Changing of the Guard? Blackberry Passes iPhone Online

For the past two years, consumers and the media alike have "˜ooh’ed and "˜ahh’ed over the iPhone. And rightfully so. The sleek design, unique interface and ease of use were characteristics not frequently seen in the US cell phone market before 2007, and drew significant traffic to Apple’s website.

But, two years later, traffic to BlackBerry’s website has slowly overtaken Apple’s online iPhone traffic. Is the love affair with the iPhone over?

Generating website traffic is important for any online business, but it is crucial for cell phone manufacturers. The vast majority of consumers do their online cell phone shopping at carrier websites (AT&T, VZW, etc.). The manufacturer has very little direct connection with the shopper and thus less influence on their purchase. For cell phone manufacturers, developing a strong online presence that is independent of carriers is an important step in creating and sustaining a dialogue with shoppers and enhancing their overall interaction with the brand. All manufacturers are working to achieve such a presence.

The chart below shows traffic to U.S. phone-specific portions* of each manufacturer’s website between July 2008 and February 2009.

As you can see, it is typical for phone manufacturers to see a bump in traffic when one of their high-profile devices launches.

  • Apple: 77% increase for the iPhone 3G
  • RIM: 37% increase for the Bold and Storm
  • HTC: 559% increase for the T-Mobile G1
  • Samsung: 92% increase for the Instinct and again in late November for the Behold

What is remarkable here is RIM’s performance. Although the launch didn’t generate a traffic bump as dramatic as some others, they were able to sustain that online momentum over the last eight months. Lifts for the other manufacturers were larger, but temporary. This trend is likely driven by RIM’s execution of a well-conceived strategy.

First, RIM decided to reinvent BlackBerry as a consumer brand, not just a work device. They have embarked on several major promotions since Spring 2008, including the ubiquitous "Life on Blackberry" campaign. Other manufacturers mainly focus advertising specifically around device launches, and not so much as a branding tool. RIM has clearly stepped up its total advertising spending in both areas.

Second, they hyped the BlackBerry App World a LOT. "Blackberry applications" was the fifth most popular search term driving traffic to during Q1, and the App World didn’t even launch until April 1st!

Finally, they keep it fresh. We’ve only seen one iPhone release per year, and of course it’s the only phone made by Apple. RIM had a suite of popular devices launch in 2008 (Storm, Bold, Curve and Pearl on new carriers, Pearl Flip) to constantly keep their name in the news and in consumers’ minds.

What others can take from RIM’s example is the notion that, despite the hype, Apple and its iPhone are not actually invincible. Others can compete, and even conquer, the breakthrough device if they build compelling products, design smart promotional strategies and take the time and, yes, money to execute to perfection.

Who’s up for the challenge?

*We say "˜phone-specific’ to normalize for traffic that may visit to learn about TVs or to buy a laptop. It helps to make comparisons more "apples-to-apples."