Katrin Verclas, MobileActive.org

Two years before anyone had ever held an iPhone, Katrin Verclas was searching the world to find the people and organizations that were using mobile technology to make a social impact. It was 2005 and Katrin’s goal was to bring the leading experts on mobile technology to Toronto for a 3-day meeting to share experiences, talk about best practices and brainstorm new projects.  MobileActive.org was born out of this meeting and today it is the go-to source of information for civil societies, NGO’s and anyone that wants to use mobile technology to make the world a better place.

The vision of MobileActive.org is to ensure that there isn’t a barrier to learning what is possible with mobile technology.  To that end, Katrin and her small staff and team of interns, post case studies and share stories on MobileActive.org to help people all over the world figure out what mobile technology is available in their country, and what they can and can’t do with it.  Oh and if you’re wondering what happened to that network of passionate mobile thinkers that started with the Toronto meeting? Well, they’ve multiplied and can be found actively answering questions on the site’s forum.

I recently caught up with Katrin, co-founder of MobileActive.org and Principle at Calder Strategies, to discuss what organizations need to consider when moving into the mobile channel for the first time.  I also couldn’t resist asking her to weigh in on the hot debate about smart phones vs. feature phones, and mobile web vs. mobile Apps. This is an edited version of our conversation:

Q: What  “first moves” do you recommend to organizations that are new to mobile and what types of people or skill sets do they need on board?

A: First, you need to have a good understanding of what your goals are.  Who are you trying to reach?  What are you saying to them?  Why?  When?  How often?  That may sound dumb or surprisingly simple but it’s critical to think about the whole picture first.  A lot of people don’t get their strategy down so their tactics are lacking and they end up just shooting in the dark.  So to start, you want a really good strategic person on board. Next, you want a communications person or someone with a communications capacity that understands mobile media.  That person needs to consider how mobile fits in with all the other pieces of a campaign.  For example, how does it work with your online efforts? If you’re doing face-to-face campaigning, how does mobile fit in with that?   What is it supporting? What is it supplementing?  Where is it standing alone?

Q:  Do you see mobile campaigns standing alone a lot?  Can it stand alone?

A: The best projects have definitely been innovative multi-channel endeavors that support things like social media, websites or offline organizing.  They’re a smart integrated approach. Depending on the situation or location though, mobile can certainly be effective on its own.  If you’re talking about community health workers in Uganda, mobile is the channel.  That’s it.   If you’re looking for a field of workers to communicate back to you about patient data, that’s the channel.  However, if you’re talking about advocacy types of efforts that you see around here in the western world, it’s always a multi-channel endeavor.

Q:  What are the biggest challenges organizations encounter when trying to establish a mobile relationship with their constituents, supporters or customers for the first time?

A: In the US, there seems to be some sort of cognitive trap that goes down when it comes to mobile.  Professional communications and new media people and outreach organizers freeze when they get to the mobile medium.  So, getting comfortable and knowledgeable about mobile is the challenge here. In other parts of the world, there are other barriers. It’s not so much, a lack of understanding.  It’s often the only communication tool they have so they’re comfortable with mobile.  The biggest barriers in these situations are the costs of mobile communication and the fact that it’s not an open medium.  It’s a gated community so to speak.  It has the operators that control access.  You have to work with vendors and operators, or both, to get anything done. Mobile can be daunting and people often go down an easier road.  The projects that scale are part of larger organizations that have the staff and a higher level of tactical and management capability.

Q:  Some people believe that feature phones will be completely replaced by smartphones — in the near future.  What are your thoughts on this?

A. I think feature phones will go away eventually but the price point is too high for that to happen now, especially for developing countries.   Feature phones & SMS are a fact of life in those countries.  If someone lives on $3 a day, they’ll be using whatever phone they can get.  However, smart phone clones are appearing and the price points keep dropping, so I’d say things are going to be very different in the near future. Voice I think is a channel that is under appreciated.  It is interesting because it can scale.  It gives you a lot of information.  In India in particular, voice is cheap.  With multiple languages and high rates of illiteracy in India, voice is the obvious way to go.  There are a lot interesting variations on a theme there: IVR (Interactive Voice Response), help lines, information hot lines that are pre-recorded, text-in and get a call back, etc. It’s a fairly centralized way of communicating.  However, because someone has to maintain this information, some organizational capacity is required.  Content has to be updated to stay timely, then recorded in an understandable way. All this requires voice to be cheap.   Today, SMS is cheaper than voice in most places.  That’s why SMS is more prevalent now.  However, in India and Southeast Asia voice is becoming a really legitimate channel.  It will be interesting to see if that business model will spread as the Indian operators move into the African market.

Q:  Where do you think we’re heading in terms of mobile Apps versus mobile web?

A: I think mobile web is the way to go.  You don’t need a very sophisticated phone to have web access.  Whereas, with Apps you need the right languages, the right kind of bandwidth, the right phone.  There are too many limitations, too many barriers.  I think Apps are only going to appeal to a limited market because of the steps in the way.   Yes, they’re growing but if you think about it, how many Apps do you use on a daily basis?   As the online the world is changing to accommodate mobile devices, you’ll be able to get way more information on the mobile web, than downloading the App. Plus, the consumer business model moves to where it’s free.  I think the majority of the world will not pay money for Apps.  I’m also seeing greater sophistication in mobile web, more information delivered in smart ways. Social networks are a third dimension beyond mobile web and Apps.  Apps are transactional; you want something specific you get it through your App.  But it’s the lingering eyeball that you want and that’s the web and social networks.

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