SMS is coming. Can U.S. marketers create persuasive text messages on tiny cell phone screens? Will American consumers accept them?
This week, I'm at the CTIA show in Orlando, FL, where much of the excitement is over the advertising potential of a new online medium.
SMS stands for short message service. Sprint advertised it heavily during the Winter Olympics (the commercial in which the sleepy skier was tricked into falling out of the gondola into deep powder snow).
SMS messages can only be 160 characters long. They go through a separate server and run in a separate channel from voice calls, so they nearly always get through. SMS messages can be sent to (or received by) Internet addresses.
SMS spread from the bottom up. Young users had created their own shorthand, such as C U l8tr (see you later), before service providers were even ready to charge for the service. It wasn't documented, but it was essentially free.
Like most mobile technology, SMS spread from overseas to the U.S. It's wildly popular in Europe and Asia, with over 20 billion SMS messages sent each month. U.S. carriers were slow to offer interoperability among SMS networks and were distracted by that awful WAP protocol.
Suddenly, SMS is hot.
Mobile phone makers have announced Wireless Village, an initiative aimed at making SMS compatible with other mobile text services.
Early surveys found European users would welcome personalized marketing messages sent via SMS.
There are still hurdles. Though European carriers share SMS messages seamlessly, U.S. carriers don't work and play well together. Some SMS messages can take days to reach their destinations.
Still, solutions are coming and marketers aren't far behind.
InphoMatch Inc. of Chantilly, VA, rolled out an SMS gateway that's already delivering 30 million messages per month, even before carriers started advertising it.
The big cellular companies -- AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, SBC, and Cingular -- are here in Orlando pushing their own plans to make big money from what most analysts call a "teen obsession."
Because SMS messages must go through a carrier-operated gateway, permission will be imperative for SMS marketing, 5th Finger says.
Add the mandate for "Wireless E911" location services to SMS messaging, and you start to see possibilities. Teenagers might want to be offered a bargain as they walk by a store -- they might even pay to receive a coupon.
Will Americans buy into this technology and accept marketing strategies that have been imported? That's what I'm here trying to find out.
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Dana Blankenhorn has been a business reporter for more than 20 years. He has written parts of five books and currently contributes to Advertising Age, Business Marketing, NetMarketing, the Chicago Tribune, Boardwatch, CLEC Magazine, and other publications. His own newsletter, A-Clue.Com, is published weekly.
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12:00pm ET/9:00am PT