It was more than 10 years ago that I listened to my first sermon about the growing importance of mobile as a marketing channel. It was late 2000 or early 2001; I was working at DoubleClick at the time, and my boss left the company to join a mobile startup, claiming we should’ve already had a mobile ad offering in place because it wouldn’t be long before smartphones replaced PCs entirely.

Suffice it to say I’m still waiting anxiously for a chance to throw away my computer — and likewise, marketers are still waiting for mobile to become a genuinely important marketing channel. It’s not that they’re pessimistic: In fact, the marketers in our surveys rank mobile just a hair behind social media in terms of channels they think will grow in effectiveness over the coming years. But anticipation has never quite equaled reality — and so most interactive marketers across the US and Europe continue to bide their time, waiting for a mobile marketing opportunity that’ll match the hype.

And that’s where mobile apps appear to come in. Few interactive marketing opportunities are more hyped than mobile apps, but in our search for a mobile marketing channel that really works we’ve lost sight of one crucial point: Marketers’ target audiences don’t care nearly as much about branded applications as the marketers themselves do. In fact:

  • Mobile apps remain a niche opportunity. According to our latest surveys, just 7% of mobile American and European phone owners regularly download mobile applications — and only 11% of phone owners in the US have ever downloaded an app from an app store or marketplace. Meanwhile, data from mobile analytics firms shows that on average 80% of free apps are never used again after the day they’re first downloaded.
  • Mobile marketing apps rarely get traction. Sure, a handful of outstanding branded apps have found an audience. (Another former DoubleClick colleague, Ed Kaczmarek, helped create the Kraft iFood Assistant app that’s most commonly offered as an example.) But too many marketers tell us their apps were neither downloaded nor used by very many people — and how many marketing apps do you see on the iTunes Top 10 lists?

So should marketers just ignore mobile altogether, then? No, but they have to be smart about how they leverage the channel. The POST process we recommend marketers follow to plan social media marketing programs (study the people you're trying to reach, set measurable business objectives, plan a marketing strategy, choose the technologies and platforms you'll use) works well for mobile marketing too.

One of the first things marketers will find when they follow the POST process is that most audiences would rather sign up for SMS updates or visit your mobile site than download your mobile app. A small number of marketers may find that apps really are the mobile technology most likely to reach their audiences — just don't count on it.

For more thoughts on how the mobile marketing space is evolving and how marketers can use mobile effectively, I'd encourage Forrester clients to read our reports The State Of Mobile Marketing In Europe, 2011 and 2011 US Mobile Marketing Predictions.