Travolution took a deep dive into the mobile sector with Google at our latest editorial advisory board meeting. Lee Hayhurst reports
Travel firms need to start asking themselves now if they have an adequate mobile strategy in place or risk losing out as smartphone and tablet adoption hits critical mass.
Search giant Google hosted the latest Travolution Advisory Board meeting in May at its European headquarters in London, presenting a deep-dive tour of the mobile sector.
Stephany van Willigenburg, Google industry manager for new products and solutions, took the board through the latest mobile insights following research carried out in 30 markets.
“Clients say to us ‘I don’t really know where to start. I know it’s a big deal, but what does it mean for my team, my infrastructure?” she said.
The first and most obvious conclusion Google has drawn from its research is that mobile is already big and it is only going to get bigger.
It cites a prediction by Cisco Systems that by the end of this year there will be more smartphones on the planet than human beings.
And Morgan Stanley has predicted that by 2014 there will be more mobile browsers globally than desktop.
This poses a challenge for web retailers: they have to make sure they provide not only the most optimised experience for customers but also know how these new devices are shaping behaviour.
Importantly for travel, tablets need to be considered as an entirely different channel to mobile.
They are especially key in the UK where sales are outstripping the US. Penetration in the UK is currently 14%, and projected to double in the next year, whereas in the US it is 12.5%.
Tablets will amount to 25% of PC shipments globally this year and they are the fastest-selling consumer technology device in history selling more than twice as many units within three months of launch as the nearest rival the iPhone.
Currently, sales of Apple’s iPad dominate and the demographic of purchaser is heavily skewed towards the highly prized ABC1s. As that demographic flattens out the commercial opportunity will follow suit. Van Willigenburg said: “So this is a call to action. It’s important people have a separate strategy for tablets.”
The figures show 44% of tablet owners travel for business compared with just 21% of internet users, and 61% are male.
The Google data revealed how tablets and smartphones are being used in relation to PCs, with usage in the hours between 6pm and 9pm spiking as PC usage drops away.
Google predicts that in 18 months’ time a majority of people will browse using the mobile web.
Smartphone penetration in the UK in the 12 months to March 2012 rocketed from 30% to 51%.
Of a representative sample of 1,000 smartphone users surveyed, 59% said they had used their device every day over the past seven days.
Looking for product information was the most common activity (60%), while within that travel accounted for 29%, the most common activity being local searches for bars and restaurants (37%). The 29% figure for travel is skewed by rail searches, but even with those taken out travel accounts for 15%.
The vast majority of people will also use their smartphone while doing something else, like watching television (55%), listening to music (43%) or browsing on a laptop or PC (27%).
“If you do not have a mobile site you have to ask yourself how long does it take to build one,” Van Willigenburg said.
“It might take six months, so you may already be behind your competitors.
“Users are becoming ever-more comfortable with the mobile web.”
The integration of television and tablets is expected to continue and we have started to see the first interactive television adverts prompting viewers to engage via an internet-enabled device.
Prime-time television viewing is overlapping with prime-time tablet use, during the period when users are most comfortable purchasing on mobile devices. This also tends to be at the weekend, whereas for PC the peak conversion period is Monday to Friday.
For travel firms operating call centres these are key metrics because they want to have the customer support at key times.
The Google study also found that offline advertising does prompt mobile browsing activity, with television proving the most powerful upstream medium followed by in-store promotions, magazines and then posters or billboards.
And smartphone users are not just searching – they are shopping, with 31% saying they had used a device to buy.
“Compare this to what the web was like 10-15 years ago. Then we were very comfortable buying flowers, MP3s and books. Now more of these types of lower risk items are being purchased on smartphones,” Van Willigenburg said.
“People will start experimenting. So the concept of buying a low-cost product on mobile starts skewing towards travel brands, like, for instance, an easyJet flight.”
More problematic for e-retailers, however, is Google’s finding that mobile searches don’t necessarily lead to mobile purchases. Its survey found 39% of mobile searches resulted in a purchase on a computer, while just under a quarter drove customers to buy offline, in-store. In the leisure travel market 14% of smartphone users have made a purchase on computer after searching on their handheld device.
Van Willigenburg said: “This shows people are making decisions and acting on them as a result of searching on a mobile phone. The question is, how do you build a model that tells you the return on a certain investment in mobile even though it won’t drive the sale to mobile and yet it still has a place in that purchase funnel.
“People still think that mobile is a channel instead of a platform. It’s important to look at how mobile sites are built and that they are integrated into back-office systems – there are still people who have not got it integrated.
“From a user point of view, the internet is the internet and they want the same experience, even if it looks different, wherever they go. If you don’t provide that it has a negative impact on brand perception.”
Summer of mobile
Google believes that retailers still have some way to go before they are truly embracing mobile, whether that’s with their mobile sites, apps or tailored AdWords campaigns.
It backed the stance of Cheapflights, which recently decided not to work with any partner sites through its mobile platform that were not mobile-optimised.
In the UK this left Cheapflights with only Opodo and ebookers and although it admitted this went against its philosophy of offering range, it said it felt this was the right thing to do in terms of customer experience.
Van Willigenburg concluded: “Think about this as being the summer of mobile with the Olympics and Jubilee.”