In the immediate future, people will be leaving their PCs and stepping out into a world of internet-connected devices and context-specific information services. Are you prepared?
A hot buzzword in tech these days is SoLoMo (social, location, mobile). A new industry of SoLoMo startups has appeared in the last two years, built from the ground up to exploit the convergence of people, information, services, things, and places on modern mobile platforms. But what should established, brick-and-mortar business do about SoLoMo?
This is a serious question, because SoLoMo is going to have a huge impact on the way your customers and employees do business, spend money, and live their lives. Consider that Apple’s App Store debuted July 2008, and by 2011 reached 10 billion downloads – in less than half the time it took to reach 10 billion songs downloaded from iTunes. New media, new tools, and new technologies are going mainstream at an ever faster pace.
The next few years will see a wave of digital natives and other tech-savvy folk leaving their office and home PCs and stepping out into a world swarming with internet-connected devices and context-specific information services. These web migrants will bring their social networks, research tools, authoring platforms, and games with them. They expect SoLoMo to be even cooler and more seamless than the web. Digital natives, in particular, have grown up in a world where the cycle between technological watersheds and fundamental social impact happens in under five years, and will keep getting faster. Far from being overwhelmed, they expect to be empowered with easy-to-use tools that help them shape their reality, in real time, in response to unpredictable technological and cultural change. Digital natives live in a world where revolutions start on Twitter and governments consider the internet an existential threat. That’s as real as it gets.
As mobile technology transforms Main Street, some traditional brick-and-mortar virtues will fade, some will flourish. Storefront in a prime location will lose some of its intrinsic value as mobile devices make Off Broadway “visible,” but physical presence in a vibrant district with diverse services and activities will become lucrative again as mobile lures people back onto the streets. Traditional advertising and sales will lose traction in a world with instant everywhere access to the web and social networks, leaving high touch, expert customer service to rule brand loyalty. Digital natives looking for a place to gather, together with mobile devices offering extended inventory, will erode the value of shelf space as a sales driver.
All these changes can disrupt or kill even the most successful traditional business models. Fortunately, brick-and-mortars already offer three things digital natives crave that can be supercharged with mobile technology: location, immediacy, and ubiquity.
Location isn’t just a point of interest on a Google map. The next generation of mobile will be capable of interacting with every aspect of your store, factory, or business processes. This will be enabled by near field communication, augmented reality, and less exotic tools like commodity card swipe accessories, scanning and bumping, and location search. Integrating all these new systems can be expensive, and predicting how they will be used by the time you deploy is impossible. Stay nimble by opening your physical infrastructure and your brand to become a platform for digital natives, whether they are your customers or your employees. Instead of providing highly controlled services, give them the tools to help you build out your SoLoMo presence.
Takeaway: To build mindshare and stickiness, make your brick-and-mortar a SoLoMo platform.
Smartphones put everyone a few taps away from nearly anything on the web: Google search, competitive pricing, reviews. What the web can’t offer is the human touch. Once digital natives are hanging out in your space, you have the opportunity to offer them unique services in person, with the same speed and convenience they get from the web. To make this possible, streamline routine tasks with mobile technology to free employees for high-touch services only you can provide. This will generate a positive feedback loop where your physical locations generate more foot traffic, higher social value, and better ROI, part of which can be reinvested in your human touch.
Takeaway: Remember, with SoLoMo, the human touch is more important than ever.
Mobile technology is everywhere, so you should be too. Use your brick-and-mortar presence as a base of operation and extend your unique, high-touch services into your neighborhood and beyond. Offer free Wi-Fi. Use 3G iPads as mobile offices. Offer delivery services in a two-block radius. Build virtual stores in key locations. Make your stores nodes in scavenger hunts and other massively multiplayer games. Create networks with other local businesses to build mindshare for your neighborhoods.
Takeaway: The web is nowhere, the SoLoMo business is everywhere.
In the end, the convergence of social, location, and mobile will force every business to look beyond traditional notions of technology ROI. Make sure you are on the playing field in this fast-moving, high-stakes game. Seize the opportunity presented by SoLoMo, and you will present an existential threat to your competition.
Bruce LeSourd is an architect at Übermind.