Are Consumers Using the Wireless Web?

The wireless web revolution may already be here, but consumers have no idea how to use it.

Cahners In-Stat Group recently released a report predicting that global wireless data usage will surge from 170 million subscribers this year to greater than 1.3 billion by 2004. The report posits that wireless messaging will be the primary application, with the number of wireless messages increasing from 3 billion sent during last December to 244 billion by the end of 2004. Cahners also predicts that most of the usage will be in Europe and Asia, though more than 100 million users are expected in the United States.

And this is just the latest report. Unless you’ve been completely cut off from any form of media during the past six months, you know what kind of hype the wireless Internet has enjoyed. Predictions run wild about this new form of access changing our lives through commerce, product information, and 24/7 connectivity.

Much of the investment community, soured by various dot.bomb failures during the past, has jumped on the wireless bandwagon, pouring dollars into new wireless ventures with abandon. All the major wireless carriers have announced some form of wireless web access as part of their service, and people seem to be signing up.

But are they using it?

This isn’t a trivial question and isn’t one that’s easily answered. Right now the phone companies have a stranglehold on the data, and they aren’t saying much. They’re signing up a lot of subscribers, in many cases bundling wireless web access as part of the marketing come-on, and seem to be touting the benefits of access with a whole slew of new TV spots. But what’s going on with real consumers?

No real studies have yet looked at consumer usage, but based on some research that I’ve been involved with as well as some interesting phone conversations I’ve had during the past week, I’m beginning to realize one major issue: The wireless revolution isn’t going to take off with consumers until consumers know how to use the stuff.

First case in point. While researching a follow-up article to my piece a couple of weeks ago that blasted the wireless industry for lack of tangible results, I got in touch with the Magma Group, one of the leaders in the world of college-student marketing. It had recently partnered with Advertising.comSM to test the use of wireless ads among college students. It seemed like a perfect market: on-the-go consumers with relatively high disposable incomes and deep wireless penetration. What a great test for wireless advertising, right?

Wrong. While the demographics seemed perfect, the results haven’t been so great so far. While Magma didn’t reveal any numbers, it did seem disappointed at the results. Why? The major reason given (based on talking to the students) was that college students didn’t know how to receive the messages that were being sent to them! Not only that, many who wanted to sign up for the program (basically a pay-for-view advertising model where students got US$0.50 to view ads) couldn’t because they didn’t know their cellular carrier.

Now, after watching MTV’s Spring Break coverage from last year, I might be tempted to chalk up the problems to the cognitive abilities of college students. It’s very, VERY tempting. But some research I’ve been involved with shows that the usage problem isn’t restricted to college campuses; it’s popping up all over the country.

Context-Based Research Group is a global ethnographic research company based in Baltimore, Maryland, and a sister company to my own. Using a database of more than 1,800 anthropologists around the globe, Context conducts field studies of consumer behavior by sending researchers out to observe and conduct interviews. Results are reported back on a private web site.

About a month ago, Context and Carton Donofrio Interactive (my company) began a global study on how consumers are actually using wireless data devices in Paris, London, Beijing, San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo, and Hong Kong. Researchers in each location were sent out to watch people in public places, conduct interviews with 20 or so users, take photos of how wireless devices were actually being used, and report their findings to the web site. The study is still underway, but what I’ve been seeing on the site has been pretty darn interesting.

In a nutshell, many of the U.S. wireless users don’t know if they have access and, if they suspect they do, don’t know how to use it. Those who have cell phones seem to really depend on the voice aspects of the devices but don’t know anything about sending or receiving messages. For those who do want or need to send messages, pagers (separate from their phones) seem to do the job. And for the few that seem to know what they have and how to use it, most don’t enjoy the experience that much.

Globally, the situation seems to be a lot better. Users in Europe and Japan know what they’ve got, know how to use it, and definitely have made the wireless web and messaging part of their lifestyles.

Why the difference? I suspect it’s because most of the U.S. carriers have done a terrible job of educating consumers about the whole process. From what kind of phone to buy (check out Verizon’s “Handset” page and try to make an informed buying decision about which phone to get) to how to use the services, the gap between the TV commercial hype and actual help on usage seems to be pretty large. Lacking any clear directions, folks are most likely to do nothing other than talk on their phones.

So what can we do about it? As we’re starting to see outside of the United States, people do really want to use this stuff. Based on some of the preliminary reports I’ve seen from some European wireless marketing campaigns, the wireless web can work from a marketing standpoint. But if you’re going to use it effectively, you’re going to have to teach your customers how.

How? First of all, educating your site’s tech support people on any new wireless initiatives will be vital. Next, when people opt in for your messages (a must, according to the new Wireless Advertising Association guidelines), educate them on how to receive the messages. In fact, if you’re embarking on any new wireless initiative, make sure that consumer education is a big part of your efforts. The first step in the revolution has to be education.

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