Give Me Mobile-First or Give Me Death

The consumer shift to mobile has become cliché.

I was on a call with a prospect recently, a smart guy responsible for discovering and recommending emerging media partners for his brand teams. He listens to (endures?) vendor pitches for a living and when I got to the part about being mobile-first he sort of chuckle-sighed. I stopped and asked him about his reaction.

“Everyone starts their pitch with the same story about mobile. It’s so obvious.”


I’ve been feeling this fatigue as well. It does seem obvious at this point, almost not worth mentioning. Globally, a majority of our digital time is spent on smartphones and tablets. And though the growth numbers are staggering, we haven’t hit the plateau yet as smartphone sales growth is still massive.


But short of the billions of ad dollars moving into mobile – social, search, and display – the majority of marketers just don’t seem to have made the psychological shift required.

A casual stroll through my Facebook and Twitter feeds on my iPhone always ends on a desktop or badly responsive experience.

Our customers are mobile-first, but we are not.

Additionally, I’ve been seeing more and more vendors, from the biggest and brightest to the newest and most innovative, trying to convince me that, as a marketer, creating a single responsive experience that works across devices is totally the way to go.


Today, “responsive” tends to mean desktop-first that degrades or adjusts for tablet and smartphone. These are experiences that are tuned for desktop users, usually for search, display, or email-referred traffic. With a bit of reworking, entire websites – or at least the most important parts – can be made responsive to such an extent that they won’t render like desktop sites on tablets and smartphones.

If you are a consumer-facing company and you land me on a desktop experience on either my phone or tablet, I’m gone. If you paid to reach me, you got me to click and then you lost me. There are millions like me and you’re wasting your business’s hard earned money.


I’m slightly more accepting of responsive experiences on my tablet but only barely.

The only solution is to flip the design approach and start your concepting on smartphones, ideally iPhone since it is smallest. This is the mobile-first approach – start on the smallest screen and build from there.

Hey, I get it. I spent many years on the brand side at adidas as well as on the agency side at Razorfish. It’s expensive and time-consuming to make three versions of every campaign experience you create. Managing media spends across publishers, channels, and devices is insane, and don’t get me started on the analytics quagmire that device-custom experiences create.

Here’s a recommendation: Pick a channel. As the majority of high-value consumers are now mobile, social is a good place to start because more than 70 percent of daily Facebook and Twitter users are on mobile devices. For your next campaign that includes social media advertising or marketing, insist that the entire campaign be developed mobile-first. From media plans to ad creative through landing experiences and conversion optimization, spend the majority of your effort on smartphone consumers.

I’m not talking about making apps, I’m talking about mobile Web experiences tuned for social audiences. If you or your agency isn’t able to design for the mobile Web, there are great vendors who are developing mobile-first content management and publishing platforms that make the process and management a lot easier.

As my team and I have made this transition to mobile-first campaign development, we’ve gleaned some interesting insights. A few highlights are below.

Mobile-First Campaign Learning

1. Think about engagement actions and conversion actions, every time.

Engagement actions
a. Photos
b. Videos
c. Coupons
d. Products
e. Etc.

Conversion actions
f. Email capture
g. Click to app (movie tickets, iTunes, etc.)
h. Click to app install
i. Retail finder
j. Etc.

2. Designing for the small screen is, in some ways, considerably easier than it is for websites or microsites. Again, we’re not building apps here, the mobile Web/rich ad experience context forces you to simplify the actions and the design. 

a. Be realistic about what your audience will do. One to two compelling engagement actions, one or two compelling conversion actions, minimal scrolling, and no more than three fields on a form. Keep it really simple to drive the best performance.
b. Clickable elements must be large enough for fat finger taps, but not so big they look silly, and with such little real estate, you can’t include a lot of links.
c. Clicks shouldn’t be too close together; traditional website navigation is just too much here.
d. In these experiences, basic gestures like swipe and pinch should be considered, but more advanced app-like interactivity is less important.
e. Performance in the form of load times, responsiveness, and look and feel matter. A lot. The mobile Web traditionally feels a bit more sluggish than native apps but with the right dev, this doesn’t have to be the case.

3. These experiences, while able to support referral traffic from other mobile sources (search, email, and display, for example), should be tuned for specific audiences and segments. In social it’s the segment/ad/landing page combination that drives the most conversions. For search, keyword group/ad/landing page is the model combination. Ideally you’re building your mobile ad experiences on an agile content management platform that enables you to quickly tune creative, content, and conversion for your key segments. Because they are lightweight and built for campaign cycles, they don’t require much depth and should be quick to build, manage, and optimize.

Marketers must quickly make the transition to mobile-first thinking, as it requires a new set of strategies and expertise. Most marketers can’t fully switch to mobile-first for every element of every campaign, but in social for example, you must. The sooner you get your team and agencies developing their mobile-first chops, the sooner you’ll be promoted.

It’s boring to hear it again and though you might think it’s obvious, it couldn’t be more obvious to your customers who engage your brand on their phone. Stop acquiescing to your agencies and vendors and start running truly mobile-first campaigns.

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