To Mob the Web Fantastic: Mobile- and Social Media Confluence Strategies for Brick-and-Mortars

There is as much blood in a Bloody Mary, as there is actual resolve in the average New Year’s resolution. Today is January 24, and the pavement on the road to hell never looked so resplendent in abandoned self-betterment. Take a notion that struck you as clever just a few short months ago (Zumba dancers with nicotine patches, anyone?), douse it in a bucket of forward absolution, and sprinkle a light dusting of discipline on top. Bring to a quick boil on New Year’s Day and let the stir simmer for the twelve months to come. A worthy three weeks into it, and I can assure you, both the novelty and nobility of forcing changes unto life’s design will have worn as thin as a Nicki Minaj character. (Last seen inside a gym when the British left Palestine, your blogger, as a case in point, is tiring admittedly of the thrill of carb counting while spending more time with his family – blaming the waning enthusiasm for wanting to look less like a Care Bear on the two pre-adolescent sodium sales people which the Kraft Foods company has so insidiously installed in his own home. And predictably, he sides with Oscar Wilde – whom else? –, for “good resolutions are simply checks that men draw on a bank where they have no account.”)

In a professional context, I have noticed that IT leaders are ringing in the New Year with two items seemingly topping the list of their department’s make-it-happen resolutions: the respective implementation of a mobile strategy and a social media strategy for their businesses. While every business may have unique objectives and requirements for how to capture an increasingly mobile and social network-based audience, there are a number of common themes unfolding. Here I shall highlight one that has garnered strong interest in particular from a number of our clients in the retail sector: the “fusing” of the physical and the virtual worlds. In short, 2011 may yet be the year that will see the blending of brick-and-mortar with bits-and-bytes, as many consumers today are “glued to their smartphones and living on Facebook,” as a CIO client of mine recently put it.

Here’s what’s having the CIOs at global retail companies as excited as the residents of Wisteria Lane at the arrival of the UPS delivery man: today, shoppers with their smartphones in hand are browsing the aisles of brick-and-mortar (B&M) retailers with the ability to look up any product information on the spot, including competitive pricing typically from Amazon.com. However, not all paths lead to Amazon; with powerful new mobile applications, merchants now have viable marketing tools to attract and entice customers with in-store specials tailored to the individual. For B&M retailers the future of one-to-one marketing may just have arrived. And if you’ve seen the movie “Minority Report,” you’ll know what I mean.

Think of the smartphone as a “bridge” between the physical and the virtual worlds. Terms like “mobile tagging” or “object hyperlinking” refer to smartphones’ ability to recognize an object and to call up information from the Internet that is specific to that object. This is accomplished through image recognition (a computer science technique that is becoming ever more effective), the reading of a QR code (a format that is fast gaining in popularity, especially in Europe and Japan, and is promoted by Microsoft in the U.S.), or the scanning of the ubiquitous barcode.

For example, when you see something of interest in the “real” world – say a product or an ad – you can take a snapshot with your camera phone, and the phone, equipped with the right app, can recognize the product and allow you to “interact” with “it” right then and there. Scanning a barcode while in a store, can give a shopper real-time access to price-comparison data; reading the QR code printed on a magazine ad can bring up the advertiser’s web page directly on the handheld; and a number of apps can visually recognize book covers and other items just to bring up the corresponding shopping cart at your e-tailer of choice. Regardless of whether this interaction is enabled through image recognition or code scanning (or other emerging techniques for object identification), it is my belief that people will increasingly use their smartphones to take pictures of physical objects (shopping goods, print ads, display windows, movie posters, showcases, billboards, etc.) or “check in” at physical locations (à la Foursquare, Gowalla, and shopkick) in order to instantly obtain object- or place-specific information from the web.

With a purpose-built mobile app, a person’s smartphone will not only “know” the shopper’s location but also “carry” detailed, yet hopefully anonymized consumer data which can be used by nearby merchants to issue precisely targeted specials and preferred pricing offers by sending coupons to the phone. These digital coupons are then scanned from the phone’s screen at checkout and thus redeemed. And for extra credit, every time a consumer snaps an item or registers at a location, there is an opportunity to capture a meaningful piece of marketing data: the voluntary and self-motivated signal of interest at the time and place of encounter with any particular merchandise, commercial, or store location. Marketers consider a compilation of such indications of interest a powerful predictor of future consumer behavior, second perhaps only to a shopper’s past purchase history. And, of course, with access to such consumer information in real time – i.e., if products, ads, and storefronts “knew” something about you – that encounter becomes that much more meaningful, as the product pitch can now be tailored to your preferences.

Finally, who knew Coleridge (Jr. nonetheless) had a thing for IT budgets which are customarily cut at the beginning of the year: “The merry year is born like the bright berry from the naked thorn.” Beautiful, of course. Perhaps just as beautiful as being able to stretch your budget to do more with less and to implement some impressive mobile- and social media strategies without going for broke already in the first quarter. Our company Talent Trust (http://www.talenttrust.com/) has helped many traditional, brick-and-mortar firms devise and cost-effectively implement such strategies – with flexible access to highly skilled IT professionals located offshore. Please feel free to contact me (christophe.kolb@talenttrust.com) should you be thinking about building mobile apps and social media platforms to influence and captivate consumer audiences. Talent Trust has a ten-year history of creating successful technology solutions for delighted clients such as Accenture, Agilent, Autodesk, Brady, CMA CGM, CompuCom, Continuous Computing, Critical Mass, Elan Computing, eMeter, Euro RSCG, GE, IBM, Major League Baseball, Manpower, McAfee, Medtronic, Suzuki, Taylor Corporation, Verizon, Zynga, and many more.

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Leverage or Perish!

The scenario is an all-too familiar one: meet the Head of Application Development for a multi-billion-dollar revenue firm with global operations. For this account, we shall call him “Mr. Stockbridge” for his territoire includes all software old and new, building, maintaining, upgrading, and further integrating the application portfolio – sometimes referred to as “the app zoo” – as well as R&D, and which is delineated in jovial collegial “Upstairs, Downstairs” manner, literally by a flight of stairs and if by Higher mandate from the realm of his peer, the CTO and “the guys down below” who worry about such seemingly trivial ‘plumbing matters’ as infrastructure, hosting, datacenters, data privacy, overall systems performance and security, etc.

Mr. Stockbridge – a lot less standoffish and snobbish a man than his celluloid namesake, the Marquis acted out to perfection, of course, by the loveable Anthony Andrews opposite the venerable Gordon Jackson – has a problem, a big one, and a hard one as such, but he’s not alone with it (oh, what I meant: unfortunately, he is all alone with his own problem, but other Heads of Application Development at other firms have it, too).

You see, his boss, the company CFO nonetheless (incidentally, in many a corporate hierarchy nowadays a most logical configuration, for whose avuncular fingers are better equipped to clip the wings of Icarus, to curb IT’s flight too close to the sun of techiedom, and to keep in check that otherwise rampant overreaching, overspending, and overpromising that’s supposedly just what ‘we IT guys’ do), has returned from his prolonged budget meeting on Mount Olympus to make the following pronouncement which surprises no one but likewise scares everyone: the current headcount will stay flat until year-end, though an imperceptibly small budget increase for new “specialty” hires has been approved for those projects dear to the CFO’s heart. IT is expected to not only maintain but to increase productivity and project output by an estimated 30% (take that to your next Committee hearing on the “jobless recovery,” Mr. Bernanke). To make matters worse, the technology mix has shifted considerably over the last 12 months thus challenging the ‘skills readiness’ of a good portion of the staff to be able to outperform (if even just to perform) in their present jobs. Plus there are some further hard architectural choices to make (for that global webification push!) that demand more than just the proverbial blood, sweat, and tears – they require the brains of people not distracted by playing perpetual catch-up with that ever-growing backlog of ‘IT business requirements’ dispatched, unfortunately, by those who pay the bills, the business owners. And lest I forget, Mr. Stockbridge, the charismatic new head of Sales & Marketing with that operatic temper (charming only to the colleagues in Italy and Spain) is loudly asking about the new CRM rollout that was promised this quarter (there we go again). The United States Marine Corps has a saying to sum up such rank sentiment: “the beatings will continue until morale improves.”

In fact, I’ve just returned from a visit to Stockbridge’s office-cum-requisite-war-room, a cerebral but no less acute situation desk to make General Petraeus proud – with, surprisingly, no blood on the floor but rather a set of well-thought-out, high-level objectives on the white board:

  • Make do with what we have;
  • Make small changes (that’s all we can afford) that make a big difference;
  • Leverage the existing team (never forget: team motivation is key!);
  • Create an elastic and offshore-leveraged workforce (review local consultant spend vs. a “global flexforce”?);
  • Assess offshore readiness (who on the team can manage in a distributed project environment?);
  • Assess skills gaps in the organization (and how do we bridge them?);
  • Up-skilling / right-sizing / bringing in external help (caution: difficult conversations ahead!);
  • Shorten the path-to-beneficial-use for upgrading internal or importing external “new” skills (if third-parties, whom to trust?; and sorry, no, we cannot afford IBM or Accenture);
  • Centralize solutions portfolio / central hosting / local configuration / create global best practices for deployment (divide and conquer: local vs. global teams);
  • A focused, effective, and realistic approach to upgrading our project management skills to improve outcomes (but please no Greek letters!);
  • Go make it happen!

It won’t come as a mortal shock to my regular readers that the aforementioned white board scenario represents a near-perfect use case for why IT leaders should consider remote staff augmentation. Together with the right remote staffing partner, you will selectively and quickly deploy IT professionals located offshore and manage them as a virtual extension, so to speak, to your own team. Your staff will not panic or lose morale, as you’re not really offshoring entire projects or outsourcing entire functions (and remember the old adage that you should never outsource your problems). These remote IT professionals can either be tasked to maintain legacy code, while your local team can be charged to tackle the new and technically more cutting-edge projects, or vice versa (if perhaps you’re lacking those ‘hot skills,’ such as Ruby on Rails, internally). Furthermore, by having your line managers manage these resources as part of a distributed work team, you will quickly realize improvements – by “gentle necessity,” that is – in project management skills and outcomes, as your people will bring just a little more forethought, discipline, and governance to bear on these distributed projects. No McKinsey, no Six Simga needed.

Good luck, Mr. Stockbridge, who incidentally just called back after somebody had ‘misplaced’ a flipchart of additional “what remote staff augmentation can do for you” notes in his office:

  • Typical savings range from 30-50% compared to the cost of local consultants;
  • Stretch the budget to really do more with less (e.g., eliminate project backlog, improve IT’s responsiveness to business requests);
  • Acquire IT skills that don’t exist in-house or are scarce in the local market;
  • Rapidly deploy IT professionals (individuals or teams) as contractors without additional staff overhead;
  • Handle fluctuations in project demand through “talent on tap” (smoothing out the troughs and valleys in workload while maintaining fixed staff level);
  • Enjoy the direct benefits of going offshore without the hidden costs / risks (no set-up cost, no minimum project size); and
  • It’s a solution that works for companies of all sizes and is viable at any project scale.