Mobile advertising should be about 'take permission, don't spy, don't spam': Tomi Ahonen

Tomi Ahonen, who is considered one of the foremost experts in mobile, talks about the future of mobile and whether India is on the right track in the mobile ecosystem

e4m by Abhinn Shreshtha
Updated: May 28, 2015 8:24 AM  | 10 min read
Mobile advertising should be about 'take permission, don't spy, don't spam': Tomi Ahonen

Tomi Ahonen is an Author and Consultant and considered one of the foremost experts in the field of mobile. In February 2012, Forbes magazine listed Ahonen as one of the most influential thought leaders on mobile in the world. Ahonen pens his thoughts on the mobile ecosystem on his blog ‘Communities Dominate Brands’. An ex-Nokia executive, he firmly believes in the idea that mobile advertising should be about “take permission, don’t spy, don’t spam”. He has written 12 books on the mobile ecosystem.

We caught up with him for a brief chat on the ever changing mobile ecosystem. Excerpts.

The mobile has emerged as a powerful marketing tool but we seem to be at a crossroads between traditional ideas being adapted to the mobile and creating new ways to engage with customers. Is the mobile advertising ecosystem heading in the right direction?

We can definitely use mobile as a very powerful media. It is the most creative platform that ever existed, it has the widest reach. It is the only mass media platform that reaches the entire emerging world. Within those opportunities, all traditional marketing and advertising make sense to do on the mobile. I have no problem with that.

However, right from the start of the mobile marketing industry I have been promoting that we should do something magical; something better and more on mobile than what we do on TV, print, internet and radio. I would like to move to an era where people don’t think of the mobile phone as an advertising medium at all. I would like to see as a medium for customer loyalty, cross-selling, up-selling and engagement. It is such a personal medium. No other medium is closer to our heart than the mobile phone. We don’t read the newspaper placing the mobile phone behind the newspaper. We don’t watch TV placing the mobile phone behind the TV. It is always between us and any other medium.

If we take this and build the love and the passion and the ability around it, we can build something; what BJ Yang, CEO of AirCROSS, South Korea’s biggest mobile advertising company, means when he says that mobile is a fun, personal playground. If you do mobile marketing right, the consumer will love it because it is fun. It is personalized so they feel it is relevant and it is a playground; they can manipulate the marketing experience. They can gamify it so it is rewarding to them.

India seems to be at a very interesting point right now in terms of how the mobile ecosystem is taking off here.

‘Advergaming’; the advertising and gaming idea was invented in India; not in Japan, Korea or Finland. The opportunity for doing social media and advertising; to include mobile payments, coupons and loyalty payments for some fulfilment can be all done on the mobile.

I think we are now at the point, India is definitely at the point, where the medium is so well accepted and there are major brands and media houses here that no one doubts the power of mobile. We can move beyond just copying from other media to the mobile.

To answer your question, India is in a very good position right now because no one needs to understand the medium (mobile); now they need to understand how to move to the next level. Of course we can always do the branding but take the example of OMO detergent in South Africa; they started providing talktime to their customers on buying OMO. Now, since they know when you have bought the detergent, they could message the customer telling them that it is time to buy OMO. Sales went up by 60 per cent. The consumer no longer thought of it as marketing or spam. They do not think of as advertising or branding; it now becomes customer service.

As an industry we are slowly moving towards this but, unfortunately, most of the use of mobile is still very basic advertising and I would like for us to move more into the deep engagement, involvement sort of marketing.

This is something that the Mobile Marketing Association (MMA) has been teaching right from the start; deliver value to the consumer, don’t spam and don’t spy. Be honest to the customer and ask for their permission. When we take these extra steps, we will get customers who are honest with us and who talk to us. If a consumer hates us, if he is never going to buy my product, why would I speak with him? It is a crazy concept from old media.

Do you think this could, in some part, be a case of mobile being a victim of its own success? The pace of change in digital, especially mobile, not allowing brands to adapt to the medium.

That is a good point. We see this (adaptation) at different speeds in different parts of the world. Take the USA; very advanced in internet and computers but lagging behind in mobile. This is because they have so many options—DVD players, video game consoles, digital television, broadband, tablet, laptop, etc. The mobile industry did not have to grow fast. The consumer had a million choices and it is difficult for the digital strategist to pick the right things to do. We have the same problem in Sweden, Finland, South Korea, etc.

But in India, China, Brazil, Kenya, Nigeria, Indonesia, etc. there is no race; there is no contest. Everyone knows that digital is mobile first. You do the other digital platforms later if you want to but you always do mobile first. In these countries it is easier to understand the future that is coming because you did not have to go through the legacy in the middle, so one can directly leapfrog into mobile.

And mobile is the future. The largest PC company in the world; HP, the largest software company in the world; Microsoft, the largest internet company; Google, the largest social networking company; Facebook, the largest credit card company; Visa, all say that the future is mobile. And if they all say this then it probably is right. If that really is the future, then why bother learning the legacy PC internet which is going to be a minority.

This is a young person’s industry and India is a young country so everyone who comes to digital automatically gets into mobile. This also means that any successes here can be taken to countries like Sri Lanka, Saudi Arabia, Nepal, Pakistan, etc. If it works here it will work anywhere in the emerging world and it might also work in Europe and North America.

This raises a question, and one that is being debated in India currently, where a number of brands see the mobile app as the way forward, to the exclusion of even the desktop website and mobile website. Do you think this is the right option for the long-term?

I think you touched on one of the critical debates taking place in the tech industry. Some people believe that the primary platform of mobile services will be smartphone apps. Others believe that the primary platform will be the mobile web. There has been a big debate about this for the past 7 years. I am one of those people who believe that the majority of services will be on the mobile web.

Apps are good for games but beyond games, there are very few areas; maybe some business apps, Facebook, some other special instances. But most of the usage has to take place on HTML. If you want to win an award in Cannes or want to build a super, sci-fi, augmented reality thing using the full power of the phone then make an app. It will be wonderful but you will get 6,000 downloads.

There are certain cost functions here. A standard app for a brand in the West costs around $20,000. The same app experience, and most app experiences can also be done on HTML, on HTML will cost $2,000. Updating that HTML site will work across devices but to update an app you will need to do separate updates for all the different OS in the market.

While we now have a nice collection of apps from different brands, many of them are not ready to update their apps when they see that they have only got 8,000-12,000 downloads. We are seeing that kind of economics now coming in. At the same time, the mobile web experts like Google are teaching us that you have to optimize for the mobile and once you are optimized you get 160 per cent better engagement rate. It pays for itself over a weekend. When these kinds of lessons are coming in from someone like Google, everybody should pay attention.

Having said this, every strong brand should be on everything, whether it is SMS, MMS, augmented reality, app, voicemail, etc. to reach out to customers but the major part of customer service in the future, I believe, will be on HTML. But this is still an argument and we have to see where the economics lead us.

You spoke earlier about some predictions you got wrong.
My most famous one was about Location-based Services (LBS). In my first book in 2002 I said the strongest area of growth in the mobile data industry will be LBS. By my next book I had to admit that I was wrong and it would not happen. There have been some of these.

Another example is Nokia. I was promising in 2010 that Nokia and Symbian would be the largest smartphone platform in the world even now (2015). Then in 2011, the new CEO of Nokia went to Microsoft and Windows and Nokia collapsed.

It is interesting that you brought up the Nokia example. One way of looking at their debacle is that they never really concentrated on the application ecosystem.
Yes. They really greatly angered all of their partners with their sudden move from Symbian to Windows. Windows had no developers; it supported no languages, no non-English languages, they did not support any of the carriers. The first version of Nokia Windows smartphone was not even in production when it was announced. They said they will not use the current version but the one later. Their developers were like, “What are you doing? You promised us a beautiful future on Symbian and now you are saying that this is all useless and we have to use a new system that is not even deployed?”

It was really bad management in that transition. In February 2011, when Nokia announced its new Microsoft strategy, I said it was a very dangerous gamble for Nokia to make. It was possible for Nokia to succeed because it was the largest handset maker in the world and Microsoft was the largest software maker. Nokia had tried to make software and had struggled and Microsoft had tried to make handsets and had struggled with it. The partnership did make sense if they both had done what they specialized in but because I had seen how Nokia and Microsoft had been in the past I predicted that this was a divorce waiting to happen.

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