Serving mobile members

Of apps, SMS and the smartphone ecosystem

Chris Lawson

PSAC National

Workshop plan

  • Who are you, where are you from what would you like to get out of this workshop?

Workshop outline

Why mobile communication?

Smartphones are sexy. To watch TV or scan the online ads or hear radio patter you'd think that everyone has one. To hear the numbers of app downloads, iPhone sales, growth in use stats etc, you'd think that anyone who doesn't have one must be under some kind of court order.

They can do a lot of cool things and make lives a lot easier.

And for unions the concept of mobile communication is very alluring.

Especially for members who aren't sitting at a desk all day. Or maybe they are sitting at a desk but they aren't permitted access to the internet, or their internet use is monitored or restricted. With mobile phone technology you can still get in touch with them electronically.

But alas it's more complicated than all that. And in fact, despite all the ads that show literally everyone on the planet glued to a blackberry, the mobile phone universe is much more diverse, which makes coming up with a way to reach mobile members that much more complicated.

The mobile universe

First up some nomenclature. We call them mobile communications devices because not all of them actually have phones. Sidekicks, iPads, Playbooks, etc etc might use the same wireless communication network as regular phones, but they don't have phones. Or at least not the kind that your grandparents used.

You can call them cellular phones because most mobile communications devices do use radio signals from ground-based towers. Not all mobiles devices use cellular networks. Some use satellites. But it's a safe bet you won't be calling a lot of your members on their sat phones any time soon.

A smart phone is any phone that identifies itself when it presents itself to an email server or web server. Less esoterically, a smart phone is any mobile communication device that (a) is also a phone and (b) can browse the internet or send and receive email.

That doesn't necessarily make the other ones stupid phones. Most phones sold in the last ten years or so are also able to things that make them more powerful than a phone and a keypad: SMS messages, contacts, syncing information with desktop computers etc etc.

Mobile phone use

A million more people have gotten mobile phones since last year when I gave this workshop.

There are more phones than grownups and some grownups have more than one phone, which explains the discrepancy between household stats and subscriber stats.

Estimated CDN population = 34.4 million; adult population (age 15-65) = 23.3 million

There are also differences by income quintile.

But mobile phone use is more widespread than internet use.

Source: Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association. Source is admittedly a shill for the industry and their greedy usurious policies, but they have better data.

Who owns a smartphone?

Who owns a smart phone (graph of ownership percentages)

Source: Managing the Hype: The Reality of Mobile in Canada. Delvinia, 2009.

Data on this stuff is often put out by sources who would gain from overstating the numbers so take them with a grain of salt. Also they're from different sources so their methodologies may differ and thus make comparisons less meaningful. But one such consultancy, JD Power, reported earlier in May 2012 that 54 per cent of Canadians using mobile phones were now using smartphones, up from 36 per cent in 2011. So about 9.4 million Canadian grown-ups. Usage varies by age as you see, with 18-34 year olds much more likely to own a smartphone and to spend more time on it. (Ipsos Reid).

People use mobile phones for

For the first time ever, in 2011 the majority of smartphone usage 54 per cent is for activities other than talking, according to Ipsos Reid

The most dramatic increase is in social media use which has gone from the high teens in 2010 to 48%. And is probably higher now if anyone would care to check.

People use mobile phone cameras to:

  • take pictures of friends at parties
  • capture information they want to refer to later
  • to describe a situation or explain something
  • take pictures at concerts and sports events
  • feedback on a purchase from spouse, friend

Where is that curve heading?

Mobile vs total PSAC site visits, April 2010 to April 2012
  • Upwards quickly
  • Now you can see it
  • Doctor, how long do I have?

Mobile traffic to the PSAC national website tripled between April 2010 and April 2011. And it increased 450% between 2011 and 2012. At this point it's statistically significant.

So how long do I have doctor?

The time to get moving is now.

Speaking of heading...

App is short for application which is another word for program which is a series of instructions fed to a computing device - in this case, computers small enough and capable enough to be used as phones - that accomplishes some task.

Should you build one? For most union situations I think the answer is 'no'. Why?

The cost compared to the reach is hard to justify. Applications cost as much to create as websites, depending on what exactly you want them to do. So in the multiple tens of thousands of dollars. And as we've seen, the audience for them is extremely small compared to that which we might contemplate.

That's the sort of expense a large local, provincial or national union might contemplate if it could be assured it would reach all or nearly all those it needs to reach, or if at the very least it might reach people it has no other means of reaching.

But in that case the union had better be prepared to not only supply the application but also the hardware.

If, as I suspect, most of the use cases for a mobile application involve conveying text-based information to one audience or another, then really, you've got it covered.

See, if your union has a website you already have an app. Because your website is an app. So the question of whether or not to make an app should really be phrased as "Do we need another app?"

Well, gee, uh when you put it that way, no. In fact, why does anyone build them?

There are, actually, reasons. Chief among them is that your existing app is probably not designed for a 470 pixel wide (or worse) screen. And it probably works really badly on your average smart phone. Forms especially, are nutsifying on smart phones because they're built on huge page grids and presume use of an external pointing device.

And they are increasingly designed as if everyone has 500Kbps access to the internet. So when you view them on a blackberry over 3G, you're going to get a significantly less invigorating experience.

Even if your 'App' is built with the latest and greatest CSS3 and Javascript, it's still not going to be as responsive or even as capable as a native application. Angry Birds is not a set of web pages, as an example.

Improve the App I have

I am assuming that most unions whose websites have been launched or relaunched within the last four or five years are being rendered in modern, standards-compliant markup, which is to say CSS-described layouts marked up in semantic XHTML.

If your site meets that assumption, then you're most of the way there.

If not, you will need to change that and not just for the sake of your mobile visitors. But that's a topic for another workshop.

Most of what needs to be done to your site can be done by creating cascading stylesheet rules that apply to anyone visiting the site using a small screen.

Our website

Our website on an iPhone

Our website on a Blackberry

Are there any coders here?


<link rel="stylesheet" href="handheld.css"
media="only screen and (max-device width:480px)"/>

If you don't happen to be coders, and yet are burning with curiosity as to what on earth this means, I'll tell you. It's telling any web browser viewing the page in question that if it happens to be running on a screen no more than 480 pixels wide, that it's meant to use a special set of instructions to render the page.

These rules can state things like "Don't show the ugly rash of buttons and icons on the right side", "Move the lengthy nav to the bottom and render it in larger than normal type" and that sort of thing.

For a long list of "best practices" for mobile device markup, see the World Wide Web Consortium's Mobile Web Best Practices 1.0

If you're on the phone with your designer trying to impress them tell them you need a Responsive Design for your next website.

But but I really want an app

QR codes

An example of a QR code
  • Satisfy your need to be edgy
  • Print + website = friends again
  • The earth may not move for you

Now can we talk about SMS?

Short Message Service (SMS) is the text communication service component of phone, web, or mobile communication systems, using standardized communications protocols that allow the exchange of short text messages between fixed line or mobile phone devices. SMS text messaging is the most widely used data application in the world, with 2.4 billion active users, or 74% of all mobile phone subscribers. - Wikipedia

Most mobile service providers don't charge customers for inbound text messages, or if they do, it's still cheaper for the user to receive text than a phone call.

Stop it you’re killing me

Whether SMS messages should cost what they cost in Canada is another question. They likely shouldn't but short of a concerted effort that would make the organizers of the anti-bandwidth cap campaign blush, they're going to cost too much. And it'll piss people off.

SMS does poes challenges for content strategists. The CCPA, for example, may not be coming out with an SMS version of the Alternative Federal Budget any time soon.

But I could see a number of use cases:

  • Bargaining: before, during and after any work stoppage.
  • Rumour dissipation: No the bargaining team has not been replaced by smurfs. Pass it on"
  • Organizing drives: certification, displacement, representation votes
  • Reminders: contractual provisions, union meetings, day of mourning: "everyone shut up for a minute at 11am"

Cost to reach 45,000 people

So a simple web to SMS application hosted at that allows you to use your content management system to send SMS messages to all the members for whom you have mobile phone numbers. You've got those, right? Will cost you two cents per SMS message.

$3,600 to reach all 180,000 PSAC members. Realistically we wouldn't have everyone's mobile, so say we had 25 per cent. That's $900. Sending one SMS message would cost PSAC as much as it costs us to use our bulk email provider for about four months.

To reach about the same number of members with a robo-call like Union Calling would cost about $9000.00.

Cuz we’re made of money

To donate to Haiti earthquake relief, text 'DONATE' to 123456. Costs $500 per month, must secure mobile carrier cooperation. Cost drops to $350 per month after that. Minimum three months.

I don't know what that sort of money represents to your organization. $500 is an hour and a half with a lawyer. It's also possible that it exceeds your annual communication budget.

Personally I think a short code would be really helpful for CLC conventions so that people could just send their texts and watch the numbers up on the screen, rather than waste half the day with a floor collection.

Organizing drive. Great big billboard in front of the plant gate: text union yes to 45321 to sign up.