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Wireless Marketing: The Terra Incognita, Part 2

  |  June 18, 2003   |  Comments

Mobile's not just another marketing medium. Leverage its difference.

In part one, I discussed why wireless marketing is like -- and unlike -- any other channel. This week, I'll explore whether marketers can, or should even try, to enter this terra incognita.

Marketers in Western Europe have quickly made the cell phone into a marketing channel just like any other, largely by asking it to do the same things -- advertising, promotions, and data-based marketing.

Making the present in the image of the past has many benefits, but the likelihood of discovering something new is not one of them. That usually comes from finding and leveraging difference. What is different about this channel may be the peer-to-peer relationships that users are creating with it.

Certainly adolescents, the largest segment in every nation's cell phone market, have always hung out in cliques precisely because peer groups enable each member to forge and articulate an individual identity -- an identity independent of one's familial identity and appropriate to the public roles one is taking on. In the modern era, teens have jumped on every communications technology that helps them keep and stay in touch with each other at all hours. In the '70s American families got second telephone lines for chatty teens; in the '90s it was email; today it's instant messaging; tomorrow, it'll be cellular or SMS, or, more colloquially, texting (a.k.a., thumb-talking).

Doing something as old as adolescence itself, the kids are also doing something new. They're figuring out how to swarm. Without a user manual, splashy ad campaign, or license fee, people everywhere figured out how to use cell phones so they could find each other on crowded beaches, across piazzas, in stadiums, malls, and concert halls. Today, teens on the go are in a constant flow of calls, coordinating current locations and movement toward a sometimes-changing destination, like a flock of birds or school of fish. Students of networks call this the cybernegotiated public flocking behavior of texting adolescents. In terms of what's new these days, swarming as a palpable real-life social behavior was not possible in the prewireless era.

AT&T Wireless digitizes this very behavior in an mMode feature called Find Friends. After providing appropriate permissions, users can open their mobile devices to AT&T's geopositioning system and use this tool to see the locations of friends; schedule meetings with them; select where to meet from among nearby restaurants, coffee shops, and pubs; and even get and send directions. Of course, the kids got there first, and their swarming is more fluid than AT&T's formatted application, but Find Friends does raise the question of whether brands can sponsor the social relationships that mobile communications enables.

Related social behaviors are also changing. According to Howard Rheingold's latest observations about technology's social implications, teens in Asia and Scandinavia have made the wireless ether a portable place of virtual intimacy. Specifically, they have uncoupled their "presence" in the group from their physical presence. As long as they participate in the shared conversation of the group, albeit wirelessly, others considered them, and they considered themselves, part of the group. Virtual assembly and intimacy enable them to loosen their definitions of time, place, and presence.

When this extends to friends texting each other 24/7, it's obviously not the content but the contact that's important. Rheingold quotes one Filipino youth: "If I don't receive a text when I wake up or I receive only a few messages during the day, I feel as though nobody loves me enough to remember me during the day." Always-texting is living in the same rhythm or wave with close friends, creating the feeling of a continuously shared life. That's something new, too.

GENTXT is also getting together at the micro level via dating services. Helping singles find each other is already quite popular on the Web at USA Interactive's Match.com, Lavalife, and elsewhere. In the wireless world, two of 2002's top 10 SMS campaigns, according to London-based Campaign magazine were Valentine's Day tools. One enticed teenage girls to text a "secret message" with a logo and initials to "someone special"; the other featured a "match maker" that allowed users to send an SMS of a heart and message.

It's a small step to location-based matchmaking in real time and space, and, as usual, Asians lead. India's cellular operator Airtel allows men and women to create profiles, search for dates, and start SMS conversations with others nearby; the dating service increased Airtel's data-services revenue five fold. Japan's Lovegety service is similar. Stateside, Match has been experimenting with AT&T Wireless to provide something along the same lines.

The other extreme, at the macro level, mobile communications enable multitudes to act in concert politically. Peter Cochrane recently pointed out at Silicon.com the European protest against tax-driven increases in petrol prices was led by farmers, truckers, and cabbies who acted without a central organization; instead they used mobile phones and email to distribute decision making to preexisting social networks and relationships. Rheingold found the same phenomenon in the protests at the World Trade Organization's recent meeting in Seattle.

Treating mobile communications as just another channel is too narrow a view. Users are creating new and different social relationships with these devices. Blind dates, teenage cliques, and protest rallies don't usually get advertisers, sponsors, or subsidizers, but they are not ipso facto off limits, either.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Len Ellis Until recently, Len Ellis was executive vice president at Wunderman, where he charted the course in data-based and technology-enabled marketing communications, including the firm's strategic alliances and worldwide interactive strategy. Earlier, he was managing director, interactive integration at Y&R 2.1, a Young & Rubicam start-up consulting unit. He joined Y&R Group as managing director, interactive services at Burson-Marsteller. Len led interactive services at Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer EuroRSCG, and started and led the information industry practice at Fleishman-Hillard. Len's book of essays on marketing, based in part on this column, is "Marketing in the In-Between: A Post-Modern Turn on Madison Avenue." He received his Ph.D. from Columbia and reads informational and mathematical theory for fun.

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