Amazon’s unveiling of its Fire smartphone is a bold attempt by the retailer to make an end-run around the big trends coming our way in search, mobile, e-commerce and that funky hybrid of the latter two, m-commerce. It may be genius. But does it signal that retailers have to go so far as to build their own technology to capture mobile traffic?
As with most smartphones, the Fire’s phone capability is basically a sideshow. What has everyone talking is the new Firefly feature. A dedicated button lets users identify objects, text and audio using the device camera and microphone — and then go directly to the relevant page on Amazon to buy them. Several people have called it a “cash register in your pocket.” It’s a brilliant move: mobile is the Internet platform that now matters. Per comScore’s 2014 U.S. Digital Future in Focus report, smartphones have surpassed desktop computers as the main channel by which people use the Internet. Between December 2010 and December 2013, smartphone engagement grew from 131 billion total minutes spent to 442 billion minutes. What’s more, Nielsen data shows that 89% of consumers’ mobile media time is spent through apps. Amazon just built an entire device that’s one big mobile app for its content and products.
Firefly will drive plenty of mobile traffic to Amazon’s site and will drive purchases, too. One of the main reasons Amazon can pull this off is trust. Consumers trust Amazon very highly (see related stories from AdAge and New York magazine) because it makes shopping so easy, but also because it publicizes plenty of actual customer reviews so customers can see what other people like them think of the products.
So if you’re a retailer, how do you acquire mobile customers without the intense time and expense requirements of developing your own phone? There’s a technology that’s been around for much longer that achieves similar results: referral marketing. Apparel retailer Criquet Shirts, for example, drives referrals on its mobile site using calls to action on its home page and specific product pages. Once a customer clicks, he can share Criquet or its specific products directly with individual friends via email or more broadly over social channels.
These referrals may not be as technologically dazzling as a button that magically recognizes objects, but like Amazon they leverage a lot of trust…perhaps even more trust than Amazon, because referrals come directly from friends, not from strangers. Add in the individual message from advocate to friend that Criquet makes space for, and referrals give potential new customers a personal context and motivation to purchase that Amazon’s technology, while fast and flashy, can’t replicate.
Don’t get me wrong: building a phone is a feat, and I think Amazon will see the benefit in mobile traffic and purchases. But retailers don’t have to resort to building their own smartphones to acquire new customers in a mobile world. They can rely on a technology much older and easier to deploy: referrals from customers who already know them.