Mobile first means creating a digital strategy that assumes consumers will be primarily using a smartphone to interact with brands. The concept has grown in importance during 2015 and there are some very good reasons for that.
Rewind a few years to 2007 when we all used desktops and laptops to access the internet.
That year Apple launched the iPhone, and a year later HTC introduced the first Android smartphone (The Dream). In 2008 apps were first used and in 2010 the iPad was launched.
Fast forward to the latest figures for device penetration and we see that smartphones are used by 76% of people in the UK, tablets by 50% – both growing – whilst laptop/desktop penetration is 58% and has been declining since 2014 (sources: emarketer /mintel/statistica). Smartphones have now overtaken laptops as the most important device for connecting to the internet in the UK (Ofcom Communications Market Report 2015).
The simple truth is that people probably won’t replace their current laptop, or even bother to buy one in the first place!

Why do people need a laptop anymore?

This came into sharp focus recently when I was giving my sons’ friend a lift home from school and he was complaining that he had to buy a laptop for schoolwork. He argued that he didn’t know how to use one and neither did his parents – there was no laptop in the home at all and they had never needed one. All of the internet driven activity was carried out on smartphone and tablet.
And in recent research we have been speaking to people who do not own a laptop and never intend to buy one. Why should they? The laptop has become a work machine, a machine for the school, university or office. If one doesn’t do any of those things, now that smartphones and tablets allow internet access, why buy one?
That trend is also appearing at the other end of the age spectrum with retirees. They are beginning to embrace tablets and smartphones, whilst ditching the cumbersome laptop. The laptop is being resigned to a device that is firmly entrenched in the business world, whilst consumers young and old are interacting with brands more conveniently using smartphones and tablets.

You may ask, so what?

A good question. Another good question is ‘It’s simple to optimise desktop webpages to mobile screens, so what else do I need to think about?’. Well, I think there’s quite a few issues regarding a marketing strategy that should be taken on board that marketers may take for granted, but inquisitive researchers should question. Here are six to begin with:
Email. Firstly, I think brands should seriously question using email as a communication channel. It was invented for work and delivers information in a slow, cumbersome way. Email boxes are bulging at the seams whilst increasingly we use messaging apps and social media to communicate on our smartphones. Emails are associated with spam, junk and work. The only reason younger people put up with it, is because older people still use it.
Display advertising. Display advertising targets consumers brilliantly via mobile, but how is it perceived by users? By its nature, mobile is a personal device with a small screen that we use habitually for short periods of time. This means that banner ads in web pages are interruptions to the browsing experience – they result in pages taking longer to load, requirements to scroll, rendering problems, repetitive exposure to the same creative and disruptions to the way we consume content. People put up with it and it irritates them.
Mobile video advertising.With the advent of place-shifting, rise of OTT, YouTube and Chromecast, it’s clear that in future people will be consuming video on demand more often on smartphones and will be exposed more to video advertising which has a greater capacity to deliver enjoyable ads. A mobile first strategy should consider that scaling TV ads to suit mobile may be a better spend of budget than banners or MPU.
Voice. A strong mobile first strategy will embrace the core differences between laptop and smartphone. Voice is increasingly being used to search – ask any parent and they will tell you that kids who use tablets (many too young to read and write) have been using voice for many years and this behaviour has gradually become normalised. A mobile first strategy should assume that voice input will be a more prominent way to interact with brands via mobile than typed input.
Mobility. Although it’s true to say that a great deal of smartphone usage takes place in home, the mobility of smartphones means that brands can assume their content is consumed everywhere. This presents opportunities for brands to use location based approaches in a huge range of scenarios: in retail, grocery, whilst travelling, at cinemas, restaurants, airports, bars, sports venues etc. With beacon technology being introduced during 2016 in the UK, it’s a great opportunity for a mobile first strategy.
Website design. Mobile first does not mean repurposing a desktop webpage design. As laptops increasingly are consigned to business use we will need to reinvent websites to be designed from the bottom up to be mobile first – no clicking into sub menus, but much more swiping left and right to navigate between pages, and more tapping / pinching to access content.

Mobile first is more than just the website

To summarise, as a research agency we see many clients assuming that laptop and desktop websites are more important to research over smartphone and tablet apps. As business people we use them all day long and the perception is that everybody does, but that really isn’t the case anymore.
A truly mobile first approach requires a re-think about communications strategy, the opportunities mobile offers and an assumption that in a few years from now the consumer will be interacting digitally with brands predominantly on smartphones.
A version of this story featured on the Research Live website here.