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Look down at the palm of your hand – ignore the rogue Sharpie marks and blasted paper cuts from holiday gift wrapping – and behold its potential. The data on mobile growth is staggering. We’ve all seen the numbers – e.g. this year, the amount of time consumers spent using mobile devices (excluding talk time) will grow 51.9 percent to an average of 82 minutes per day – and it’s impossible to deny that there’s chemistry between these palms and the smartphones they’re holding.

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Just as most of us settled into rhythms and brand strategies around the opportunities via social media, along came mobile. It entered the party and charmed everyone in the room with its ability to relate to everyone on some level. Mobile channels are just as likely to reach Great Aunt Bonnie (who loves the smartphone you gave her last Christmas), as they are a Silicon Valley entrepreneur or a Wall Street investor. And it’s this democratization of the smart phone that makes mobile marketing for most any segment of brand worth exploring, especially this holiday season and as we crystallize plans for the new year.

The greatest amount of buzz in the midst of the holiday shopping season is mobile’s role in retail. In fact it’s not just a factor in retail, mobile’s altered the industry model by introducing a more complex, consumer-driven purchasing path. Fifty-two percent of last year’s holiday shoppers went into offline stores and conducted product research on smartphones. Twenty five percent of these shoppers were searching for better prices elsewhere, and 19 percent left the store and made their purchases online.

Suddenly, brand and hand didn’t seem like such a great couple after all, at least to brick-and-mortars. But showrooming – as this behavior is commonly called – isn’t a trend as much as it is the new norm. In fact, according to Forrester Research, the Web is expected to influence more than 40 percent of offline sales by 2014, totaling more than $1.4 trillion. But smart retailers – learning from the 2011 season where showrooming was first widely recognized as a challenge – are turning mobile into an opportunity this holiday season by using the channel to engage shoppers, educate them about their products, and deliver relevant deals available only in the store.

Mobile is, practically and tactically, a gatekeeper between brands and brains. Still, it’s critical to understand that, like media or advertising, it’s a means to an end, not the end itself. I wouldn’t say that every brand needs a mobile component to its marketing program, but I would say there’s overwhelming evidence to suggest every competitive brand must explore it. You don’t need to be in retail to benefit from reaching your audience in a more targeted, contextual manner, whether it’s through an SMS campaign, QR codes or, at a minimum, a mobile optimized website.

After decades of marketing and advertising to audiences through distinctly non-physical platforms, here’s a channel that is practically a fifth limb for billions of people from all walks of life. It’s tactical, it’s personal, it’s always on. And, rumor has it, brand and hand are in it for the long haul. How does mobile impact the way you’re leading your business and brands through these holidays and the new year?

Lisa Vallee-Smith (@lvalleesmith) is co-CEO of Airfoil, a high-tech PR and marcomm agency with offices in Silicon Valley and Detroit. 

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