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Can Texting Work As a Marketing Tool?

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It seems as if texting has replaced talking, if you go by the numbers alone. Michael Bush writes about this in Advertising Age, noting that marketers are still trying to figure out how they can get in on the texting explosion.

Maybe most marketers can't and shouldn't try. I'll explain in a minute.

According to the wireless trade association CTIA, mobile users in the U.S. sent 1.3 trillion text messages during the year ending July 2009.  That's nearly double the number of cell phone calls made during that same period--660 billion.

It may not be a fair comparison, since most text messages are short?even shorter than a Twitter tweet--and they're often part of an ongoing dialogue. So what would count as a single call could be--in texting terms--a continuing series of text messages back and forth.

However you look at the numbers, they are very big and it's only natural that marketers would want to participate in the phenomenon that's become an important part of everyday life for so many of us. The Pew Research Center reports 68 percent of Americans 18+ send text messages and among the 18-24 year olds, 95 percent text. That's hardly news, but what may be surprising is how pervasive texting is among older demographics including boomers like myself--43 percent of us text. The numbers are impressive across all age groups: 

  • 25-34 at 87 percent

  • 35 - 44 at 74 percent

  • 45 - 54 at 69 percent

I'm not a big texter. If I send half a dozen text messages a month, that's a lot. I'm all thumbs on the cell phone keypad; it's probably just in my generational DNA.

But as I think how texting might be used in marketing or public relations, I can only think of a few situations where it might work, and those could be full of potential minefields.  Most of us--76 percent according to a survey released last December--don't like to get ads texted to us.  It's easy to understand why. Our cell phones are highly personal.  There are no Yellow Pages (yet) for cell phones so, for the most part, only people we want to communicate with have our cell numbers. Receiving a text message demands our attention as we retrieve and read it, so after we go through the effort and we find an ad, it can be seen by the recipient as intrusive and annoying.

So how can marketers get in on texting to reach target consumers, without the risk of annoying or alienating them? 

Texting might be acceptable to some, on a permission-based method. If you're a Toyota owner and you've given permission for Toyota to send you text messages, you might appreciate a text alerting you to contact your dealer to schedule a fix for your brakes. But would you want them sending you messages trying to sell you a new Prius?

Just as celebrities on Twitter have been able to amass huge followings, I could see celebrity-related marketing?promoting a concert appearance or a new song available for download?as a possible use of text messaging, but only to users who have indicated they want such messages.

Some public relations messages such as informational updates and news could be disseminated in the same manner?but only to users who've indicated they want--or wouldn't mind--receiving them. Email and some social media might be more appropriate venues for these messages, but also on a permission-based model.

As Mike Bush points out in his article, it's a tempting arena for marketers and some are experimenting.  As marketers and PR professionals, texting is a new venue to be explored and--if we're not careful--spoiled for us. 

Text ads and promotional messages will need to be more informative, conversational and less hard-sell or most people will see them as little more than spam. And if that happens, I wouldn't be surprised to see a new smartphone app (if it doesn't already exist) that's a text spam-blocker.

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After 30+ years in this business, I still look forward to going to work. Rarely are two days the same, and the challenges are varied and stimulating.

My firm, Reich Communications, Inc., handles an interesting range of clients that take me from b2b to consumer publicity, from the world of high-priced art to advocacy for issues including traffic safety and securing mental health resources for survivors of mass violence globally.

Over the years at mid-size and large New York agencies, I’ve served a client roster that reads like a “who’s who” of business – General Electric, Emery, Ryder, Travelers Insurance, Phillips Petroleum, Georgia-Pacific and Jaguar Cars. I’ve also worked with groups like the Greater New York Automobile Dealers Association (for their giant New York Auto Show), Syndicated Network Television Association, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Highlights include leading the publicity team that launched L’eggs hosiery, which later became a Harvard B-School case history. I also managed P.R. and community relations for the Metro New York McDonald's Co-op, with more than 250 stores. We won a Marketing Excellence Award for a McDonald's public service program I developed on fire safety. It also won an Emmy for on-air host Dr. Frank Field, health & science editor at media partner WCBS-TV in New York, and it was directly credited by the NYFD for saving several lives. During those years, I also had more than my share of Big Macs.

I have a degree in Industrial Management and an MBA in Public Relations. I live in southern Westchester, 15 miles north of midtown Manhattan, in the same town where I grew up. “Money-earnin’ Mount Vernon” is how the town is now known as a center of hip-hop culture, but it also claims as native sons Denzel Washington, Dick Clark, author e.b. White, Art Carney, Art Buchwald and Sean “P-Diddy” Combs.

I write about marketing, media and public relations at my blog, "my 2 cents" If I ever retire from this crazy business, I'd love to be an all-night jazz deejay.

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  • by uberVU - social comments Tue Feb 23, 2010 via blog

    Social comments and analytics for this post... This post was mentioned on Twitter by BethHarte: Can Texting Work As a Marketing Tool? Today's Daily Fix post from @davidreich....

  • by Justin Freid Tue Feb 23, 2010 via blog

    I am not very big on the idea of texting as a marketing tool, though I do see potential in some of the ideas you listed above I would would get quite pissed if I got my phone out only to find a text from AT&T or Honda.

    I believe text message marketing must occur with users opting in. It would be interesting to see some statistics on how high the opt out rate is after the first text.

  • by Barbara Govednik Tue Feb 23, 2010 via blog

    Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago sends the occasional text to members. Generally they are about events at the museum (like first Friday "Happy hours") and often iinclude the statement "show this text to the bartender for a free drink." Offering something certainly makes a marketing text more welcome.

  • by Stacy Lukasavitz Tue Feb 23, 2010 via blog

    I think that the potential for marketers to use text and other mobile methods is huge, so long as it's opt-in. You're right on the money with the celebrity-related marketing and concerts example - just yesterday I wrote a post about a great mobile service called Mozes that is doing just that, but has much wider applications, and I see endless possibilities. I see a lot of potential especially for events like conferences. The coolest thing about it is that you can "narrowcast" whichever market you want and you also get instant analytics on things such as location, gender, likes, dislikes, etc. I don't want to be "that guy" and drop a link here but if you want to read it click my name and you'll find it at my blog. Weird timing, eh?

  • by Don Tue Feb 23, 2010 via blog

    Impressive statistics! I dislike a conversation on a phone, but for a quick message ... great. But do I want ad's? What if my company agreed to pay for the cost of your texting in exchange for limited advertising?

    It would have to be opt in -- but ringtone companies and game companies already do it ... the younger crowd will be more open to it than us old guys are I think.

    What about the do not call issues? Do they come into play here?

  • by David Reich Tue Feb 23, 2010 via blog

    Yes, it seems to be all about opt-in.

    Text updates for brief informational updates seem to be acceptable, but not so when the message becomes too marketing-oriented. That's the fine line marketers will have to find and be careful not to cross.

    Anyone know of examples where the line has been respected, yet the messages help the marketing or p.r. effort?

  • by David Reich Tue Feb 23, 2010 via blog

    Stacy is being modest by not including the link to her blog, which she mentioned above. Here it is...

  • by John Tedstrom Tue Feb 23, 2010 via blog

    The comments are right on IF you are only thinking about outbound texting programs for marketing.

    In my opinion the biggest opportunity with texting today is in two-way texting to create dialogue with customers. We are an agency who as partnered with a provider of two-way texting services and creating some great ways to engage customers in campaigns, provide information and relevant content at point of purchase, reduce customer service and support costs and whole range of other ideas. The deeper we get into, the more ideas there are. It is a huge opportunity.

  • by Beth Harte Tue Feb 23, 2010 via blog

    Maybe it's just me, but as a marketer and consumer I am not a big fan of text messaging.

    I had a situation with the Luxor (in Vegas) last year (2009) that totally turned me off. They had apparently taken my phone number from a visit the year before (2008) and started texting me every week with promotional texts. I NEVER gave permission and I had to call their Sales/Advertising office threatening them to make it stop.

    My fear is marketers will look at text marketing they same way they do email marketing. You legally DO NOT need permission for email marketing (it's just smart to do so). CAN-SPAM doesn't mention permission at all either. So, if they have your cell number, they will just start texting away...

    The other issue is it costs ME money to receive a text message. If I am paying for it, it better be a damn good message with a way to make the money I paid to receive it back. You know?

    I believe there are some Federal regs around texting, but I don't remember them offhand... anyone know 'em?

  • by Michael King Tue Feb 23, 2010 via blog

    I personally receive text messages from my cell phone provider Verizon when a payment is made and that's not too bad, kinda annoying because obviously I know I made the payment. However, I must have opted into a network within Verizon because I receive periodic text messages announcing upcoming casting calls etc which I have NO interests in and I find very annoying.
    Text messaging is very personal. When you receive a text there is a bit of excitement like "Who is it??!" or like you mentioned it's an ongoing conversation, and to have that interrupted by an ad which you know is automated and blasted to thousands or millions takes away from that personal feel. If I can respond to the text and a human answers my question or comments about the product then that may be worth it

  • by Rachel Tue Feb 23, 2010 via blog

    Without a doubt tapping into the text message market would be a marketers dream. However, there is a very fine line between spreading the word and annoying customers. A huge obstacle is the fact that text messages are not free. Not only would consumers be receiving messages they might not care for, but now they would be paying to receive them as well. Using text message marketing ineffectively can cause much more harm than good to a company's image.

  • by Jeanne Byington Tue Feb 23, 2010 via blog

    Don't food carts in cities use texting to tell hungry followers where they are parked for lunch? My bet is that if you tell people something they want to know, they won't mind getting these messages.

  • by Kim Dushinski Tue Feb 23, 2010 via blog

    Of course no one wants to "be marketed to" on cell phones or through any other marketing channel for that matter. What we do want is RELEVANT VALUE.

    If a consumer is offered something (a coupon, a timely alert, tips or other information) that is useful and/or helpful to them it is not really marketing in their mind. For example, I get a text message with a free movie rental every month from Redbox (that I signed up for). When it arrives I am thinking, "Yeah, it is free movie night." Not "Oh great they are marketing to me."

    It is up to marketers to create enticing text message campaigns that are valuable to consumers.

    Oh, and no text messaging should EVER be sent without explicit permission. Soon enough there will be laws against it and for now there are guidelines set forth by the Mobile Marketing Association.

    Kim Dushinski
    Author of The Mobile Marketing Handbook

  • by NWGuy Tue Feb 23, 2010 via blog

    There are guidelines in place to control SMS spam, and Carriers take this very seriously. A first step that you can use is to reply STOP to the number (often a five-six digit number) that sent you the text message. This is the common approach to stopping all future alerts from that number.

    The typical approach to receiving informational alerts is a double opt-in. You text a phrase to the number (single opt-in) and then receive a reply that asks you to confirm that you want the messages (double). The confirmation text is also used when you sign up for alerts online. This is to avoid the issue of a "friend" signing you up for the alerts.

  • by Don Tue Feb 23, 2010 via blog

    I recently had un-welcomed calls on my cell phone (not texts) and I could not get them to stop, thankfully I knew a lawyer who knew just how to handle the issue and the calls most definitely stopped. If you are annoyed by someone calling I know the guy to call.

    The only texting ads I have received are:
    1. from an airline where my daughter signed me up to get them as she was in transit. I don't mind them -- it's a good thing -- they could toss a quick message on the end I guess and I wouldn't care (10% off your next flight if you ...)

    2. from sprint my carrier -- I find them intrusive and I did ask them to stop

    I don't pay for texting I do pay for cell minutes and I am offended to get any call I didn't ask for. If I paid for texting I'd feel the same. I think more and more we don't pay for texting on average.

    NW Guy, thanks for the suggestion. If I have an issue I'll try it.

    The other place I see texting is voting -- idol, player of the game, etc. I don't know what they do if you do one of them as I've never tried and probably won't. That is using texting the other way to make people feel like they have an investment in the outcome. Maybe a part two of this article discussing "outgoing" consumer texts in marketing. I heard that ast Pistons basketball games they text back a McDonalds coupon if you text in your player of the game vote at the same time as they confirm your vote.

    Thanks David for a great discussion.

  • by David Reich Wed Feb 24, 2010 via blog

    Thank you, everyone, for good comments and ideas.

    I guess, bottom line, most people don't want text messages from marketers unless they've asked for them. Texts from companies can serve good uses, such as Don's example of updates from an airline while his daughter was traveling. But that's more of a customer service function, although it all relates back to good relations with the customer.

    Don's other example of McDonald's texting back a coupon is something the customer solicits. Unsolicited or blatant selling messages by text seem to be, to most people, more of an annoyance and intrusion than a convenience.

    Marketers will continue to explore this space, but they need to be cautious in how they try it.

  • by nroy Thu Feb 25, 2010 via blog

    via Twitter...

    could txt work? I think if they make it fun and I'm not just a number in a segmented database... @nroy

  • by Joey Cosi Fri Sep 10, 2010 via blog

    I guess it also depends on the area and the behavior of the people in that area when it comes to texting. In my country for example, people text morning till night so they have their phones with them all the time. It has been a habit by the local telcos to send marketing messages to the subscribers once in a while. Of course the people don't really mind the extra messages as long as they don't get charged for it. In fact, texting as a marketing tool here is one of the effective tools since people would do anything to get something in return.

  • by Monica, Jones Tue Mar 13, 2012 via blog

    Texting is probably not a good option when used in Marketing. Aside from putting too much effort on it t is also very costly. Nowadays what people want is a fast communication and updated text. That is why social media are introduced nowadays to make our lives more easier.

  • by Julius Wed Oct 31, 2012 via blog

    Texting for new clients seems ludicrous. Texting back to a current client is fine. Other than that I would find it a bit insulting to get a promotional or marketing text.

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