Is mobile “the new Prague”?

There’s a cliché in the travel community that refers to any potentially up-and-coming destination as “the new Prague”. Backpackers love to one-up each other with tales of visiting random destinations nobody has ever heard of, before they get discovered by the mainstream travellers, while they’re still cheap and cool and unspoiled and not overrun by guidebook -wielding types and evil tour groups.

I’ve heard the moniker applied to just about any destination, from the well and already discovered (Krakow, Riga) to the obscure spots that really only appeal to passport-stamp chasers (Nauru) to the downright dangerous (quick, go to Kabul now, before it gets overrun with tourists!) But, one thing you can be sure of is, say it to any seasoned traveller, and you’ll probably be met with a fair amount of eye-rolling.

The origins of the cliché may have been innocent enough – Prague post-Soviet collapse really was cheap as chips, and those who got there early certainly reaped the benefits. Travellers have a spirit for adventure, and who wouldn’t want to discover the next big thing? But, it’s gotten to the point where even well-trodden locations such as Cartagena, Phu Quoc or Ljubljana get dubbed with the moniker. I’ve been to Ljubljana; it’s lovely, but there’s nothing cheap or undiscovered about it. As one of my favourite bloggers, the Grumpy Traveller, puts it:

 Mostly, it’s just utter balls. Someone (usually the Lonely Planet at the start of each year) arbitrarily declares 10 to 12 places to be new, cool destinations in order to get cheap publicity. Everyone copies this, irrespective of whether more visitors are going to said places or not. And because no-one knows anything about the destination they’re hyping, they just say it’s the new *insert destination they hyped in exactly the same way last year*.

Just like travellers, marketers are obsessed with discovering the next big thing. We like to believe we’re forging new paths, when really we’re often walking down those that have been built and paved by generations before us. We speak of each new technological platform or social networking tool as a “sea change”. We use words like “revolutionize”, or catchphrases like “will change everything you thought you knew about marketing”.

Now, I’d be the last person to claim that we haven’t seen staggering changes in the marketing world over the past years or even months. It’s happening so quickly, in fact, that even us agencies are having a tough time keeping up.

But the cliché comes in when we instantly characterize every new social networking tool as “the new Facebook” or every new search tool as “the new Google”. There have been plenty of game-changers, to be sure. MySpace and Friendster. Digg. Delicious. Facebook. Twitter. Foursquare. YouTube. iPod and iPhone and iPad. Android. HTML5. But, every day, we hear clients asking us, “what should I be doing on Twitter?” “Is Google Checkout the next big thing?” “Should we launch an iPad app?” The truth is, companies hear about all of these next-big-things and many of them aren’t entirely certain that they know all that much about them, other than the sense that they “should” be there.

The latest candidate for New Prague status is mobile marketing. For a few years now, it seems like everyone has saying that mobile is where it’s at, mobile is where their customers are at, and mobile is where they should be spending more time, more energy, more money. You can’t read a marketing blog or an article without being bombarded with all things mobile.

For all that talk, though, very few companies actually have the knowledge to do something about it. Mobile advertising revenues are still minuscule. Mobile search doesn’t yet have a firmly-established lead player. The platform wars rage on. Companies struggle with how to build applications and mobile websites profitably. Being first is still more important than being good. Mobile analytics are a giant unknown for a lot of companies. The business model is still murky – which is really just a fancy way of saying that the technology’s cool but people haven’t quite figured out how to make it profitable. So far, the only people getting really rich off of mobile are the telecoms.

Also, Canada is behind the times. Way behind. We pay some of the highest mobile data rates in the world, and as a result, smartphone penetration and usage rates have suffered here. We’re not just being outpaced by the traditional technological leaders like Japan or Korea, but by the developing world as well. From mobile money to mobile healthcare delivery, necessity is the mother of invention in some of the world’s poorest nations, while us North Americans watch largely from the sidelines.

It’s tempting to get caught up on all of this hype, and to feel overwhelmed. After all, the negative connotation of “New Prague” syndrome is that if you wait too long, it will get too expensive, crowded and touristy to be worth visiting anymore. Get in early, or watch from the sidelines, is the message that we’re sending about mobile. Of course, it’s probably as likely to be true for mobile as saying that it’s no longer possible to make money on the internet in 2011. In other words, hogwash. Useful scare tactics to prod slow-moving companies into action, maybe. But still hogwash.

The technologies will evolve. The business models will take shape. If you’re not doing anything interesting in mobile already, that shouldn’t scare you off from trying.

And, everything you know about marketing isn’t wrong. In fact, most of it still applies. The audience may be viewing you from a different location or on a different sized screen, but it’s the same audience. They want you to be more available, faster, nimbler, better. But they still want you to be good at what you do or what you sell. Mobile won’t make a good product look bad or a shoddy product any better. It won’t make you more agile, or better at customer service, or smarter, or cooler. It’s a tool, which smart companies will use in smart ways, and not-so-smart companies won’t.

In the end, technology has changed but human psychology hasn’t. We’re still people, and that means we’re still looking for most of the same things – security, status, love, friendship, power, happiness. We make choices about what we want and need on that basis.

We may be accessing Google Maps from our iPhone instead of unfolding a paper map to locate the Charles Bridge, but we’re still visiting Prague – the original Prague. And you know what? It’s a pretty cool place.

(Oh, and just in case you were actually planning to visit Prague, Lonely Planet’s Prague City Guide is available for iPhone via the iTunes App store.)