The future is unmistakeably mobile

smartphonesThis week’s Borrell conference on mobile money has revealed some fascinating concepts and thoughts that require elaboration. Let’s begin by acknowledging that nobody really “knows” where all of this is heading, but there are a lot of smart people milking the mobile space for everything they can get out of it. Some of it is extremely cool, but as you’d imagine, much of it falls into the “throw it against the wall and see if it sticks” variety.

Deseret Media president & CEO Clark Gilbert, whose keynote presentation was stunning in its thoughtful approach to the whole problem of the disruptions we face, noted that media companies may be facing a similar situation to what mainframe computers faced when PCs first came along. The mini-computer was disrupting the mainframe industry, but it was soon blown away by the PC. The mini-computer business didn’t see it coming, because the creators were convinced theirs was the disruptor. Blithely asking the question “Who would want a computer in their home?” was their real downfall. Gilbert suggested traditional media may be the mainframes with the Wired Web being the mini-computer disruption, but the real disruptor may be the Mobile Web. He wondered if media companies are really prepared.

One thing’s for sure; if media companies treat the Mobile Web as they have the Wired Web, we’re going to have serious problems, and that’s essentially what this conference was about.

Nexstar CEO Perry Sook noted that the portable media device will be “your wallet” in just a short period of time and thought about the day that “Your wallet is in your TV, and your TV is in your wallet.” Sweet, but perhaps a little unnerving for the average Joe.

Rob Weisbord of Sinclair talked about “geo-fencing,” the use of Bluetooth to build a sort of geographic force field on behalf of an advertiser who can then push messages to anybody driving through or walking through. While currently only available via app, Weisbord spoke of the day when the capability will be built into the operating systems of all mobile devices, thereby making it “app-less,” a regular part of your phone. You’d walk into Kroger and immediately receive a text message about deals and coupons. You’d drive past Wal-Mart and receive a similar text message. Add to that previous purchase knowledge, and it becomes a direct marketer’s dream.

One thing I noted (and tweeted) during the event was the unexpected blowback against Groupon, the mobile couponing company. Groupon provides deals on behalf of local advertisers and offers to partner with local media companies to help them get into the business and make some money along-the-way. Clark Gilbert noted that Groupon — and a host of other companies like them — aren’t driven by helping local media companies — they’re real mission is to harvest the media company’s email database, and the moment that harvesting begins to trend downward, they’ll leave and compete against their former partner. Two people mentioned this, and that awareness was refreshing and a sign that at least some people are beginning to figure out that the new media money space is all about data. I had not seen this before.

I wonder about many things when I’m among my friends in the business, and this time was no different. I wondered, for example, when we’ll stop assuming that we can push things at people without them pushing back. The Web — and by extension, the Mobile Web — is a direct-marketing marvel, and that very personal device you put in your pocket is your new mailbox. Nobody wants a mailbox full of stuff they didn’t ask for, and I think we underestimate this as we look at the future and what’s possible.

Another thing I wondered about was whether the people in the room truly understand what’s happening to them and their businesses. When media company reps stand up and tout their “content-driven product strategy,” I wince, because the evidence clearly shows that separating making money from content is the way to go. “Deals” was a popular topic, for example, but that has nothing to do with news content. It is trust in the brand that opens doors for new ventures, not content produced by those brands.

Bob Gilbert of Morris Media emphasized his company’s tablet strategy and stated that Morris believes tablets are a “do-over” for their whole business, a “start-over” to get things right. Their tablet product looks — amazingly — like a newspaper, because they want to “replicate the curation of print,” to “show connections to our roots,” and to “be a bridge from the old to the new for consumers.” I love the folks at Morris and wish them well, but this feels like a roll of the dice to me.

In reference to Clark Gilbert and Deseret Digital, several people mentioned throughout the day that it is the resources that Gilbert has at his disposal that allows his company to be so innovative. “We’re publicly traded and don’t have resources like that,” was the comment. I want to reiterate Gilbert’s response to that statement: “What choice do we have?” I think that’s a fair question.

I also think that is the number one takeaway from this conference. Mobile is on us like a freight train, and we’ll never capture a winning share of the ad market, if we don’t invest and invest well.

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