Look in your purse or wallet right now. Chances are you have at least a couple of major credit cards; an ATM or bank card; a Costco card and a department store card or two; an Automobile Club card for all those times you've locked your keys in the car; and pictures of your kids, grandkids, family or friends.

So when you go for your daily latte or to Barnes & Noble for the latest marketing book that will transform your organization, the first thing you want is one of their vanity prepaid or membership cards to add to your collection of Stuff-You-Wish-You-Didn't-Have-to-Carry, right? Yeah, right…. That's what we thought.

What's in It for...?

We like these marketing programs, don't get us wrong. But, let's face it: overall, they are more of a benefit for the company than the customer.

Such programs foster branding and allow companies to track customer purchases and behaviors, reduce costs and in some cases may downplay the price of the product being purchased. Hopefully, they are also providing companies important intelligence about tailoring offerings or creating new products and services.

These cards are so valuable to marketers that in our giddiness over gathering data, increasing revenue potential and being like the next guy, we forgot why they appealed to the customer in the first place—it wasn't about you (the company).

For the customer, these cards usually offer incentives, convenience and may speed checkout if implemented correctly. But the cards are getting stale because they have been adopted by countless companies, from Petco to Baja Fresh. Have you considered how many of your customers are now declining your card because it has become just an extra thing to schlep?

Starbucks “gets it” better than most. It offers automatic recharge from your credit card when the prepaid balance on the standard Starbucks cards hits a drinker-designated level. But the company's Duetto program combines the prepaid card concept with a Visa. It allows customers to earn Starbucks rewards while using the Duetto card for Visa purchases, and the same card also functions as a Starbucks rechargeable debit account. Any points you earn with Duetto Visa are automatically downloaded to your Starbucks card each month.

That concept is good, but sadly it too will be stale tomorrow because we all want to be Starbucks and now we'll all be offering the same New-Stuff-to-Carry. However, with a little twist, it can become very fresh-baked, still providing the benefits of better customer convenience, increased loyalty and real-time results and buying habit information.

The Phone's the Thing

You already have the answer—in fact, you use it every day, and it almost never leaves your sight. It's your mobile phone, it's smarter than you think, and it's about to get a lot more sophisticated.

Europeans have cozied up to what their cell phones can do for a long time. They use their phones to buy tickets, purchase soft drinks from vending machines, receive targeted ads or discount coupons—and sometimes even to talk to other people. They don't carry credit cards or cash, photo albums or Walkmans. They carry their phones. Take notice.

We live in world of bits, but we still do business with atoms: two-dimensional thinking in a multidimensional world. It's time for an upgrade.

Instead of producing countless cards, many of which never get used, start thinking about offering the same programs via a mobile device. Customers simply download the “card” at the store or at your Web site, and now they are forever set to pay for their purchase via the phone. The customer's account is debited, the company gets the purchase information and there are no cards to fumble for.

With the customer's permission, you can send promotional or other information to the customer's phone via text messaging or multimedia messaging (yes, audio and video capability is here). Your company logo may appear on the screen when the customer accesses his or her account, but don't stop there. Think of audio and graphic branding via ring-back tones or cell phone “wallpaper” that allow your customers to reflect their own personalities—not yours.

Wireless access points offer even more possibilities as customers come in and out of your “sphere of influence.” The same radio transmissions that allow two in-range cell phones to swap music files and play mobile multiplayer games also allow you to find your “in-range” customers.

If this kind of program is too much to get your arms—or the marketing team's brains—around, and you need to deal in cards for the moment, consider partnering with several complementary services on the same prepaid or membership card, like luxury coffee and Visa. Reduce the clutter for your customers and allow them to aggregate their incentives (more value) while allowing you to enlarge your view of your customer.

One thing is certain: your cards will go away, but the need to offer fresh ideas is here to stay. As marketers, we only need to look as far as how people interact with modern media on a daily basis and how they prefer to do business with us—not the other way around.

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Linda Zimmer is CEO and Gary Goldhammer is President of MarCom Interactive (marcominteractive.com), a fresh-baked marketing services and Internet broadcasting firm. Reach them at thepeople@marcominteractive.com.