R U Ready 4 SMS Mktg?

The message read: “XxX agent verified and confirmed. Your mission now begins, only the best will succeed. Await Next Intel Report and be prepared.”

In 126 characters (including spaces), marketers behind “XxX,” a new action film starring Vin Diesel, have sparked intrigue and foreshadowed further interaction. That’s the opening salvo in a dialogue that will occur between the marketers and people who sign up to become “mobile agents,” agreeing to play a game that generates advance buzz about the film.

That game will be played on cellular phones equipped with SMS. It’s the latest sign the wireless marketing trend that’s hit Europe is beginning to blossom in the U.S. So far, Nestlé, Sony Pictures, and countless record labels have dipped their toes into the wireless waters. Proponents say if you’re marketing entertainment or want to reach young people, it’s the only way to stand out from the crowd.

“The opportunity is that if companies like Nestlé want to reach people in new ways — because they are afraid that they’re not watching TV or not paying attention — they are going to where young people are. And they’re all talking on their cell phones,” said Greg Clayman, vice president of marketing and business development at Upoc, a New York-based firm specializing in SMS marketing.

Sure, we’ve talked about SMS and wireless advertising for ages, but the last six months have seen consumers and carriers make moves that foreshadow a boom in text messaging in the U.S. Most progress has been driven by the carriers. They’ve begun aggressively promoting their text messaging services, and they’ve struck partnerships so their subscribers can send messages to people on other carriers.

The change has been so dramatic as to encourage Jupiter Research (a division of INT Media Group, ClickZ’s corporate parent) to predict wireless advertising in the United States will reach parity with Europe and Asia by 2006. Currently, according to Jupiter, use of two-way SMS in the U.S. is nearly three times that of the wireless Internet, while the number of consumers receiving one-way SMS (e.g., sports, news, and flight updates) is double the number of those who browse content. That’s resulting in 1 billion SMS messages sent domestically every month — not a huge number if you consider 24 billion are sent worldwide in the same time period, according to the GSM Association. Still, it represents substantial growth.

What if you, as a marketer, want to experiment with this SMS stuff? You could start by talking to your agency, if you have one. The interactive folks typically handle this type of promotion. Otherwise, the folks at Adversoft, the San Diego-based company behind the “xXx” promotion, will be glad to help. There’s also Upoc, SkyGo, Avesair, and probably a half-dozen more start-ups.

The first challenge is getting users to sign up for your program. Typically, people register on the Web or respond via SMS to an outdoor or print ad. Initially, marketers will likely see people sign up just because they’re curious. Then, it’ll take something more — the promise of fun, interactivity, content, or (better) prizes. Nestlé, for example, offered visitors to its Web site the chance to receive real-time updates from a snowboarding competition. Each message was “sponsored by Butterfinger.”

In most cases, SMS campaigns require double opt-in because of the very personal nature of mobile phones. When a person signs up, a message is sent to her phone to verify she intended to register. Then, she replies via SMS or enters a code on the Web site to confirm her desire to participate.

Then, the marketer can get creative. SMS resembles email marketing in many ways (but a whole lot shorter); Adversoft’s Griffith David says it’s more of a two-way dialogue.

“Email is a one-way push, and this is why when we talk to clients, they may want to send a push message. We say, ‘No, no, don’t do it that way,'” David said. “The more you’re able to keep that interaction going with the user, the higher the response rate you’ll be likely to get.”

That’s why polls, quizzes, games, and other interactive features have become more popular. They’ve been helped along by the proliferation of phones capable of two-way SMS.

Upoc’s Clayman describes a promotion the company ran with Nokia in which people signed up for updates from the Sugar Bowl football match-up. Besides just getting one-way push messages, recipients had a chance to express their opinion on the game play.

“People received messages like, ‘You’ve got the ball and you’re the coach, what would you do in this scenario?'” said Clayman.

It may be more interactive than email marketing, but SMS shares some of email’s positive characteristics, such as real-time response tracking and the ability to segment lists. For the moment, SMS is just text (160 characters to be exact), so the cross-platform aspects of email needn’t be a concern.

So, marketers, think about it. There are a lot of phones out there, and you’re the coach. What would you do with an SMS campaign?

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