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part five: mobile first

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For small businesses, mobile has never been more important. Consumer adoption of tablets and smartphones is on the rise. Mobile Web traffic continues to grow. And increasingly, customers are ready and willing to make purchases on mobile devices.

Want proof? Last November, PayPal reported a six-fold increase in mobile transactions on Black Friday, as compared to the previous year.

Canadian ecommerce platform Shopify says tha t mobile sales doubled across its network in 2011.

"Basically, every website that doesn't have a mobile-friendly experience… is an obsolete website," says Aidan Foster, a Toronto-based Web designer whose clients include small enterprises and advertising agencies.

While a focus on mobile is important, it's just one piece of the puzzle. When building a mobile strategy, small businesses need to think of mobile as part of a larger ecosystem of devices and experiences.

Enter the cross-device strategy

A company's mobile strategy shouldn't exist in isolation, says Luke Wroblewski, the author of Mobile First.

"Start to think about, 'What's the cross-screen strategy between our products?' he advises. "That is, how do we move people between mobile experiences, to desktop experiences, to print experiences, to physical store experiences?"

As an example, Mr. Wroblewski cites the U.S. pharmacy chain Walgreens, which recently redesigned its website.

"They found after this redesign that, for 50 per cent of the people who go to the website, their next step is to go to the [physical]store," Mr. Wroblewski says. "So there's two channels right there."

When customers enter a bricks-and-mortar Walgreens pharmacy, they're asked if they'd like to sign up for SMS "to get notifications when their prescription is ready, and when they need to get a refill. "So they hook them on SMS. Through SMS, they promote their mobile scanning app for prescriptions," Mr. Wroblewski says.

"It's this really nice integrated cross-channel experience, where mobile's doing this thing that it's good at. SMS is doing this thing that it's good at. The physical store is doing this thing that it's good at."

Though Walgreens is a relatively large business, Mr. Wroblewski says that small businesses can use the same basic approaches for developing their own cross-device tactics.

There are a handful of basic strategies, each with its own level of cost and difficulty.

The same content everywhere

With this approach, the goal is to take the same core information, and make it universally available across many digital devices.

Technically speaking, there are several ways to implement this.

Mr. Foster advocates responsive Web design, a way of building websites that allows them to intelligently adjust their layout from device to device. "If you agree that mobile is really important, responsive Web design comes in as the cheapest way to get there," he says.

There are also a number of companies that, for a fee, can transform your desktop site into a complementary mobile-friendly site.

Vancouver-based Mobify and Menuito , which focuses on restaurants, are just two examples.

The unique experience for each device

Another cross-device strategy involves creating a distinctly different experience for each device.

For example, personal finance service Mint offers a full-blown desktop website, SMS alerts, smartphone applications for iOS and Android, as well as tablet apps for those same platforms. Each experience is different, optimized for the device it's running on.

Designing a custom site or application for a specific gadget offers the potential for deep integration with the device. You can make use of cameras, GPS, or other features. Walgreens's mobile prescription scanning apps are a good example of this, as are the custom apps from many Canadian banks and airlines.

But customization and tight device integration come with a very real financial cost. "There's a resource-trade-off that you make there," Mr. Wroblewski says.

Mr. Foster agrees, highlighting the cost of keeping several customized experiences up to date.

"You want to make one change, you now have to change at least two websites. Then you add on an iOS app, an Android app, a Blackberry app. So now you've got all these monsters to maintain. And it becomes a really big challenge to maintain a quality online presence."

The in-between strategy

For businesses that aren't ready to commit to a fully mobile-optimized site, there are still ways to reach customers in a mobile context.

Take for example Ottawa-based lighting and furniture store T he Modern Shop. It's both a physical retail space and an online shop powered by fellow Ottawan business Shopify.

The store's online sales are significant. "This month is probably the first month that online is almost 50 per cent" of total sales, owner Michael Shaikin says.

When his site was redesigned last summer, "I wanted to make sure it worked properly on smartphones and tablets," he says. Though The Modern Shop's website isn't specifically optimized for those devices, it works, albeit with some pinching and zooming.

But even without a mobile-optimized site, Mr. Shaikin has a mobile presence, thanks to tools like Twitter and Instagram. He uses Twitter to get the word out about "new products, and sales, and things like that."

He find that these mobile-focused tools, coupled with his website, drive physical traffic to his store. "If I didn't have a website, I wouldn't do any business in the store," he says. "We have people coming in from Toronto and Montreal, driving, who specifically come to my store because they want to see something they can't find" in those cities.

More screens in our lives

Right now, it's rare to find a Canadian small business with a fully fleshed-out cross-device strategy. Many small businesses are still grappling with the challenge of having a regular desktop website, let alone multiple mobile-optimized experiences. You're much more likely to see cross-device tactics from larger companies like retail chains, airlines, and banks.

But for small businesses that aren't yet thinking about the role of mobile as part of larger business goals, Mr. Wroblewski poses this question: "Long term, three to five years out, are we going to have more or fewer screens in our lives?" he asks.

"The intuitive answer is more."

Special to The Globe and Mail

Other stories can be found on the Web Strategy section of the Report on Small Business website .

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