The trend is clear: Business is going mobile.
Whether it's Microsoft's renewed emphasis on touchscreens and tablets in Windows 8, or companies like Path and Instagram eschewing full-blown desktop websites in favour of smartphone apps, there is an uptick in "mobile first, desktop second" business strategies.
The driving force behind this trend is the expected growth in the consumer adoption of tablets and smartphones. According to predictions by market intelligence firm IDC, mobile devices will outnumber laptops and desktops combined by 2015.
Despite this rapid growth, is "mobile first" necessarily the right Web strategy for all businesses? Are there certain types of companies that can benefit more than others by retooling for mobile?
If you ask Adam McNamara, consumer-facing businesses stand to gain the most direct and immediately measurable benefits from going mobile.
"Any business that's been ready for this, they're selling quite a bit more," says Mr. McNamara, the director of mobile products at Shopify, an Ottawa-based e-commerce company that provides hosted online storefronts for many small businesses.
"If a shop looks fantastic on a mobile phone or tablet, people are going ahead and they're buying." he says, noting that customers are increasingly comfortable with newer modes of shopping
Mr. McNamara says that mobile sales doubled across Shopify's network in 2011, and mobile purchases now make up about 12 per cent of Shopify's total sales, which he expects to continue to grow.
"People are shopping when they're on the couch at home, they're doing it in bed," he says.
Beyond online shopping, mobile devices can play an important role in driving customers into brick-and-mortar businesses.
"On mobile phones, we find that nearly 40 per cent of all searches have what we call 'local intent.' That's people searching for things physically near them," explains Eric Morris, the head of mobile and search at Google Canada. "That's nearly double what we see on the desktop."
Even if customers don't buy something from a business directly through their phone, a mobile site can still drive in-person transactions.
"Our data suggests that nearly 60 per cent of people who look for business on their smartphones are looking to either physically visit that business, or make a phone call," says Mr. Morris, citing restaurants as a good example.
"In the restaurant industry, nearly 30 per cent of searches today are done on mobile phones. That is not an insignificant amount. That's nearly two days a week of your website traffic now coming from mobile. If you are in the restaurant space, mobile has the potential to be the most disruptive, yet powerful, sales tool since the advent of the Internet."
If your business doesn't deal directly with individual customers, measuring mobile success can be tricky. While consumer-facing businesses can tally online sales made via tablets, or measure Foursquare check-ins to retail locations, it can be more difficult for business-to-business or business-to-government companies to gauge the effectiveness of a mobile strategy.
"The consumer Internet is more easily measurable today," Mr. Morris says.
Still, he says, businesses of all types can benefit from having a mobile-optimized website.
Mr. McNamara agrees. Even if the bottom-line effect of a mobile site is difficult quantify, developing one can help to clarify an organization's mission and messaging, he says.
"It forces you to do this exercise where you distill your business down to whatever you can fit on an iPhone screen. That's a hugely beneficial exercise, and not enough companies do it."
It's a bit like the 2012 version of deciding what to put on your business card.
"By doing this 'mobile first' design exercise, you get really good at delivering what people want at a very small screen size. Then you can take those concepts and you can bring them back to the desktop.
"The 'mobile first' design philosophy means more critical thinking about what your business actually is."
Next in the series: Bringing mobile concepts back to the desktop, and why your next website should start small, then scale up, rather than the other way around.
Special to The Globe and Mail
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