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Think different: Some companies are targeting iPhone users when they go mobile

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Ask an iPhone user what the device means to him or her and you'll likely hear that its advanced capabilities and user-friendly interface have been nothing less than life-changing.

Read More: Sidebar: To optimize or not to optimize?

Such statements might sound like hyperbole—the ravings of an ardent group of Apple-eyed gadget geeks. But recent studies indicate there is truth behind them. The iPhone is changing lives, at least where mobile Web use is involved.

A survey of 50,000 U.S. households conducted by iSuppli Corp. in the fourth quarter of 2007 found that iPhone users spent just 46.5% of their time on the device making calls, compared to 71.7% for the typical cell phone user. The rest of the time, they were reading and sending e-mail, browsing the Web and checking out Google Maps, among other tasks.

As these consumers’ behaviors change so, too, must those of marketers. Realizing this, more companies are testing campaigns targeting iPhone users to determine whether the way to their hearts is the $400-plus device they’re carrying in their pocket.

One example is Payless Car Rental, which this month unveiled an iPhone-optimized Web site that helps consumers research and reserve rental cars with minimal typing and clicking. The site focuses on the functions that most interest mobile users, with buttons for “Reserve a Car,” “View, Modify, or Cancel Reservation” and “Locations.” It also has a “Call to Book” button that connects directly to a call center.

According to Justin Talerico, CEO of ion interactive, a company that offers iPhone-optimized landing pages and other post-click marketing services, optimization should improve consumers’ interactions with marketing messages. And even though the iPhone was designed for easy browsing of the Web in its traditional format, there is room for improvement.

“[iPhone users] come to the table in a more … purposeful state of mind,” Talerico said. “In a way, they’re easier to convert. But you make them harder to convert if you give them an experience that’s subpar.”

Companies can deliver more satisfactory iPhone browsing experiences by simplifying landing page messaging, developing pages that load quickly over lower bandwidth connections, using fonts that are readable on a 3.5-inch screen and eliminating the need to scroll, regardless of whether the device is in portrait or landscape mode, Talerico said.

Jeff Lin, project leader of Payless Car Rental’s Web marketing strategy team, believes optimization paid off for Payless. “The number of iPhone … visitors and bookings has increased many fold since the launch of the interface,” he said. The press that accompanied the debuth has also helped with branding, Lin added.

Payless drives traffic to its iPhone site through RSS feeds, publicity and links on www.apple.com and www.paylesscarrental.com. Other companies have used online advertising to connect iPhone users with optimized content, said Jason Spero, VP-marketing for mobile advertising network AdMob.

In April, AdMob client Land Rover Group made online advertising purchases targeted to iPhone users. When they clicked, consumers reached landing pages where they could watch video, view pictures, access a store locater and click-to-call for a test drive.

Companies can target advertising buys within AdMob’s network according to device manufacturers and models, country or region, demographic groups and other factors. Spero called Land Rover’s work “highly successful” and said iPhone users are only becoming more active. “We have seen traffic to iPhones and iTouch devices grow rapidly in the last year,” he noted.

As much as the iPhone has already altered mobile Web usage, Tara Lamberson, VP-marketing and strategy for marketing agency MindComet Corp., believes more “life-changing” developments are on the horizon.

The June release of Apple’s Software Development Kit means select external developers and enterprise customers will be able to create custom widgets, games and even software platforms for the device. Marketers can use branded versions of such applications to boost brand awareness or deliver a call to action, said Lamberson.

In the long term, Lamberson thinks truly advanced mobile marketing capabilities—things like geo-targeting based on a user’s GPS coordinates—aren’t unrealistic. But with such opportunity comes tremendous responsibility.

“Direct marketing on the iPhone should be permission-based,” she said. But for those consumers who wish to receive iPhone marketing, “companies can be more relevant just by using those devices.”

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