Free. That's what it costs right now to get a basic smartphone phone at your local carrier. Think about that for a second, for a two year contract and no money down, you can walk out of a store with a personal computer in your pocket. To me, that seems like something out of an episode of the Jetsons.
So what does this mean for your church? How can you prepare for the what will be the last stage of smartphone market penetration? Until recently, most people saw smartphones as more of a luxury than a necessity. However, we've now reached the point where we've hit the magic price point of free for smartphones. We're about to see the digital divide close even faster.
How can your church prepare for a congregation that's mainly all smartphone users (assuming that's not the case right now)? How does this change how you interact with your congregation? How does this change how people give monetarily? Your communication tactics?
I want to take a moment and explore some of those implications. While the application use of smartphones is a wide open subject, I've narrowed it to four areas that I think will have the most immediate impact.
Social Media Numbers Will Skyrocket
I've written before about the growing number of senior adults joining social media and low cost smartphones will only expedite that. Seniors who are on fixed incomes will walk into retail stores and say "I just want to share pictures of the grandkids and check email", in return they'll walk out with a device that can do so much more.
Once senior adults realize what they have in their hands, I believe the desire to see photos and interact with family will overcome any learning barriers they might have. In other words, if grandma wants to see a Facebook photo of her grandchild, trust me she'll find a way.
Low cost smartphones will also increase the social connectedness of impoverished areas. The price of a phone will no longer be a barrier as now the "free" contract phones will be smartphones. This also means that parents who in the past weren't keen on paying for multiple smartphones might just be okay with their kids getting one as well. Soon income and age will not be a deterent from owning a smartphone.
The Next Great Divide
Soon the next great technological divide won't be about who has the latest device. It will be about who has the bandwidth to use those devices. We'll start referring to areas and countries as being "bandwidth poor" (a term used by Google executive Erich Schmidt). This means, that while devices are adequate to join the digital revolution, there's not enough bandwidth to watch videos or download apps. However, I believe that this divide will be temporary as companies race to increase the coverage of their networks.
This of course means, that churches will need to think through their IT infrastructure and whether or not they'll provide wifi. For some, this seem like a small issue, but for most people walking into any facility that holds gatherings, it's usually assumed that there's some type of wifi. In fact, in just a few more years most people will assume you have wifi just the same as you having bathrooms.
Begin to Think Beyond Mobile
While it's tempting to just think about social media, there's a lot more going on. The increase usage in smartphones will result in rise of mobile payments, location based marketing and a host of other new technologies that churches can use. Take mobile giving for example, a church can sign up with a provider like Kindrid and get a shortcode that will allow people to text in their offering. This is perfect for one time campaigns or regular giving. Couple mobile giving with the latest in NFC technology and pretty soon you won't carry a wallet anymore, just your mobile phone.
To get a head of these opportunities, begin to form a team of IT professionals who attend your church to help you make decisions on which direction you should go. Treat them like a board of a company. Present to them your ideas and let them poke holes in your plans. This process will allow you to make sure focusing on the right opportunity at the right time.
Think Mobile Web First
As I've stated before, if your designing a website, start with the mobile experience first and then work on the desktop experience. By the end of this year, majority of internet traffic will be generated by mobile phones. We're seeing it in our church right now. In fact, we should have more mobile visitors than desktop by the fall of 2014. As low cost smartphones continue to flood the market, these numbers will only go up.
Free is Just the Beginning
Free smartphones are just the beginning. As prices for computing hardware continue to drop and their cost is offset by new advertising models (i.e. Google Ads, etc...) soon more services and devices will have a "free" pricetag. For people and organizations on tight budgets, this is a chance to gain access to resources previously reserved for the tech affluent.
The tools for a church to spread its message have never been greater. The question will be whether or not your church can pick the right tools to deliver it's message. Your church will need to resist the urge spread its message across multiple platforms that will drain your resources. Instead, choose a few tools, master them and then grow from there.