two technologies having the most significant impact on brand comms.

'It's a sensitive area, as mobile is an inherently personal experience. So,at least for now, it's not really something that lends itself to message-driven PR,' says Dee Gibbs, joint MD at Mi Liberty.

- 71% said mobile comms had made PROs more responsive to their needs*

- 61% believed that mobile technology had a positive impact on their work*

- 57% said mobile technology was not useful for reviewing PR materials*

- 56% said mobile had led to 'increased pestering by PROs'*

* Source: PRWeek/CC Group Survey of 28 tech and business journalists.

BRAND ENGAGEMENT - MAKING MOBILE WORK

Instances of brands using mobile to reach influencers or genuinely engage with their audiences, rather than simply market to them, remain rare. Indeed, so far mobile has largely been the preserve of ad and marketing agencies. That, though, is starting to change.

An excellent example is Brands2Life's creation of an app development service as a new revenue stream for the agency. Its first project was for T-Mobile's business division. After thorough research, Brands2Life developed 'ShareAnywhere',FD a free app that would allow business users to share information about their products and services with customers and colleagues via their phones.

The agency also used a combination of traditional and digital PR techniques to build awareness of the app, using one of T-Mobile's SME customers, ASuitthatFits.com, to test the app's effectiveness. It achieved more than 1,000 downloads within one month of launch, meeting the T-Mobile brief to raise its profile with an SME audience.

'ShareAnywhere helps our small business customers to make the most of their Android phones and drive productivity benefits when on the move,' says T-Mobile head of corporate affairs Robin O'Kelly. 'It's just one example of how small businesses can put Android applications to good use.'

Developing an app is hardly conventional territory for PR agencies, but Brands2Life head of b2b Dan Chappell says the tech issues were not 'too difficult.' The agency used its in-house development team to create the app.

Unsurprisingly, the best uses of mobile PR appear to be from mobile brands.

Threepipe's 'Cut it Out' campaign for Vodafone aimed to reduce mobile phone bullying. The agency devised a film-making competition. About 300,000 cinema-goers have downloaded the winning film via Bluetooth on to their handsets.

Threepipe co-founder Jim Hawker points out that the mobile channel is 'under-exploited' by PR. 'There's still a long way to go. I don't think we've had a brief that's asked us to really look at mobile. It's going to change.' Hawker points to a mobile salt calculator app developed last year by the Food Standards Agency for its campaign to better monitor salt consumption as an example.

On a related note, PRWeek learned of at least two PR agencies handling mobile app projects on behalf of healthcare clients - a natural fit given the regulations on healthcare advertising. In both cases, however, identities and details could not be disclosed.

ON THE MOVE - THE MUST-HAVE MOBILE DEVICES ... AND THE TECHNOLOGY THAT IS CHANGING COMMUNICATIONS

- Four mobile gadgets

The iPhone - Indisputably, the most important mobile device of the past decade. From a marketing perspective, the iPhone and iPod Touch have dramatically changed consumer communication by introducing apps as a regular everyday phenomenon. 'Brands are waking up to the fact that people will show their advocacy by having a brand installed on their phone,' says 1000heads engagement head James Whatley.

Blackberry Curve - 'It's still a lot better for messaging,' says Ruder Finn digital strategies director Ged Carroll. Mass usage among a business audience also makes the BlackBerry critically important when it comes to an upscale, early-adopting demographic.

Asus Eee PC - Caroll points out that the Taiwanese brand played a pivotal role in kick-starting the usage of mobile netbooks with the launch of the Eee PC. Priced affordably, the Eee PC - and all rival models that followed - are responsible for the rapid growth in mobile internet usage.

Huawei dongle - Few laptops are complete without a dongle, allowing mobile internet access from almost anywhere. Chinese brand Huawei has now shipped more than 10 million units.

- Four mobile technologies

Apps - Rapidly becoming a key comms channel for all types of firms. Examples include the RAC's routeplanner and NikeID trainer design app.

Location-based services - Social networking can now incorporate a user's location, offering a powerful new means of tailoring comms messages to consumers. Foursquare is perhaps the best illustration, with Domino's Pizza and Debenhams both enlisting PR support to offer specific rewards to users of the mobile site.

Augmented reality - Allows users to transpose a mobile view with external information. For example, Wikitude lets users hold their mobile phone cameras up to a street view and find information about their locations transposed onto their screens. 'You then take that to retailers or FMCG clients,' says Weber Shandwick global digital head James Warren. 'The opportunities are exciting and obvious.'

SMS - A little long in the tooth now, but SMS is still a powerful marketing tool. 'It's more about a call to action,' C arroll points out. In PR terms, of course, SMS has been used to drive the flashmob phenomenon, such as T-Mobile's effort last year.

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