The Marketing Sleuth: Deborah Powsner of SessionM

SessionM’s Deborah Powsner is on a mission to get people to actually watch–and even engage with–mobile advertisements.

The Marketing Sleuth: Deborah Powsner of SessionM
[Image: Flickr user Jonas Forth]

Deborah Powsner is the VP of Consumer Insights at the mobile advertising firm SessionM. Before SessionM, Powsner did research and marketing for Google+. During her time there, the bright 30-year-old co-developed Google’s first e-book on the consumer behavior theory “ZMOT”–the Zero Moment Of Truth.

Deborah Powsner

Now Powsner is advising SessionM on mobile consumer behavior. Session M’s advertising style is a far cry from the usual ill-fitting banner ad that chokes up your screen. Instead, it provides brands like The New England Patriots, Honda, and Livestrong with customized mobile advertising plans that are based on a reward system in which mobile users earn points for viewing and engaging with ads.

Powsner’s deep understanding of mobile consumer behavior can be translated to anyone working in the mobile realm. Here is what she has to say:

Fast Company: In SessionM’s design for the New England Patriots mobile app, fans can choose to view ads in exchange for points that can be used toward gift cards or as donations to their favorite charity. Why is it so important to have engaged repeat viewers, versus trying to attract as many clicks as possible?

Powsner: According to our research, 70% of the people who download an app never return after their first visit. So if you’re just looking at app installs versus active app users, you’re missing the point. It’s not enough to just get people through the front door once. Repeat visitation and consumer loyalty are the ingredients that will keep you around for the long haul.

Of course, keeping users active starts with the app content itself: Do users find value in it? Are you filling a need? Is it easy to use? But more and more, mobile advertising plays a big role. When done well, it’s the best way for developers to turn their app into a revenue-generating business. But if ads happen at the expense of their users–like if you focus just on clicks instead of experience–they’re the fastest way to drive users away. Mobile users just won’t stand for intrusive or irrelevant ads no matter how great the app experience.

We’ve found that the majority of app activity (70%-80%) is completed by a sub-segment of each app’s users that we call Power Users. Whether you’re a developer or a marketer, these are the fans you must identify and hold on to. SessionM’s mobile loyalty platform helps developers identify, retain, and grow those Power Users. But whatever approach you use, you have to identify this audience among your larger app community and make sure you have systems in place to keep them engaged.


Fast Company: How does SessionM figure out what will incentivize a particular brand’s mobile users? What data or behavior is used to determine that a Livestrong mobile consumer will watch an ad in exchange for credits toward a charitable donation, and that a football fan will sit through mobile ads in exchange for points toward a gift card?

Powsner: 92% of mobile users say they want to choose the kind of rewards they receive. That’s what we learned earlier this year in with the global research firm Millward Brown. That’s one big reason why our app partners can give their users “mPOINTS” as a reward for completing specific activities in their apps. mPOINTS mean choice: They can be redeemed in any app that uses our loyalty platform for charitable donations, gift cards, or items like DVDs, games, etc.

This really came to life for us in focus groups we’ve run. For one user, mPOINTS mean an Amazon gift card that she can put toward scrapbook supplies. For another, every point earned puts him one step closer to a donation for the Wounded Warrior Project.

That’s the key takeaway: It all comes down to user personalization. It’s their device. Their experience. Our jobs as stewards of this experience–whether that’s on the app content or ad marketing side–is to make it meaningful for each individual.

Fast Company: What special factors do marketers have to consider when thinking about mobile customers? How are mobile customers different than desktop customers or customers out in the real world?

Powsner: As marketers, we face a paradigm shift in mobile. On one hand, we know consumers love their mobile devices–for many of us, it’s the first thing we see when we wake up and the one item we make sure is always within arm’s reach throughout the day.


But our love for our phones doesn’t translate to a love for mobile advertising. In fact, one report showed that for ad favorability, mobile ties in last place with (of all things) spam emails. That’s not good.

And we think it’s based on one thing: a lack of consumer value. As marketers, we must remember we’re trying to reach our audience through the most personal device they own. They expect the ads that are shown to them to be personal as well, a seamless part of the mobile experience.

Fast Company: How do advertisers view SessionM’s rewards program? Is it more like an experiment or is it the future of mobile advertising?

Powsner: I started at SessionM a little over 18 months ago, and it’s been incredibly exciting for me to see the momentum. To have leading brands like American Express, Old Navy, State Farm, Ford, and McDonald’s not only make the leap to test us but then come back for repeat campaigns shows us that this is not an experiment. Those marketers understand how critical it is to think outside the banner when trying to reach mobile consumers.

Of course, there are many brands who are still in the early stages of figuring out how to orchestrate mobile as a piece of their marketing mix. So there’s plenty of work yet to do, which makes my role all the more fun.

Fast Company. What do brands need to know about their customer base in order to implement their own mobile rewards system?


Powsner: At its core, any rewards system is about bringing the consumer value. So understanding who your audience is and what they care about is essential. There’s a simple way to achieve this: Just ask them. We do this all the time through opt-in, in-app surveys we run across our app network. These surveys give us invaluable consumer insights that help create a personalized experience for each individual–from the ads they’re shown to the rewards that we offer.

Another key learning from our study with Millward Brown is that consumers do not like being surprised by the rewards they receive. They much prefer to understand the value up front. You have to use a consistent approach each and every time you reach out to your users and be clear on the reward they’ll receive and how they can redeem it.

Transparency and dependability go a long way in building trust–just as with any relationship in marketing and in life.

You can follow Deborah at: @deborahpowsner.

Join the conversation on Twitter and sign up for the Mobilizing newsletter here. And if you know of anyone who is Mobilizing, please recommend her here.