Unwired, Unlisted

Uncharacteristically, the channel I’ve been thinking about lately is the telephone.

Mostly, I’ve been thinking about the extent to which it evokes the curmudgeon in me. Do-Not-Call (unless you email first) applies to practically everyone. Dorothy Parker’s famous response to a ringing phone was, “What fresh Hell is this?” Mine is, “This had better be really good.”

I’m certain I’ve more than once gone a week with only two calls: Dad and Grandma. I’ve never exceeded my cell phone minute allotment (the lowest-level plan), and the only thing keeping me tethered to a landline is the DSL that comes with it.

It’s not as if I’m cut off from the world. I’m busy, I multitask, and I’m nearly always on email and IM. I see phone tag as a waste of time. Only calls already scheduled are welcome.

It turns out this attitude about the phone reveals plenty about my media consumption habits and demographic profile. And of course, I’m not alone.

The more wireless I become, the more time I spend online. Last week, I upgraded to the world’s smartest phone (the Treo 600) after a friend said, “It’s like having a laptop everywhere you go.” I asked the provider if I could have the Web stuff without the voice stuff (“No”).

Focus Group of One is fun, but editorially irresponsible. So I dug into the research to see if the telephone is really losing ground to text-based digital communications. Or, as Alex Soojung-Kim Pang more bluntly blogged, “Note to telcos: prepare exit strategy from landline business.”

Web-based communications do seem to be eroding voice telephone usage in interesting ways. Take note: this is about consumer control, and it will influence marketing. Expect to wait for pull — and don’t even think about push.

Here’s one example. My boyfriend was shopping for new glasses. I saw a guy wearing just what he’d been looking for. Aha! Ray-Bans. Here’s how the buy cycle worked: find Ray-Bans site; locate model in question; IM link to b.f; he IMs back — they’re exactly right; debate tortoiseshell vs. black; play brief but spirited round of who-can-find-best-price first. Conversion!

The Pew Internet & American Life Project found that like TV, landline phones play a less-prominent role in the lives of what the study calls “the broadband elite” — heavy Internet users with high-speed home connections. They make fewer phone calls, and tend to use a cell phone for long distance.

In-Stat/MDR reported in February that 14.4 percent of U.S. consumers have cut the cord on their landline phone. That percentage is expected to more than double by 2008 to nearly 30 percent. Those most likely to hang up their landline are 18 to 24 years old, are single, reside in an urban area, subscribe to Sprint and T-Mobile, and are mobile data users.

My broadband peers and I are far more likely to connect to the Web wirelessly: 28 percent of Us do, versus 9 percent of Them (dial-up users). On an average day, 11 percent of us go online with a wireless device, compared to 3 percent of them. We network our home computers, too. One-third (34 percent) of us have networks, (21 percent wired, 13 percent wireless). Only 6 percent of dial-up users have home networks. And 48 percent of us use IM on a typical day in addition to email.

New research out this week from Enpocket reveals over one third of the 110 million mobile owners in the U.S. are active users of SMS messaging. Rob Lawson, the company’s general manager, defines “active” as sending or receiving messages in the past three months.

A small but significant number of users (one to two percent) have sent messages as a result of marketers’ calls-to-action on packaging, in ads, and via TV and radio. That’s not a lot of users — but there aren’t many SMS marketing campaigns out there, either.

Bet those numbers are a lot higher than you suspected. WAP (mobile Internet) usage now has 12 percent penetration (13 million adults) among U.S. mobile owners, one-third the penetration of SMS. That’s more developed than in Europe, which we’ve long viewed as the wireless standard-bearer. In fact, Pew reports this month that between email capable cell phones and laptops equipped with wireless modems, nearly a third (28 percent) of Americans are wireless-ready. Five million of them go online every day from someplace other than home or work.

“Most people own cell phones and most are doing fairly sophisticated things with them,” says Enpocket’s Lawson. “It’s a well-established medium. Even the most far-reaching newspapers and TV shows don’t reach 50 percent of the U.S. population. More people use mobile phones every day than use computers every day. They’re not just using to talk to family and friends. They’re downloading applications, horoscopes, newspapers, and sports scores. That will only improve as people get better handsets and networks get better.”

Lifestyles of the Broadband/Wireless Elite

Two years ago, I’d note a mixture of amusement and alarm that I did things like check my email in the bathroom while brushing my teeth. Now, I IM on the bus and send near real-time photos to friends in Berlin from New York cafes. Then, I’ll look at my mobile to see what’s playing at a local cinema.

When I do make landline calls, they nearly always turn into simultaneous IM chat sessions; did you see this thing on eBay? Here’s that film review; blog entry; Web site; photo; download.

Now, I’m not necessarily saying all this is good, mind you. But it is very real. How will marketers, who are only beginning to figure out desktop PC advertising, deliver messages to people like me, my friends and colleagues and the rapidly growing number of digital media elite? We live on the edge of the browser window. Often, we go beyond it.

Do-not-call control freaks are always on…and almost always unavailable.

What have you noticed about your communications habits as the world unwires? Are you typing more and talking less? Let me know.

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