Like 50 million other smartphone users, I'm addicted to Waze, a free crowdsourced traffic app that speeds drivers around slowdowns by tracking what other users are doing. Waze is a useful and nearly bulletproof resource that succeeds where 30 years and billions of dollars of government investments in traffic management have failed. Google bought it for $1 billion earlier this year.
Waze was developed independently, but there's no reason it couldn't have sprung from Hertz, Garmin, Amtrak or any other organization that's in the business of getting people from one place to another. That isn't likely to happen, though. Most marketers are still too focused on pushing messages to see the bigger opportunity that mobility presents.
People will spend more minutes online using mobile devices than PCs this year. The mobile app field is wide open, and anybody can play. The winners will be those companies that put value ahead of captive customers.
Opportunities are everywhere. While walking through Savannah looking for a place to get some work done last week, I instinctively sought out Starbucks. I don't like the coffee, but that chain has branded itself brilliantly as a safe haven for business nomads. Hey, Marriott and Hilton, how about an app that guides me to a comfy chair and reliable Wi-Fi connection in any city?
My hotel's wireless signal was terrible and the room lacked a desk. Leisure travelers on TripAdvisor raved about the place, but an app that delivered hotel reviews specifically for business travelers would have guided me elsewhere. How about it, Orbitz?
FedEx tells me where its drop boxes are, but not where I can find a more convenient DHL location. Why would it do that? Because such an app would become an essential utility on my phone, giving FedEx a precious marketing asset: my attention.
Marketers that treat mobile apps as just another delivery channel are making the same mistake they did 15 years ago. Mobility is bigger than branding; it's a chance to become part of customers' daily lives.
Think of your own smartphone experience. Chances are you've tried out dozens of apps but you've settled on just a few that deliver outstanding utility. You tell your friends about them and link them to your Facebook account. They've become trusted companions. Now look at how many of those apps bear the brands of companies with which you do business. Chances are it's less than two.
In a world of infinite choice, the winners will be those that deliver the highest value. If that means directing some business to your competition, so be it. You can win 100% of a market nobody cares about or 10% of a market of millions. Which would you rather do?
Paul Gillin's latest book is “Attack of the Customers: Why Critics Assault Brands Online and How to Avoid Becoming a Victim.”