Mobile Looks to Mature as a Creative Discipline Next Year

Industry players say that each major mobile marketing format — short-code message service (SMS), smartphone apps, and Web-based display ads — evolved in a positive or interesting direction this past year. But which will emerge in 2010 as the best vehicle to drive sales?

Even though apps marketing has been all the rage, eMarketer’s recent research suggests that text messages will continue to hold a huge audience share for the next few years. It projects that only 26.9 percent of the U.S. populace will use the mobile Internet next year — a modest increase from 2009’s 22.3 percent. The New York-based research firm’s report also predicted only incremental growth over the next few years, to 39.5 percent in 2013.

In other words, most consumers will be viewing their mobile messages on flip-phones and the like for quite some time. So while marketing to iPhone, Android, and BlackBerry users via apps or Web-based messaging continues to be popular, ad professionals who focus on smartphone consumers to the exclusion of the SMS audience are leaving money on the table.

“Every owner of every type of mobile phone can use text messaging,” said Eric Bader, an executive at Brand In Hand, New York. “So, you can reach the widest audience that other media doesn’t excel in reaching. And frankly, the audiences just aren’t that big for a lot of segments of mobile display media.”

While SMS campaigns have been around for most of the decade, numerous companies — mostly retailers — in the last year or so have finally gotten their programs up and running. For instance, 7-Eleven has been testing its first mobile coupon campaign in 200 San Diego-area stores for the last two months. The initiative has been supported by both general and Hispanic-targeted radio and outdoor advertising, as well as bilingual point-of-purchase signage.

“We’re targeting the Millennial age group, 16 to 24 [years old],” Margaret Chabris, spokesperson for the Dallas-based 7-Eleven, said. “They don’t go anywhere without their handheld sets. They are comfortable getting these types of text messages and these kinds of offers.”

SMS Efforts Could Learn from Old-School DM in Next Phase

With each ad format, efforts that target high school and college students and young adults appear to be the most profitable. That is especially true for SMS, given this audience’s passion for texting. But expert-level copywriting for SMS appears to be lagging and could probably use some old-school lessons.

Just as print-based direct marketing copywriters were forced to adapt to the e-mail channel, Bader said, penning text message lines is ripe to become a dedicated craft, rather than just an extra chore for marketing departments. “I think that’s where we are going to see it evolve to,” he said. “But at this point, we’ve seen a lot of evidence that people are just repurposing what they have.”

Jeremy Lockhorn, director of emerging media at New York-based Razorfish, disagreed to an extent. “I think marketers are already starting to get pretty creative even if 160 characters or so is pretty limiting,” he said. “You have to be inventive to deliver a valuable message there.”

More than anything, Bader said, there is a lack of budget for mobile copywriting. The less-than-stellar state of the recent economy also factors in, he said.

“People spend as much as they can on implementation, and as little as they can on creative,” Bader said. “Most people put as much of their very limited investment dollars [as possible] into the execution, whether it’s maintaining the SMS infrastructure and the ability to serve those text messages or any kind of production costs… That’s been the wisdom, right or wrong.”

Bader added that too many mobile advertisers are sending the wrong kind of messages, eschewing lessons from decades of direct marketing practice. “People are forgetting the fundamentals,” he said. “It looks like they are doing it just to do it. They are missing a benefit and a purpose: ‘Why should I click on this, why should I respond to this short code, why should I text this word?'”

Roberto Chavez, CEO of Sweden-based mobile vendor Didmo, agrees some marketers are not doing mobile for the right reasons. “We’re seeing a lot of great campaigns out there,” he said. “However, the current panic-mode state of the industry has resulted in many companies jumping the gun to create iPhone apps or simply using cookie-cutter solutions to convert their Web sites to WAP sites.”

He added, “The gap between new smartphones and older phones is widening, and being able to reach all platforms requires an even greater understanding of creative as it relates to mobile.”

The “Cool” Debate: Apps vs. Web-based Functionality

While SMS copywriting may be a smart topic going into 2010 due to the realities of consumer devices, all the players who spoke with ClickZ acknowledged that the hype the industry has seen around apps is not about to die down. They said the best brand apps were produced by the likes of Dunkin’ Donuts, Kraft, Amazon, Chanel, LinkedIn, and eBay. Lockhorn, though, seemed to question whether apps for iPhones, Androids, and BlackBerrys would increase in relevancy, suggesting that they might even go into decline in the next few years.

“Is the future of mobile going to be apps or Web-based functionality?” he said. “When you ask someone what’s the point of a downloadable app versus a Web application, it typically comes back to tapping into the native capabilities of the device. If we build those capabilities into a browser, then what is the point of a downloadable application? I think next year is too early, but in the long run, Web-based applications are going to win.”

Even as the debate on specifics goes on, interest in targeting the on-the-go consumer has increased incrementally over the last several years. It now seems more likely that the medium’s “break out” will occur over the course of a generation, rather than during a single calendar year. For instance, Ryan Fertig, an accounts executive with Leapfrog Interactive in Louisville, KY, said a modest three of his agency’s roughly two dozen clients have so far committed to first-time mobile forays during 2010.

Hence, Chavez may have put it best: “We are still at the beginning stages of learning how to create for and leverage mobile as a media channel.”

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