When Apple launched its Passbook application in 2012, most observers thought, “oh, nice way to store my boarding pass.” Not Jack Philbin.
The CEO of Vibes, which specializes in personalized mobile marketing engagement, had by then observed more than a decade of evolution in the mobile channel. Philbin saw in Passbook the potential for a new era – and a revolution in retail promotions.
He says: “At that time, we were running more mobile couponing experiments in the US than any other company. We had been through the pain of screen resolution, of retail systems’ inability to scan. There were always issues. Then we saw the iPhone come out with Passbook, and we thought: This is the standard. So we went all in.”
Philbin’s instinct was that Passbook (re-named Wallet in 2015) could offer retailers a channel for direct communication with customers on mobile. Previously, retailers’ only option would have been a native app or a mobile-optimized site. The fact is: Most mobile users only download a handful of apps and “homescreen” the most essential sites.
“A lot of these retailers have been myopically focused on getting app adoption,” he says. “The reality is people will not download every quick serve restaurant chain app or retail apparel app. So we’re seeing a little bit of app fatigue in different categories.”
Apple Wallet — along with the recently updated Android Pay — gives retailers a platform through which they can reach customers directly. Vibes’ own solution, a cloud-based personalized mobile marketing engagement platform called Catapult, lets brands generate barcode-based coupons that “live” inside the wallet and serve as another point of engagement. Users can redeem these offers inside participating stores.
Of course, all this is also possible with a paper coupon cut out of a newspaper. What makes wallet different is the ease with which users can retrieve the coupon and the extent to which it is personalized for their use.
So brands can use Vibes’ personalized mobile marketing platform to send customers a link to a coupon inside a SMS, MMS, email, or banner ad. All the recipient has to do is click on the link and “Save to Wallet.” Thereafter, brands can adjust campaigns in real time.
They can alert users to any change on the fly via push notifications or text. They can even do this based on the user’s location. The coupons are geo-fenced, so they can prompt the customer when he or she is near a specified shop. Finally, with the addition of NFC “contactless” payment inside both Apple and Android Pay, even the payment option is bundled into the redemption process.
Philbin believes this finally opens up the decade-old promise of mobile helping solve the marketing attribution problem – trackable redemption of offers and loyalty participation at scale. He even describes the wallet as a new paradigm to follow the era of desktop/web page and mobile/native app.
“You can think of the pass (or wallet object/card) as a lightweight app,” he says. “Everybody can just create an offer, adhere to the barcode types that Apple has approved, and forget everything else. Apple and Google are investing heavily and globally expanding Apple Pay and Android Pay, they want to own the transaction. So we are riding right in the wake of that expansion, because marketers need to have a marketing presence in the wallet.”
Philbin’s insight is based on nearly 20 years in mobile. He and childhood friend Alex Campbell launched Vibes in 1998 on a hunch that one day wireless technology and marketing would intersect.
They started a business based around pagers, and later pivoted into text messaging. Before most others in the business, Vibes spotted the potential for SMS as a personalized mobile marketing engagement platform. The company soon found success powering “text to jumbotron” messaging at big sports and music events. That led to enterprise deals with the media and entertainment companies to manage text voting and polls.
Throughout this period, Vibes made some very deliberate decisions about what not to do. Unlike many rivals, it chose not to develop games or apps. It did not create an ad network. But what it did do was build a mobile engagement platform. Though it was a successful messaging aggregator with 65 carrier connections, Vibes did not want to be merely a pipe.
“There used to be nine Tier 1 US aggregators. Now, there are four,” says Philbin. “Most aggregators didn’t have mobile engagement platforms. They were really just in the routing business. But we wanted to have the train and the train tracks – and that is a big differentiator for Vibes.”
In fact, Vibes’ investment in mobile engagement platforms prepared the way for its next big strategic shift: retail.
Philbin says: “We just saw loyalty moving to the mobile device. What’s going to help save these retailers from Amazon is the mobile device. It’s the remote control. You want to promote somebody to visit your store, you’ve got to engage and talk to them on the thing that’s most personal to them: the mobile phone.”
Hence the commitment to wallet. To date, Vibes’ personalized mobile marketing software platform, Catapult, has helped some of the world’s most successful brands, including Chipotle, Home Depot and The Gap.
Throughout its 18-year existence, Vibes has been mostly self-funded. But in 2016, it decided the time was right for overseas expansion and that required investment. Ultimately, the cash came from Syniverse. The mobile solutions company was already a partner of Vibes and could offer instant international presence, as well as expanding into new verticals.
Philbin says: “With Syniverse, you’ve got a global company that’s looking for great software to bring to their existing customers and markets. It literally saves us years and millions of dollars because we’re not planting a flag in each country and figuring it out from scratch.”
Syniverse paid $45 million for a minority stake in Vibes last June.
Both companies are now focused on helping clients realize the power of “personalized mobile experiences at scale” that has been a cornerstone of Vibes vision since inception.
Specifically, they will look to replicate customer success stories like that of Chipotle. When the restaurant group teamed with Vibes to offer diners a free burrito voucher (through Apple Wallet or Android Pay), 5.2 million people saved the offer into their wallet and 3.5 million redeemed it. “That’s a 67 percent conversion,” says Philbin. “In the world of personalized mobile marketing or couponing, it’s just astronomical. It’s off the charts.”
Even better, every individual offer was linked to an individual barcode. So Chipotle knew which individual redeemed, when and where.
Philbin says: “There’s a whole layer of analytics here that’s really powerful. We can follow the whole journey: the offer they scanned; where the offer was from; the experience they clicked on in Facebook. That attribution, that closed loop, that’s what personalized mobile marketing has been waiting for.”