You know a nascent medium has gone mainstream when it's introduced as evidence in a celebrity trial, as has just happened to SMS in the United States. Kobe Bryant's defense team recently introduced "highly relevant" text messages sent by the plaintiff shortly after the athlete allegedly assaulted her. It's the first time in memory SMS has made the U.S. tabloids.
This interesting twist is unlikely to do much to advance the cause of mobile marketing, but it does suggest the U.S. wireless market is catching up to its elders in Europe and Asia, where SMS has long made headlines.
Mobile messaging is now commonplace in the States, and it's not going away. That marketers have started to recognize this is reflected in the new SMS and branded entertainment campaigns that are launching every day. Just today, AT&T Wireless, fresh from its success in the "American Idol" arena, announced marketing deals with Kellogg's and McDonald's.
The growing momentum of the medium makes this a good time for a primer on the devices, the companies and the strategies that are powering today's mobile campaigns.
Phones Usurp the Data Crown
That mobile marketing means reaching people on their phones wasn't always obvious. Not long ago, it was all about PDAs.
Marketers have for several years successfully targeted PDA-owners with interactive campaigns resembling traditional banner deployments more than anything else. Not long ago, these campaigns were held up as the shining examples of "mobile" marketing, whereas marketing to phones was considered a dubious venture at best -- in part because of small, black-and-white screens and phones with limited computing ability. Now, the fate of pure-data devices (and the campaigns run in them) is questionable in an age when voice and data can easily coexist in one handset -- a handset with a bigger color screen and enhanced computing abilities.
As smarter phones proliferate, the market is experiencing a weakened adoption of handsets that lack voice capability. IDC and Gartner both predict worldwide sales of PDAs will remain flat at about 10 or 11 million devices a year for the next few years. Sony recently said it's scaling back its Clie line of handhelds in the U.S., and will ultimately phase it out entirely. Last year saw the shuttering of Mazingo, a company that designed video for PDAs. And formerly PDA-focused content provider AvantGo has realigned its strategy around the ubiquitous mobile phone.
It's understandable things should shift in the direction of phones. Jupiter Research numbers PDAs in the U.S. at 14 million, versus approximately 160 million wireless phones, according to Enpocket. That means 53 percent of the country's adult population is carrying around one of these devices.
The growth of smarter phones, in the U.S. and the world over, has naturally drawn marketers to the mobile medium. In certain countries, such as Japan and the U.K., wireless marketing has become commonplace. As Jupiter Research analyst Avi Greengart puts it, "You can't pick up a U.K. magazine targeted at anyone under 50 without seeing [ads inviting readers to text]."
Advertiser pick-up has been slower in the U.S.
"I think the general consensus of people in the U.S. a year ago was that mobile marketing is Europe, and we're not Europe," said Jonathan Linner, CEO of mobile marketing firm Enpocket. "The attitude was that it wouldn't catch on here, that the U.S. was very different from the rest of the world."
Yet after the abortive attempts to jumpstart the American mobile marketing scene, wireless evangelists are finally reporting successes here. Enpocket says it is running approximately 30 wireless campaigns a month in the U.S. -- some national and some international. ClickZ obtained similar numbers from marketing firm Mobliss.
Enpocket's recent Mobile Media Monitor survey backs up these reports with convincing usage numbers. It found that 2 percent of U.S. cell phone users have texted to a number on product packaging, 1.3 percent to an advertisement, 1.6 percent to a TV show, 1.1 percent to a magazine and .7 percent to a radio show.
"In Europe we're seeing a lot of great campaigns, the results of which are constantly making their way over here," said Brian Levin, CEO of wireless entertainment and marketing firm Mobliss. "Brands now feel they have to get into wireless."
Major advertisers to invest in wireless include Coke, Levi's, the U.S. Air Force, McDonald's, Doritos, Volvo, Fox, Universal Pictures, Expedia and, it would seem, half a dozen beer brewers. The list is getting longer all the time.
The British Invasion
U.S. mobile campaigns are frequently run by British companies that have set up operations here: companies like Acotel; Flytxt, now officially operating out of an office in Seattle; and Enpocket, a U.K.-founded firm with a hand in regional markets ranging from Japan to Finland. Homegrown players M-Qube and Mobliss are two exceptions to the "outsiders rule" rule. (But then, Mobliss was just acquired by a Japanese firm focused on branded wireless content.)
The British and Japanese bring a deep knowledge of what has worked and what hasn't in more advanced mobile markets. Conventional logic says the U.S. is two years behind Europe and four years behind Asia, and therefore experienced multinational marketing firms are better positioned to lead the U.S. market than are American startups, which lack the benefits of experience. These companies are also very hungry to start selling in the U.S., which represents a much larger pie than their native markets, in terms of marketing dollars.
Yet the influx of British and Japanese brainpower is a somewhat bitter pill for American agencies, which have tended to lead innovation within emerging media channels. According to some, this has created occasional problems for the pushers of mobile marketing services, since interactive and traditional agency heads at times almost seem upset not to have pioneered the medium.
"Traditionally, the U.S. leads most media. In this medium, because it didn't lead it, you almost felt a pushback from agencies. When you'd go and talk to them, they were almost unhappy at the advances in Europe and Asia," said Linner.
That reticence has been steadily overcome, however, as marketers let their media strategies (and budgets) give way to the reality of vast SMS and mobile data use. So what sorts of campaigns are marketers trying, and what's working best? Part two of this story will address these questions.
Read part two of this story.
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Until March 2012, Zach Rodgers was managing editor of ClickZ's award-winning coverage of news and trends in digital marketing. He reported on the rise of web companies, data markets, ad technologies, and government Internet policy, among other subjects.
March 19, 2014