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Is the mobile commerce future here yet?

By Matt Murphy

When I think of our industry and mobile commerce, the impatience shown by some of the futurists reminds me a bit of kids on a long car trip – “Are we there yet?” After a quick reassurance that no, the lake is still six hours away, the question inevitably comes from the back seat again in just minutes. “How about now?”

The same can be said for mobile commerce. Maybe the future is here for the players in the mobile ecosystem, but most consumers – at least, American ones – are not quite ready yet.

And as consumers become comfortable with the concept of buying something more concrete than just a ringtone with their mobile phones, there is a lot that has to happen behind the scenes to make a mobile commerce future the current reality.

Mobile commerce – quite simply “the ability to easily purchase products through a mobile device” – is the next big thing for us mobile marketers. It seems pretty obvious, right?

An ABI Research analyst was quoted as saying he expected “hockey-stick growth for m-commerce in 2010,” but later sped up his hockey stick’s appearance to 2009.

Opt in, tune out
Consumers have grown increasingly comfortable with purchasing digital goods, ringtones, applications and even e-books through their mobile devices, particularly with the advent of the Apple iPad, Amazon Kindle and other tools that are not mobile phones, but are not laptops, either.

But with all that said, we have to remember: mobile phones are still utilitarian devices that are designed to do a handful of things very well, but they were not, and should not, be designed to merely stream advertising to consumers.

While much of our focus as mobile marketers – and certainly the focus of my clients – has involved pushing advertisements and other offers to the mobile phone, consumers are getting savvier.

Consumers have figured out how to work around advertisements on TV and banner ads online, and it is only a matter of time before they tune out irrelevant ads and offers on their mobile devices – if they have not already.

Also, consumers will also grow to understand their ability to opt-in and opt out of mobile marketing messages is rather easy. This month’s Alcatel-Lucent announcement will likely increase their understanding of permission-based marketing.

It is very likely that there will soon be a shakedown similar to the one that telemarketers faced with the advent of the Do Not Call list in 2004. It will be incumbent upon us, then, to make sure we are giving consumers offers and content that they find useful.

And for a consumer who is ready to buy, what is more useful than having that ability to do so right from their mobile device?

Marketers should focus not on standard advertisements, but on uses and applications that ultimately transform the mobile commerce experience and make it easier and more convenient for all users to capitalize on this technology to purchase products and services.

But what will it take for mobile commerce to truly become part of the mainstream?

As I see it, significant advances still need to be made in three areas:

Usability: There is still a long way to go to ensure that purchasing on a mobile device is as easy as possible.

Mobile buying cannot be more than a handful of clicks, and that includes entering payment – or more importantly, not entering payment information but being automatically billed by just entering a simple mobile purchase password – and shipping information (no need).

Companies such as Amazon and eBay have done a good job with iPhone applications that enable users to easily access their account settings. But the next step is making this capability as easy as possible via the mobile Web or even SMS.

Payments: There are new technologies that are making this much easier, and PayPal continues to innovate in the space.

We are not at the point where a mobile user can walk up to a kiosk and pay with their mobile phone – yet. But wireless carriers are working with brands to help make that a reality.

Proximity: This continues to be a huge missed opportunity.

Say you are at a concert – want an instant download of the show? Or a T-shirt? Concertgoers should be able to do this by simply sending a text message in response to creative that ties into display advertising at the event.

And it is already happening, mostly by allowing users to send messages via SMS to display on big screens while waiting for the show to start. But there is much more that can be done with existing technologies.

So is the mobile commerce future here?

No. But there is a huge opportunity for brands, creative agencies, technology providers, payment platforms and carriers to build the bridge to the future.

Matt Murphy is founder and executive director of Fusion92, a Chicago digital marketing agency. Reach him at [email protected].