The story of mobile coupons has been one of potential - both great and unrealized - and herein lies its problem. Coupons may have entered the mobile space with inherent advantages, but it has also carried with it a burden of expectation. A known, trusted, and widely adopted means of achieving added value, couponing history is both generations old, and deeply embedded in consumer behavior. With the benefit of no steep conceptual learning curve to grapple with and no hard sell required for mass uptake, consumers anticipated that the simplicity and ease of use that had been instrumental in helping print coupons to achieve their longevity, would be just as evident in its mobile state. So why hasn't that happened?
The best of times; the worst of times
In this golden age of technology, history may document the rush to digitize, mobilize, and ultimately monetize industries old and new as a singular wave. In truth a more accurate account of this time would also highlight the epic struggle that such radical transformation brings to all industries and dependent commercial ecosystems when some surge forward at terrific rates of speed and others are left stranded, treading water. The mobile coupon has been subject to the push and pull of these dynamics.
Consumers, mobile devices in hand, value-conscious mindset intact, stand ready to receive, but marketers face an altogether more challenging set of conditions in delivering on their expectations. Current technology provides a wealth of options in delivering mobile coupons to consumers but the experience falls short at the point of redemption, if not sooner. Solutions like Singapore's mWallet from SingTel seem a good vehicle for mobile coupons but a long list of prerequisites (including replacing your SIM) can quickly make the ease and accessibility factors mobile coupons promise feel a distant dream.
The same economic conditions that have bolstered the desire for greater value and coupons as a means of achieving it for consumers have also put downward pressure on the retail industry. While some have had the means to invest in making mobile coupons work (including in-store scanning devices, staff training, synchronized redemption policies between retailers and manufacturers, and the necessary back office systems), not all have. As such, the proposition currently lacks the necessary scalability (and therefore value) to be a marketer's weapon of choice. Despite best efforts, iOS Passbook and Google Wallet for Android still suffer from a lack of acceptance that's less than universal, at the point of sale.
A tale of two locations
A recent example from the U.S. illustrates some of the issues facing mobile couponing today. Target, a leading retailer with the benefit of value pricing, a broad product spectrum, and near ubiquitous locations, delivered an SMS mobile couponing campaign offering $10 off purchases of $40 or more. (A recent survey shows Target scored second only to Walmart as the most popular retailer with consumer check-ins across social networks - an indication of how receptive their customers are to digital engagement with the brand.) Unfortunately, the campaign fell short of consumer expectations, as delivery of the coupon was promised within 24 hours. This lack of immediacy can spell disappointment to even the most loyal brand consumers and takes no account of the spontaneous, nearby, or even in-store shopper.
The increasingly important role location has to play in mobile campaigns, including mobile coupon campaigns, speaks to the larger issue of personal relevance. Marketers must first ask where the consumer is to build a fluid and intuitive campaign. After all, what's right for a consumer at home or a fixed other location, is not necessarily right for those who are on the move and where mobile engagement can really take hold. The consumer journey might take them online, offline, in-store, and back online again (using the SoLoMo strategy) and breach the distance between engagement and loyalty in one gracious movement.
As back office systems and in-store point-of-sale devices catch up with consumer expectations, marketers still have to keep a watchful eye on the other parameters of context driving the mobile revolution and the demand for better brand experiences and more value. With "Big Data" and the "Internet of Things" looming large on the horizon, there seems no slowing of the rate of development for the digital world. How quickly brands can overcome the fragmented ecosystem and implement the real-world solutions required to benefit from it will tell a whole different story - one where mobile coupons are as universally accepted as their paper counterparts were.
By Christian Geissendoerfer, co-founding member of LBMA (Location Based Marketing Association) Singapore and CEO of Yoose.
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