In Mobile Marketing, Baptism by Fire

Mobile Marketing Association (MMA) Chief Executive Mike Wehrs‘ honeymoon in his new job was over before it started.

Consider the news that played out the week of January 13 — his first as CEO and president of the association that represents 700 companies, from mobile advertisers, ad agencies, and ad networks to wireless carriers and device makers:

  • Two consumer advocacy groups, in a 52-page complaint to federal regulators, accuse the association and five dozen online marketing and advertising businesses of failing to protect consumers against invasive and potentially deceptive mobile marketing practices.
  • An incident involving two well-known brands illustrated the ongoing tension between mobile marketers and consumers. AT&T Wireless delivered SMS text messages to some of its 75 million subscribers, alerting them to the “American Idol” season premiere on January 13. AT&T Wireless subscribers pushed back. “Dear ATT: how about you don’t send me spam texts about American Idol. Ever ever ever ever again WTF,” wrote @lucidrawlesness on Twitter.
  • Four advertising associations, including the Interactive Advertising Bureau, announced they had teamed up with the Better Business Bureau to forge behavioral marketing guidelines to address privacy concerns. Missing in action: the MMA.

The MMA’s internal critics also pose a challenge for Wehrs. “The MMA is very misguided and unprofessional and needs to determine its purpose,” one member, who asked not to be identified, told me in an e-mail. “The MMA…grew up fulfilling the needs of carriers (big pockets, strong arms) and bolted on their support of entrepreneurs.”

The critic contended that the association didn’t inject itself into the debate involving Verizon Wireless’ controversial plan last year to impose a $0.03 transaction fee on each text message delivered to a Verizon subscriber’s phone. Mobile marketers complained the potential fee increase would discourage investments in the channel.

Avoiding the Sidelines

If Wehrs craves attention, he’s in the right place.

Previously, Wehrs held the job of VP, industry affairs and evangelism, at Nuance Communications, a developer of speech and imaging tools. Now Wehrs will work to balance divergent interests in an emerging channel buoyed by the popularity of Apple’s iPhone and other smartphones.

I caught up with Wehrs by phone last week — five days into the job — to discuss issues facing mobile marketers and his vision for the organization. (He replaces Laura Marriott, president from 2005 through 2008.)

Wehrs said he hopes to ensure the organization builds its global presence while serving the needs of its local units. Its headquarters is in New York City, while it has branches in London; Singapore; and São Paolo, Brazil.

In fending off critics, Wehrs takes exception with the complaint lodged by the Center for Digital Democracy and U.S. PIRG about the mobile marketing sector’s practices. “They didn’t do a lot of due diligence. They never said anything to me or my predecessor or ask for our [best practices] policy,” he said, referring to the association’s 24-page guide updated in December 2008.

Wehrs also countered that the consumer groups didn’t identify any real-life people or businesses adversely affected by mobile marketing practices. And he pointed out that the FTC has acknowledged the association’s work to adopt and update self-regulatory guidelines as technologies and practices change.

The MMA, he said, enables consumers to report unsolicited or inappropriate mobile marketing messages and the association investigates them. If a business is found in violation of the association’s guidelines, it will recommend action, such as sending a brand manager to take a refresher course on mobile marketing best practices.

To date, fewer than 10 members were found to have violated association codes and were asked to participate in an educational program. Wehrs declined to disclose offender names. No violator has received the most severe punishment — revocation of MMA membership.

Complaints about the AT&T and “American Idol” text promotion triggered an MMA probe within two hours. Wehrs contended that no federal regulators would ever respond that quickly.

The AT&T and “American Idol” campaign met the association’s guidelines for enabling consumers to opt out. “The opt out seems very clear. It’s on the SMS message,” he said. Still under investigation is whether AT&T asked for and obtained specific consent from consumers for the text messages about “American Idol.”

So where was the Mobile Marketing Association when four national marketing and advertising agencies said they’d work to develop guidelines for behavioral marketing — another lightning rod for consumer complaints?

Wehrs is apparently not one to sit on the sidelines. He said he’s reached out to executives at those organizations to see if there’s any reason the MMA shouldn’t join the effort.

Wehrs has a whole lot of numbers to add to his speed dial if he wants to ensure the association remains a relevant player in the mobile marketing ecosystem.

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