Mobile Marketing: New Era, New Questions

Let me be clear from the very beginning: I am not skeptical that mobile devices like cell phones, PalmPilots, and handheld computers, whether synced with a computer or wirelessly linked to the Net, will become a powerful marketing vehicle in the next few years.

A lot of people in this industry seem to be asking whether marketing on these devices will work. That’s the wrong question. Instead, we need to ask how marketing will work. Those who pooh-pooh mobile marketing because of the limits today ignore both its potential and inevitable ubiquity of mobile devices.

According to Media Metrix, almost 8 million Americans currently access the Internet through a non-PC device — and that doesn’t include people who sync their devices through a computer port. Estimates of the number of people worldwide who will have access to the Net via a wireless device by 2004 range from 400 million to more than a billion. That’s a market no one can ignore.

For many, activities like getting news, sending and receiving email, and playing games are already migrating off cumbersome desktop PCs onto mobile devices. I, for one, read The New York Times on my handheld every morning. My hands stay clean, I don’t have to turn pages, and I save 75 cents.

Nobody knows yet what marketing on devices like Palms or cell phones will look like. Many rules of e-marketing might not apply. That’s because people have a different relationship with their handheld device that they carry in their breast pocket or wear on their belt than they do with the PC that sits on their desk.

In other words, because this relationship is different, marketing will have to be different. To understand how a new technology can change the rules of marketing, just look at what has happened with the mass adoption of email.

Companies have been sending all sorts of unsolicited snail mail to people for years. But most quickly learned that people weren’t tolerant of the practice when it came to having their email inboxes spammed. Because our relationship with our email inbox is different, our expectations and acceptance of marketing changed.

Partly because of this new dynamic, permission marketing came to the fore. Permission marketing advocates the practice of opt-in, where customers raise their hands and say “Yes, talk to me.” While its tenets have been abused and eroded by many e-marketers (a simple example being prechecked opt-in boxes), permission marketing has made strides in recognizing and respecting the power of the customer.

Just as email changed marketing, mobile devices will undoubtedly usher in new marketing principles. It is quite possible that tolerance for advertising will continue to decline, especially on wireless devices for which customers pay for bandwidth.

The fact is, every magazine you open nowadays has an article about mobile devices, and every pundit has an opinion about how marketing will have to adapt. But there are still so many unanswered questions, it is hard to predict what is in store.

Some of the questions strike to the heart of the form and function of mobile advertising. Are people comfortable with location-based targeting? Will all advertising have to be by request? What level of intrusiveness will be tolerated? While the issues that we face now on the Internet will continue to be relevant, mobile devices are certainly going to change marketing. It’s just that no one is really sure how.

Many of the mistakes that e-marketers have made were the result of incorrect assumptions about the way people feel, and behave, on the Internet. Now is the time to research how people use mobile devices and their attitudes toward marketing on them. Only that way can we avoid making the same painful mistakes all over again.

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