The mobile phone is the hot new and powerful channel that savvy marketers are all talking about. It's already huge in the UK and parts of Europe and is about to unleash itself in the US too.

So what's it all about then?

As well as being able to use your mobile to make phone calls, you can use it to send and receive text messages or SMS (Short Message Service, for you jargon junkies).

This has been widely and passionately adopted by consumers--initially youth groups but spreading rapidly throughout the age spectrum. Adoption has been driven by the fact that SMS is cheap and convenient. It's also discrete, a bit like passing secret notes in school!

A Social Phenomenon

SMS has had a significant impact socially and culturally, too. A new language has emerged, which can be indecipherable to those not in the know. Examples might be:

R U up 4 it? (Are you up for it?) Cant w8 4 2nite. (I can't wait for tonight.) C U L8R. (I'll see you later.)

And emoticons are prevalent, such as the smiley J and more arcane ones like ;@) -- or, pig!!

SMS has affected the way people behave, especially in the dating scene. About 17% of UK under-25ers have been dumped by SMS! And it's a major dating faux pas not to send your lover an SMS first thing in the morning and last thing at night. (Watch out or you may be one of the 17%!)

SMS has grown unbelievably in a few short years. It's difficult to put into a US context, but the most impressive stat published is that over 50% of 14–19 year olds send more than 90 SMS's every month and over 20% of them send 180 or more!

The Case for Mobile Marketing

It's difficult for marketers to understand quite how big SMS has become in such a short time. Despite understanding the stats, you have to get a “feel” for it. But in Europe a recent report found that 56% of Marketing Directors planned to use SMS in 2003 and were allocating 7% of their budgets to it.

To put this amazing statistic in perspective, Mobile Marketing didn't exist 2 years ago and the total annual budget for online marketing is only 0.9%.

And it's now poised to enter the US, in case you haven't noticed. One billion SMS's are sent every month, and you've seen some early campaigns already. So since we've been doing it for a while in the UK--I've been involved in over 1,500 campaigns to date--you can learn some lessons from our hands-on experiences.

So what types of mobile marketing are there? Broadly, the mobile can be used in five ways:

1. Promotional Communication and Fulfilment (Pull)

This is now the most common form of mobile marketing.

An example might be an instant “Txt n' Win” campaign. The promoter simply puts a phone number on pack (or their advertising) and consumers text it to find out if they've won a prize--immediately! We've seen response rates as high as 27% using this technique.

In my opinion, “Txt and Win” can also be viewed by consumers as “Txt and Lose,” so think about how you treat losing entries and see if there's something else you can give them--like a free ringtone or logo for their phone.

This technique could also be used as a “Txt and Collect” for points and prizes.

TIP: If you open up a channel of communication people will use it. So expect plenty of BackText (make sure your service provider gives you a return path--a way for consumers to reply to your messages). Don't be surprised when consumers text back gushing “thanks” messages. The issue is that you need to think how you'll respond to these and manage them. If you don't plan for them, they can overwhelm.

2. Outbound (Push)

This is the phone equivalent of direct marketing. Again, while very powerful, you need to follow a few rules here. And since it's the most controversial area, I'll go into a little more depth.

Guinness ran a promotion during Soccer's World Cup in 2002 in conjunction with Diageo's Nightfly. They targeted known Guinness fans, inviting them to purchase a case of the black stuff at Asda, a national supermarket, owned by Walmart.

There was no price incentive, but respondents could claim a free joke football wig. They had a 47% response rate.

Sending a message to someone's mobile phone is a very intrusive act. This has the upside that your message will almost certainly be noticed and read by the recipient. The downside is that if the message is not appropriate to that consumer, there may well be a backlash against the sender, much as we've seen with SPAM in email marketing--only even more so. So here are the main rules:

Rule One: Get Permission.

If you're building a database for future communication via mobile phones, ask their permission to use their mobile number in this way. And remember, just because they failed to tick an opt-out box years ago, doesn't mean to say that they've automatically agreed to receive mobile messaging from you forever more.

Equally, if they're responding to an inbound campaign, you need to specify if you're going to add them to your database. “Get permission” means that they've expressly agreed to communication via their mobile.

For instance, many people will be quite happy to receive marketing communication via another medium (say, direct mail). But they will get genuinely annoyed if the marketer automatically assumes that gives them the right to extend the relationship into mobile marketing. It doesn't!

If you're using a list supplied by a third party for an outbound campaign, make it your business to find out what level of permission that supplier actually has. It's your company who will be damaged if they don't have the level of permission you'd rather have.

Finally, nothing's forever, so give them a chance to easily opt out of communication with you if they want. Every time you send them a message, it's going to cost you real money, so simple economics suggest that there's no point in sending out something that the recipient is just not interested in.

Rule Two: Be Timely.

One of mobile marketing's great advantages is its timeliness. At one level, that means that a marketer can prepare and send out a campaign in a matter of minutes, unlike conventional direct mail, which would take days, if not weeks. Mobile messaging also has a sense of immediacy, if not urgency, from the recipient's perspective. Therefore, the timeliness of the message and content is key to whether it's appropriate.

As an example, sending a message out about a TV program broadcast on a Sunday is probably not a good idea with this medium, if you send it on a Monday--the recipient will have forgotten all about it 6 days later. Equally, telling a consumer about an offer which has expired is also a cardinal sin, no matter what the medium.

The general rule of thumb is that there must be a good reason to send the message to a mobile, rather than via another medium. Therefore, best practice is time-limited messages or ones appropriate to their location at the time of receipt. Location in the context of mobile marketing is actually just a subset of time anyway.

It's also important to consider timeliness when selecting your choice of service provider to transmit outbound messaging. Some have better records than others in terms of timeliness of delivery (delays of days and non-delivery are still issues in some cases). So chose your partner with care.

Finally, timeliness also refers to frequency of message--don't bombard recipients with messages, as it will backfire. It's also worth finding out how frequently suppliers of lists send out messages--if you want to stand-out, less is obviously better.

One of the best examples of a timely and location-based campaign is one I was involved with at ZagMe. ZagMe was a mall-based service which sent shoppers SMS based advertising from retailers in the mall--obviously with their permission!

Reebok wanted to promote a new store and simply wanted footfall. Therefore, we developed a campaign whereby we sent out a message saying that the first person to go to the store and shout, “I've been Zagged!” won a free pair of trainers.

Three minutes after the message was sent out, over 50 people ran into the store shouting!

As it was an early campaign Reebok also received massive press exposure and ZagMe was featured in news programs on all 5 terrestrial TV channels in the UK, as well as normal marketing press!

ZagMe also achieved something I've never heard of before--a consumer phoned a leading regional radio station to dedicate a song to “ZagMe for the great offers they send my mobile.”

Powerful stuff.

Rule Three: Add Value.

Mobile messaging is primarily a promotional channel rather than an advertising one. This is an important point and often missed by companies running mobile marketing campaigns.

By this I mean that the message should add value to the consumer in some way, rather than simply contain a branding message.

For instance, the chance to enter a competition or free prize draw or access to an exclusive offer (price led, but also, for example, limited edition merchandise or gift with purchase), or even information of value to the consumer (perhaps announcing a new tour by a favourite recording artist they like).

Rule Four: Use Targeted Messages.

As well as being intrusive, a message on your mobile is very personal. Therefore, in order to succeed, it must be consistent with this impression.

At its most basic, you should consider targeting by gender and age. The latter is exceptionally important, not just in what you say to them, but also in how you say it. In my experience the same message can have 100% difference in response rates depending on how the copy is written. So re-write the same message for different ages, using contemporary SMS language for younger groups.

If you can gather the data, the better the targeting, the better your response will be--but that's just simple marketing.

Rule Five: Be Relevant.

Perhaps a sub-sector of targeting, relevance refers to the appropriateness of that message to that recipient. For instance, there's no point in sending information about a new car, if the recipient can't drive. There's no point in sending an offer on women's dresses to a man.

3. CRM

CRM is perhaps an over-used, as well as a misused phrase, but in this context I'm taking about creating closer relationships with consumers on an ongoing basis to maximise loyalty and therefore profitability over time.

This whole area is an article in itself and really needs to be considered in the specific context of your business. But as well as an ongoing marketing dialogue, SMS can be used to deliver timely and valuable information such as delay announcements for an airline or account balances for a bank.

4. B2E

Business to employee communication may fall into the remit of Enterprise Messaging--whole new ballpark. But in certain circumstances it can be used as a promotional tool. For instance, if you want to announce and run an incentive programme for store managers or bar staff.

The Future

We've only really explored the plain old text message in this article (and there's a lot more to it than space allows) and we've seen just how effective it can be, if used properly. But the future's even more exciting. We'll soon be able to use color, images, sound and even video in our messaging, which opens up a whole world of marketing possibilities.

Marketers need to start learning about this new channel today, so that we're ready for tomorrow's opportunities. The message is jump in and do something. Or as Yogi Berra put it:

“When you come to a fork in the road, take it!”

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Russell Buckley Mr. Buckley <> is a leading author, speaker and consultant on Mobile Marketing in the UK.