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Why 2012 will finally be the year of mobile

This article was originally posted to the Weber Shandwick Social Studies Blog.

“Next year will be the year of mobile.”

Stop me if you’ve heard this statement before, but in 2012 it’s going to happen – though I’ll forgive your cynicism as it comes from a legitimate place.

As marketers we’ve been hearing this is “the year of mobile” since American Idol brought SMS to the mainstream nearly a decade ago.  While this was a huge leap forward for the relevance of the mobile phone in our culture, it also represented a very different kind of mobile experience than the one consumers are having today.  And it points to the problem with those previous predictions – we were thinking about mobile as a different kind of medium than it actually is.

SMS conditioned many marketers to think that mobile is a push-based platform, which many have refused to let go of.  While SMS is an increasingly relied upon tool in the personal communications arsenal of individuals, the evolving devices that now sit in their pockets are able to do so much more in 2011 than they could in 2002.  And while apps, GPS, bluetooth, built-in cameras and many more features have grown in prominence and mindshare, the reality is smartphones are now fully portable computing devices which enable access to something far more vast – the world wide web.

With improved network access and screen resolution, the mobile web browsing experience is improving as each new phone hits the market.  Consumers are taking notice, using this access to gain the sort of information – once reserved for their personal computer – from wherever they’re located.  According to Google (who knows a thing or two about search) mobile searches have increased 400% since 2010 and by 2013 more people will use their mobile phone to access the internet than their PCs.

And these numbers continue to grow.  Rapidly.

According to eMarketer, 33.8% of the total US population (Google and Ipsos tell us this number represents 50% of American adults) will have smartphones by the end of next year.  By comparison Facebook (the platform marketers are climbing over their mothers to develop a presence on) was being used by a mere 42.3% of the US population as of February 2011.  That’s a pretty small gap in usage considering the disparity in attention from marketers – especially when Facebook themselves are so invested.  This year at the f8 conference, Facebook VP of Partnerships, Vaughn Smith noted that “We expect our next billion users will come primarily on mobile”.

Yet still, varied statistics are showing that only somewhere between 8-11% of major consumer brands have a website that’s optimized for a mobile device.

You see, the year of mobile isn’t being driven by marketers, which is a reason for the cynicism that could be associated with my claim.  The mobile revolution is completely in the hands (and pockets) of the consumer.  When you look at the top 10 gifts on holiday wishlists for 2011, you’ll see Tablets and Smartphones right at the top.  And not because consumers are looking for a shinier screen to text from.  Consider that according to a 2011 Compuware study, 23% of adults have cursed at their phone when a mobile site doesn’t work, Google and Lightspeed Research tell us that 70% of smartphone users have compared prices on their phones and 50% of 2010 mobile product searches lead to purchase, and according to eMarketer, mobile searches for online retailers have increased 95% from September 2010 to September 2011.

With all of that in mind, consider your own smartphone use and ask yourself – can your brand afford to be cynical for another year?