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Of late, there's been a lot of discussion about automobile accidents caused by drivers using cell phones. Despite that admittedly important issue, I'm ready to move on to the debate about text-messaging behind the wheel.

If there's a college-aged youth with a mobile phone in your family, chances are he or she has done it. And not necessarily because such young adults are irresponsible. After all, remember the last time you committed the sin of driving while dialing?

Young consumers have an intimate relationship with their mobile phones. Other than the personal computer, the mobile phone is the most critical piece of technology they own.

Eyebrows were raised when Microsoft founder Bill Gates proclaimed recently that the iPod would eventually be vanquished by the ever-expanding capabilities of mobile phones. He may be right, because my Treo 650 already holds 300 songs and three feature-length movies, with room to spare.

Personal anecdotes aside, a 2005 study conducted at Ball State University in Indiana revealed that the mobile phone is a de facto entitlement for students entering college, a group known as belonging to the Millennial culture. The study, conducted among 1,171 college students nationwide, showed that 97% owned mobile phones and more than two-thirds had sent text messages on their phones.

Undoubtedly, most of them were first introduced to text-type messaging on the personal computer. But instant messaging of all types has become so engrained in Millennial culture that half of the students in the study said instant messaging was their top choice in communicating.

In the research that I have conducted with Millennial consumers, more than half also admit to text messaging while driving. Sure it's a distraction. But as one student put it, "It's not like drinking and driving."

R U n2 IM?

If you're over the age of 90 and have been living in a cave, you probably haven't heard about instant messaging, or IM—a chat technology that allows rapid text communication between two people. Today, IM comes in a variety of flavors: AOL, Microsoft, Yahoo, MSN, ICQ and so forth. Of course, now you can IM from your phone and even your PDA. For Millennials, the IM experience has become device-agnostic: Your friend IMs you while doing homework on her computer, and you reply from your phone while skipping class.

So, in consideration of all this: Why is the mobile phone so important to Millennials? In a word: Mobility.

Marketers have long known the challenge of reaching consumers between the ages of 18 and 22. Their lives are in transition. Some are in the workforce, others are in school—or both. Some live at school for nine months and spend three months with mom and dad; others live at home year-round. Regardless, they are reaching out on their own, for the first time, while keeping some connections with home. These dynamic variables create challenges for marketers who wish to connect with them.

Of course, such challenges don't stop spammers. The Ball State study revealed that one in four students had received advertisements on their phones. Some 92% of the students found unsolicited ads messages to be annoying, and two-thirds said they were less likely to buy a product from a business sending instant messages to their mobile phones.

Herald the age of spam over IM—known henceforth as spim. While spam is the bane of email readers the world over, spim bears an additional dimension of distain as mobile phone subscribers often must pay for such messages.

Young consumers do not hate advertising, contrary to the widely held belief; they dislike advertising that is irrelevant or unwanted. This is particularly true in an interactive medium for which the consumer pays a fee, such as monthly Internet access or a mobile phone account. Therefore, permission is a vital element in connecting with Millennials in an interactive medium.

Permission and Podcasting

Interactive communication via opt-in has spawned a new content type for handheld devices. Borrowing its name from Apple's popular MP3 player, podcasting is a process in which recorded audio content is posted to a Web site for a user to opt-in for download to an MP3-capable device. Podcasts can consist of anything from sports broadcasts to political discussions to poetry readings. Such Web sites as podcast.net provide a directory of topics available for the choosing.

With the proliferation of cell phones that are both MP3-capable and Internet-connected, there's more to do on your mobile handset than just talk or text-message.

Mobile phones can do more than just listen; they can also create. The digital-video and sound-recording capabilities of mobile phones can be used to create near real-time content—known as "mobcasting," which is often associated with political action or civic engagements. It is seen as a means by which under-represented issues can be brought to a larger audience, circumventing the need or approval of the mass-media news complex. Mobcasters upload their content directly from their phones to the Internet, where it awaits downloading by listeners.

Ludicrous, you say? Would a young person really take the time to do that? Most likely, yes. I recall a few years ago when a colleague questioned, "Why would anyone want to build a Web site for themselves?" Today, thousands of bloggers stand ready to answer that question.

Convergence Emergence

Mobile phones have become the focal point of technology conversion. As their capabilities expand, their importance to young consumers will continue to increase, likely surpassing the personal computer as the most important single piece of technology in young consumers' lives. Here's a sampling of the innovations taking place and available in the near future:

  • Super-megapixel camera phones: LG Electronics has announced the development of a five-megapixel camera phone. Part of its Smart Shot line, the LG C960 includes an MP3 player and features a memory slot for a mini secure device (SD) card. With current capacities of up to one gigabyte, the mini SD card can hold hundreds of high-resolution images, MP3s or any combination of the two. The photos of your friends' keg stand at last Friday's mixer will now look clearer when you post it on collegehumor.com.

  • Television on-demand: If you are in range of a mobile phone signal, you will soon have hundreds of video choices on your phone. Currently, companies offering these services include MobiTV on the Sprint network and V Cast on Verizon. For now, mobile TV on-demand consists of news features, entertainment clips, music videos and weathercasts. Admittedly, the viewing experience can be a big pixilated and can stagger as it waits for the video stream to catch up. However, as wireless networks in the US move closer to third-generation mobile standards, greater bandwidth will allow for better performance, longer videos and enhanced clarity. Yet another good reason to take a study break.

  • Purse-less Payments: Radio frequency identification (RFID) is being incorporated into mobile handsets as a means of cashless and cardless payments—already available in Japan. An RFID reader is connected to the retailer's cash register. It detects the RFID chip in your phone and requests that your personal identification number (PIN) be entered into a keypad. In a technology recently announced by LG Electronics, a biometric fingerprint reader has been incorporated into one of its mobile phones, thereby eliminating the need for entering a PIN and increasing the security of RFID transactions. With no need for cash, credit cards or debit cards, is the wallet on the endangered species list?

  • Recognition technologies: Can you imagine phones that can scan, capture and visually analyze everything from business cards to documents? Think about being able to take someone's business card and immediately capture it into your phone. Or being able to take a letter-sized document and capture it with your handset. Thanks to the work by such companies as Xerox, these mobile phone capabilities are available today on selected handsets. How will Millennials use it? Perhaps some academically challenged college students will finally have the perfect tool when they catch a glimpse of next week's exam on their professor's desk.

  • Mobile teleconferencing: Your phone may soon provide a live video feed between callers. And with the potential for two or more people in full conference mode, those bad hair days will have higher stakes than ever.

Consumer Insights and Strategy

OK, enough of the avalanche of technology—what does it all mean in marketing to Millennials? Convergence means that the phone will become of increasing importance in their lives. Despite the intriguing technology, however, there are some basic tenets in creating effective marketing for young consumers:

  • Develop case-specific insights: An investment in custom research can make a real difference for your brand. Sometimes marketing executives try to save time and money by purchasing a published research study, or adapting a business case from an unrelated industry. But the difference is like that of buying a suit off the rack or having one tailor-made. Custom research takes into consideration all the variables facing your brand in the marketplace. Moreover, custom research is proprietary, exclusive and confidential to your company. When you buy a research study off the shelf, who knows how many of your competitors have also read it?

  • Target mindsets: Effective marketing starts with understanding your audience. What do they believe? What do you want them to believe? Why should they believe it? What's the single idea that will have an impact on their mindset? Asking consumers some straightforward questions may get part of the answer. But getting to deeper insights and motivations requires a skilled consumer researcher who will often use projective exercises with consumers. For example, consumers will be asked to make a collage, interpret a picture or tell a story to reveal their underlying feelings about a brand.

  • Do something ownable: Some marketing executives are comfortable with the familiar. Marketing strategies that have been previously used are assumed to have a predictable outcome when used again. I recall one vice-president who insisted on pursuing a well-worn program that two competitors had abandoned after years of wringing out the last ounce of strategic merit. Such "me, too" marketing does little to build ownable value for a brand. Instead, the application of case-specific insights and knowledge of the consumer's mindset should be used to develop new and innovative ways of making a connection with consumers.

If a new campaign or marketing program seems too risky, take the time to evaluate the concept with members of the target audience. They can show you how best to implement your plans for optimal success.

If Not Now, When?

The Doritos brand is in the highly competitive category of salted snacks. Earlier this year, it launched an innovative campaign that worked across the boundaries of traditional and interactive media. The brand targeted mobile Millennials to promote the launch of a new flavor line while fostering consumer loyalty.

I first encountered the campaign as I was driving down the road. I noticed a billboard that read, "inNw? Text 46691 to find out more."

I did so and received the following text message in return, ""Doritos: what does 'innw?' mean? U culd win cul stuf frm Doritos, incl ipods, Digi Cams, DVDs + mor! Rply w/ ur best guess what it means now." I responded with, "If not now, when?"

My phone beeped as I received, "Doritos: nice! Go2 innw.com, entr code: HIPER in ENTER CODES HERE box 2 c if u won! want 2 kno mor cul stuff from Doritos? Rply y or n."

If you're not into IM lingo, it might be a little tricky to understand. A quick visit to a Web site like lingo2word.com can provide two-way online translations for the textually impaired.

In short, the Doritos dialog directed me to the Doritos micro-site, innw.com, to enter a code and determine what I had won as a result of my text messaging. The campaign speaks to mobile Millennials in a language that is authentic to the medium. The imagery and overall feel of the Web site resonate with the target audience. Although parent company Frito-Lay does not publicly release information about the result of its marketing programs, the Doritos INNW campaign merits recognition on the quality of its creative execution, if not for its effectiveness.

The only shortcoming I found with the campaign is that it didn't fulfill its full potential on my mobile phone. Many consumers who have the ability to text message or IM on their phones will usually have Internet access on the handset as well.

Using my mobile phone, I fully participated in the text messaging part of the campaign. When the final text message directed me to innw.com, I attempted to go there on my phone. Unfortunately, the interactive agency, Tribal DDB, had failed to take such natural consumer behavior into consideration. Because the Web site was largely written in Flash, it would not appear on my phone.

There was no message directing me to go to a computer to log in, no explanation and no apology. Such a disconnect with the user experience can cause the user to lose interest from being asked to jump between one medium to another.

Keeping up With Millennials

Young consumers are often the architects of change in our culture. They find the most amazing ways in which to use technology, often beyond its original intent. They are physically mobile and mentally agile. And if your brand isn't moving at least as fast as they are, you're falling behind.

Establishing a connection with Millennials is important—now and in the future. If your brand is able to maintain a relationship with them, it taps into a lifetime of consumer loyalty and preference. And that's something to text home about.

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Mitch McCasland (mmccasland@moroch.com) is director of insight and brand strategy at Moroch Partners (www.moroch.com) and a leading advocate of using customer insights and competitive intelligence as a basis for brand strategy, advertising, and new product design.