October 10, 2012, 1:01 PM

The keys to mobile-first success

Keep things simple, exploit the device and merchandise well, an MMCF speaker says.

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Two years ago HotelTonight was a diagram of smartphone screens on a piece of paper, a mobile commerce dream. Today it’s a successful mobile-only business that enables consumers to book deeply discounted hotel rooms at the last minute. The app—there’s a mobile commerce site, too—has been downloaded 3.3 million times and is among the top 10 travel apps in the Apple App Store, HotelTonight reports.

Sam Shank, CEO and co-founder of HotelTonight, outlined eight keys to success for a mobile-first business today at the 2012 Internet Retailer Mobile Marketing & Commerce Forum in San Diego during a session entitled “How HotelTonight is blazing a trail as a mobile-only company.”

First he said a business should be simple and focused. “If you can’t get it into five words it’s not simple enough,” Shank said. “You have to get this app because of these five words. For any mobile strategy out there, it’s not enough to say it’s like our web site. What does the app do that is unique and beneficial that saves times and money?”

Shank gave some examples. For HotelTonight, it’s “Book last-minute hotel deals.” For Instagram, it’s “Make my photos look cool,” and for Coaster, “Skip the bar line,” he said.

Consumers must be able to complete m-commerce tasks efficiently with a mobile-first business, Shank said. “With us you can book in three taps and then swipe the third screen,” he said. “Make sure that what the product does can be delivered very efficiently and quickly. When you start mobile from the ground up, you can make it very easy and streamlined.” He said this is especially the case because a mobile-first business is not dealing with existing information systems created for a web site.

Merchandising must be superb to succeed mobile-first, Shank said. “It’s hard to do merchandising on these small devices,” he explained. “You need to start over and think about what consumers want on a mobile device. We’ve optimized all our own content for the mobile devices. We take our own photos. We build profiles that are easy to read and easy to digest, bite-sized and bulleted.”

Then a successful mobile-first business must exploit the device, taking advantage of what makes a mobile device unique, Shank said. “You have to think beyond a reflection of a web site. What does a mobile device have that a computer doesn’t have? Location, camera, accelerometer, people carry it around all the time. With the portability and persistence of it you can make things very personalized and contextually relevant to consumers.”

Customer support is another key to success for a mobile-first company, Shank said. “We realized early on if we didn’t have great customer support and the customer had a bad experience it reflected poorly on the brand and reduced our credibility,” he said. “We added technology for real-time chat in customer support, which is better than a phone call because you don’t have to talk to anyone, and it’s more real-time than e-mail. We're happy to have that extra customer interaction and blow their minds.”

To succeed, a mobile-first business must sell only great products, Shank added. “If you don’t, they’re going to feel bad about you and write a bad review in the app store,” he said. “We curated our hotels and if reviews are bad we’ll take them off HotelTonight. It just isn’t worth it for us for someone to have a bad experience.”

Another key is pricing consumers can trust, Shank said. “Customers don’t shop around as much in mobile because it’s harder to open up multiple apps and browser windows,” he said. “If they find out they could have gotten a cheaper price than yours, they will feel burned and not come back.”

And finally mobile-first businesses must entertain customers where possible, Shank said. He cited the colorful art on the splash page that a consumer sees when opening the HotelTonight app. Taking off from HotelNight’s logo of a line drawing of a bed, it’s a 3-D rendering of a bed made up of hotel room windows. HotelTonight hired a British artist who specializes in 3-D imagery to create the graphical presentation, and it changes the art with each upgrade of the app.

Overall, Shank said the biggest realization he and his team had about operating in a mobile-only m-commerce world is that an app store rating is the equivalent of a company scorecard. A rating goes beyond the quality of graphics and whether or not an app crashes—it’s about the entire span of interacting with a company, he said.

“If your company isn’t optimized for customer satisfaction, your reviews will suffer and that will lead to negative challenges for app distribution,” he said. “If you increase your app store ratings you are increasing customer satisfaction with your entire business. It’s a Yelp review for a mobile business. We spend a lot of time looking into reviews.”

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