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Six mobile strategies that build customer relationships

Mobile strategies that build strong customer relationships aim to make the offline world a better place. Here are six ways businesses are doing that.

How does a business go about forging a strong relationship with every customer with a smartphone? (That's 66% of Americans, give or take.) It's not about the phone or even the killer mobile app, said Tom Webster, a marketing strategist at Edison Research and speaker at the FutureM 2014 conference in Boston.

Nor will it happen by advertising on Facebook, despite the astounding 58% of Americans, age 12 and over, who have Facebook accounts. The social media platform's recent changes to its news feed algorithm to improve ad quality and the decision earlier this month to ask its users why they hid a certain ad will continue to erode the reach of many brands. "Facebook is telling you, 'Don't get in the way of friends and family,'" Webster said.

Besides, the platform per se is not the point. People use Facebook and Instagram and Pinterest -- all visual social media sites -- to show others what they are doing in the real world. The technology provides "a window into the offline world," Webster said. "What mobile data does is to square the online with the offline world in a way that hasn't been done before." Therefore, before businesses go about deploying their mobile strategies (responsive design versus adaptive design versus native app) they need to understand what their customers are doing in the real world and how to make that offline experience better, he said.

His advice? Think holistically when devising a mobile game plan and aim to facilitate real life. Some businesses get that.

Six mobile strategies that connect customers' offline and online lives

  • Organizers of Lollapalooza wanted to make it as easy as possible for concertgoers to spend money, no matter their mental state or the state of the weather. The NFC chip in the digital wristbands ensured folks didn't have to fumble for their wallets or even take out their mobile phones to make a purchase. The organizers' mobile strategy was not the technology, Webster said -- it "fades away" -- but to facilitate the experience.
  • Buc-ee's, a popular gas/convenience store chain in Central and Gulf Coast Texas, knows that people pull off the road to buy gas, buy snacks and use the restroom. So the Buc-ee's format not only includes multi-lane gas pumps and a convenience store on steroids, but also palatial restrooms, spotlessly clean, with stalls that boast floor-to-ceiling dividers (even in the men's room). One of chain's newest locations won "America's Best Restroom" in the annual contest held by Cintas, the bathroom supplier. Roadside billboards reinforce the amenity: "The Top Two Reasons to Stop at Buc-ee's: Number 1 and Number 2" ... "Restrooms You Have to Pee to Believe." YouTube videos provide virtual tours.
  • City Year, which depends on charitable donations for revenue, is an AmeriCorps program that pairs volunteers with high-risk high-school students. Participants in the program chronicle their achievements on Twitter, 140 characters at a time. To engage would-be donors, City Year launched a multi-media marketing blitz that included billboards each featuring a student, the kid's Twitter handle, the campaign's #makebetterhappen hashtag and this invitation: "Want to see what it's like to change a student's life? Follow me."
  • Rather than set out to make a super cool app, think about how the app can make life easier for the people you want to build relationships with. Sometimes that means subtracting rather than adding features. Torchy's Tacos, another Texas chain, realized that many customers ordered its tacos for pick up while they were driving. Webster said the company developed a "one-thumb" app that allows customers to place orders but requires no payment until they arrive at the location, eliminating the need to pull out a credit card and type in information while driving.
  • Hilton Hotels acknowledged that for some people checking in at the front desk is one of the least pleasant aspects of a hotel stay. Next year it's launching a self-service mobile app that will let customers select a room among the ones that are ready, check in, unlock their room doors and pay for upgrades.
  • Charmin Toilet Paper's SitOrSquat mobile app helps people find and rate public restrooms when they're out and about. Making a mobile connection, however, is not just about the app. The brand has garnered goodwill by trucking plush portable restrooms (stocked with Charmin toilet paper) to big events where restrooms are scarce, including state fairs, Times Square, NFL stadiums and beaches ("Don't pee in the sea" campaign).

Email Linda Tucci, executive editor at SearchCIO, or find her on Twitter @ltucci.

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How is your business connecting your customers' online and offline worlds?
Some great ideas here - I think the key takeaway is that you need to consider what users want, not what you want to push them to do. Make things easy, and they'll thank you for it with increased engagement and business. This is also something to take to heart when developing a mobile app - too many companies try to re-package what they already offer into the new experience, rather than finding a unique angle that would demonstrate new value for the user.