In the Wireless Arena, It’s Time to Fight the Good Fight

These days, with dot-coms going belly-up and investors running for cover, wireless marketing has become a tough sell. Deals that only a few months ago seemed like sure bets are now being put on hold. Even best-of-breed wireless innovators are having a hard time.

Amid all of the uncertainty, it may seem like bad timing for marketers to charge ahead into the wireless arena. Actually, the opposite is true.

Companies willing to add wireless to the marketing mix find themselves pleasantly surprised. Upstart companies such as Livemind and Airomedia are eager to demonstrate new wireless tactics in a marketplace where the supply of ideas far exceeds demand. At the same time, the clutter’s minimal, and the expertise gained from field-testing a hot technology can be invaluable.

Thinking about jumping into the fray? Keeping a few things in mind should help you emerge victorious.

1. Know your limitations. Mobile-phone screens are tiny and hard to navigate. Sound quality is lousy. Bandwidth is puny, which pretty much rules out rich multimedia (despite the best efforts of engineers at companies such as PacketVideo, which provides high-resolution video for display over handheld units).

For marketers, this means keeping your message simple and making sure it doesn’t get lost in the stew of brands that are competing for attention.

Cellular manufacturers are trying to improve the user experience by making larger screens and enabling the phone to perform additional tasks. Some new mobile phones even come with styluses to enable PDA-type tasks, such as note taking and scheduling.

Sendo’s so-called “smartphone,” slated for release this fall, features a color screen and can surf the Web, send email, and play MP3s. Even Microsoft is getting into the act with the development of a new smartphone platform, code-named “Stinger,” descended from its Windows CE system.

This trend of cramming additional features onto the phone may wind up complicating life for marketers. Though manufacturers (Nokia, Motorola, etc.) modify their designs to address convergence, it’s the carriers (Verizon, Cingular, etc.) that have the upper hand because they control the “deck,” or the interface that you see when you turn on the phone.

Cutting a favorable deal with a carrier in today’s environment is not easy, but it can be done. Carriers have a strong interest in encouraging phone usage, and they likely will be receptive to ideas that help their customers either save or waste time.

A couple of ideas to start the brainstorm:

  • New Orleans Saints fans last year were able to use cell phones to charge food and drinks and have them directly delivered to their seats in the Superdome.

  • Guinness persuaded London bar owners to make its brand more readily available after organizing a series of sponsored pub crawls with the aid of a wireless outdoor advertising campaign.

2. Remember the data, stupid. The good news is that wireless penetration is growing rapidly. Gartner reports that global mobile phone sales totaled 412.7 million units in 2000, up 46 percent from 1999.

Although these numbers are impressive, assuming that wireless has become a mass medium is a mistake. Wireless distribution in the U.S. remains highly fragmented. And the only way to make marketing work is through a grass-roots, highly personalized campaign.

That means you’ll need data, and lots of it, most likely through online registration. What does your customer like to buy and when does she want to buy it? Location-based wireless applications may have long-term potential for the masses, but for now wireless marketing involves targeting information in laser-like fashion to a select number of people who have granted permission for you to do so.

Obvious privacy issues hinder mass acceptance. But these can be addressed through the effective packaging of convenience, content, and utility (e.g., movie reviews in conjunction with theater times and ticketing or airline flight times with wireless ticketing).

Another tactic to encourage adoption is affinity. The National Football League has been particularly innovative on this front. Fans can go to the NFL Web site to register to get detailed stats and news on their favorite teams beamed to their phones via wireless. Individual teams, such as the Washington Redskins in conjunction with Ztango, have similar offerings. Once customers sign up, they open the door to numerous other marketing offers.

3. Be patient. Understand that success in the medium requires more art than science. Performance metrics are available from the newly created Wireless Advertising Association, but they are not particularly detailed.

A small investment in wireless can go a long way. But the business is not for the faint of heart. The battle will not be won with a quick blast of heavy artillery. Rather the victors most likely will prevail through extensive use of small-arms fire after a long-term campaign of attrition.

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