How Gluten-Free Food Options Serve Up A Case For Mobile Ubiquity

While the mobile economy is just a few years old, its newness doesn’t mean that every aspect of the business is new. In fact, many of the dynamics we face in mobile have been confronted by other industries and businesses, albeit in different forms. I stumbled upon one recently in an unexpected place, and it offers useful lessons to developers, publishers, and anyone else managing a mobile channel.

Red Robin, a chain of hamburger joints, offered me a gluten-free bun.

Gluten is the natural protein found in wheat, barley and rye. While most people tolerate gluten just fine, a very small number of us do not and therefore need to avoid breads, bagels, cakes and every other baked good made from these common grains. Here’s a non-exhaustive rundown of conditions that require or may require avoiding the ingredient completely:

  • Celiac disease: The National Institute for Health reports that about 0.75%, or 1 in 133, in the United States have this condition.
  • Eosinophilic Esophagitis: According to this study, .05% of all Americans have this condition. It can be treated with medication, but it often responds better to eliminating gluten and/or other foods.

Perhaps as a result of low-carbohydrate diet fads or having heard that gluten is bad for some, many more people see gluten as the latest dietary bogeyman, following in the footsteps of salt, fats, and carbs. As comedian Jimmy Kimmel proved in this laugh-out-loud bit, some gluten avoiders have no idea what gluten is.

In other words, a very small percentage of all Americans needs to cut out gluten for medical reasons. More avoid gluten (but almost certainly do not eliminate it if they don’t know what it is), even though doing so offers no scientifically established benefit and may in fact result in lower overall nutrition.

And yet, Red Robin has a gluten-free hamburger bun, which actually makes perfect sense. If just one person in a party is gluten-free (or has allergies or is vegetarian) and a restaurant cannot accommodate, that’s a recipe for a lousy, awkward experience for the customers, waiters and cooks. Also, when a restaurant can’t accommodate a customer, it puts the waitstaff and chefs in a vulnerable spot, one in which their tips can shrink or, worse, a mistake in the kitchen can result in a public relations disaster and even legal liability. Finally, if someone doesn’t have to avoid gluten but chooses to anyway, why not give that person an option?

Here’s the connection to developers and mobile businesses. One of the toughest decisions mobile marketers have to make involves which platforms to support and with what features and content. They need to consider apps and mobile websites for iPhones, Android phones, Windows Phone, BlackBerry, and perhaps even things like Roku, Kindle Fire, and other devices and platforms. I often meet developers who take the approach of prioritizing these options based on the size and value of the audiences they reach, especially as they take an “app or bust” approach to going mobile. They’ll build an app for iPhone, for example, but offer no mobile options for Windows Phone owners. (Full disclosure: I work for Microsoft.)

This can result in neglect of customers who just happen to own an unsupported device or platform. Ignoring or denying service to any potential customer can be bad business, as many restauranteurs have discovered courtesy of the gluten-free phenomenon.

This doesn’t mean you have to cater to all mobile customers equally. Red Robin offered me a gluten-free bun, but not a gluten-free molten lava cake or apple pie. Similarly, it might not make sense to publish a robust native app on every platform. Instead, consider a mobile app for some and a mobile website for others, noting that you can package some sites and publish them just like you would an app. Just be transparent with customers if you’re packaging a site as an app, as some may expect native functionality.

The message, then, is this: strive for mobile ubiquity, even if uniformity or parity isn’t the plan. Even though your customers may not come face-to-face with you the way they do their waitstaff, they will appreciate the effort.

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