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Shopper marketing goes mobile


By Jeff Weidauer

Retailers must frequently discern between trends and fads in their daily business decisions. Trends are long-term changes in behavior, where fads are short-lived and fleeting in their impact. Both require an investment of time and money to make the most of, but how much of each depends on the likely return.

There is little doubt in the minds of most marketers that mobile is here to stay as an essential part of the media mix. For some target markets, mobile is the only viable method of contact. The question of which side of the trend/fad fence QR codes fall on is still up for healthy debate.

QR codes are two-dimensional barcodes that can be scanned by a mobile device. They provide a link to some external content, in the form of a website, a video, or just about anything that can be accessed online. And while they are ubiquitous in Japan, the United States has been slow to adopt them as a way to engage mobile device users. Only in the past few months has there been any real awareness or knowledge of these codes.

To be clear, the question is not whether the relevant content that QR codes can provide is a long-term necessity; shoppers expect and even demand information about the products they buy. That expectation is not likely to subside. But the methodology, i.e. how the shopper accesses that information, will almost certainly change. Depending on how long it takes for QR codes to reach critical mass in terms of awareness and engagement, they could be very quickly supplanted by newer technology that uses image recognition or so-called "invisible watermarks" to carry the same information.

Whether QR codes, image recognition, or some other technology prevails, the underlying benefits—and challenges—will be the same. Specifically, shopper engagement via these technologies is dependent upon the existence of relevant and compelling content that the shopper chooses to seek out, and which keeps her coming back. The content is the hard part, and will determine whether a given mobile campaign is deemed successful or not.

This does not mean there's time to take a “wait and see” approach. The point is that whether the connectivity is driven by QR code, image recognition, or (looking far ahead) hologram, right now is the time to define the shopper marketing mobile strategy and start learning about what does and doesn't work.

The initial effort is to support the front end: is the mobile connection through a branded app or on the mobile web? What is the content, and is it scalable? Should it reflect the company's current website, or be something unique? There will be development investments required regardless of the answers to these questions.

In addition to the front-end connection, there is the question of back-end analytics. Much of the promise of mobile shopper marketing is about deriving useful insights from shopper behavior through the data that can be captured and mined.

The complexities of this analysis and what to do with the insights it generates are difficult to overestimate; this isn't something the majority of retailers will want to attempt in-house. But the skill-set—whether outsourced or homegrown—will be a critical one in the near-term in order to drive loyalty.

The days of competing solely on price are nearly gone; Walmart occupies the price space in the consumer mind, and it's far too easy to check prices right at the shelf edge using a mobile device to see which store really is cheapest. In order to gain any form of loyalty from shoppers, it's quickly becoming necessary to learn more about them and provide options based on real behavior.

The full promise of mobile shopper marketing will be realized by those who invest today and understand that, inherent in every big opportunity, is risk. But that risk can be mitigated by planning for change and never getting too attached to one specific technology. Most important is to follow the shopper to learn how she is interacting, and to use that knowledge to drive decisions.

Jeff Weidauer is vice president of marketing for Vestcom International Inc., a Little Rock, Ark.-based provider of integrated shopper marketing solution. Reach him at [email protected], or visit

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