The Most Intimate Communication

As a marketer, you’re looking to build a warm, trusting relationship with your customers, right? You want them to think of your brand as their friend, their confidant, something upon which they can rely. Especially post-September 11, when consumers are looking for familiarity and a sense of control, you want your company to be a presence inside, rather than outside, personal barriers as people circle the wagons.

What better way to do that than to communicate with them (with their invitation and permission, of course) on their most intimate and personal communications device — their mobile phone? After all, it’s what most people carry with them everywhere they go, and it’s not usually shared with others. A recent survey commissioned by Motorola found that 1 in 10 mobile phone owners had a second, secret handset — a “hotline,” if you will — that they use for the most private of interactions, such as clandestine business discussions and illicit love affairs.

Now, I’m not suggesting that you, as a marketer, are going to get invited to contact your customers on their Batphones, but mobile communication channels definitely deserve a closer look. By the end of September, around 750 million short messaging service (SMS) messages were sent every day on Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) networks, according to the GSM Association. Most were person-to-person messages, but commercial messages are on the rise. Granted, most GSM networks are currently outside the United States, but text messaging is beginning to catch on stateside as well.

Among the fastest to grasp the import of this technology have been companies in the travel industry. These days there is perhaps no other sector that has a greater need to build trusting and loyal relationships with its customers. Text messaging services that alert travelers about flight delays or cancellations, as well as providing gate numbers, are becoming must-have customer relationship management (CRM) applications. “You asked for it and we listened,” reads the text on United Airlines’s flight paging services Web page. Taking it a step further are services that message people with airport traffic information and advise them on the fastest route to the airport. Some travel companies, such as Orbitz, let travelers indicate whether they’d like colleagues or family members alerted about flight status, so, for example, my brother would know when to pick me up at the airport.

A pioneer in this area is Continental Airlines, which launched its notification service in February 2000 and has since seen it grow from hundreds to thousands of messages daily. The service was especially popular just after September 11, as the company shifted flight schedules and worked to get back up to speed. Now that business is returning to normal, one function Continental is developing directly addresses people’s concerns about family members flying. Ken Bott, manager of electronic channel marketing for Continental, describes a scenario in which parents would want to receive notification that a plane carrying their son had landed safely back in his college town. “Right now, I think there is something of an over-sensitivity to things that are normal course of business,” said Bott. “It’s our job to try to manage the customer back into the mindset that they were in pre-September 11.”

The real sweet spot for Continental, though, is among its frequent fliers. When it surveyed them a year ago, it found 90 percent had an interactive, two-way device that could send and receive email, according to Bott. Now, the company is testing wireless communications aimed at encouraging loyalty and stealing share of wallet away from competitors. Consider a customer that is a high-level frequent flier with Continental but also a preferred customer in another carrier’s frequent flier program. If Continental had to inform this person via text message that her flight was delayed 30 minutes, the message would also invite her to pass the time in the President’s Club, where she would be greeted by one of the staffers there — “of course, by name,” Bott added.

This wireless technology, which has much in common with email marketing (but shorter messages), has applications for other sectors as well. Heineken has used opt-in SMS to send out sports scores for events that it sponsors, thereby building its brand and leveraging sponsorship of the events. It also used SMS in China to market its SuperClub dance parties, where winners of a drawing were informed via SMS. Text messaging has a viral component, too, in that participants in these promotions could forward messages from Heineken to their friends.

Such a personal form of communication, though, sparks especially strong feelings if abused. That’s why opt-in standards must be as stringent as possible. Already, privacy advocates are sounding the alarm about SMS spam, and lawmakers are introducing legislation aimed at protecting wireless privacy — with good reason. Verizon Wireless last month settled with a Phoenix-based mortgage company after the carrier filed suit, accusing the firm of sending unsolicited emails to customers on a near-daily basis.

Wireless text, which has the potential to greatly improve and deepen companies’ relationships with their customers, will only be successful as a CRM tool — not as a prospecting tool. Marketers who ignore this maxim threaten to ruin it for everyone else. After all, at a time when people are afraid to open their mail and must show a photo ID before entering many office buildings, the mobile phone is one of the few safe, personal refuges left. Don’t enter unless invited.

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