Wireless Ads: Are They Spamlike?

Commercial messaging through WAP and HTML-enabled wireless phones looks like it might be set up to be the biggest vaporware play of the year.

Countless advertising sales reps have been pitching wireless phone-based ad applications to me and to my colleagues over the past few months. Almost invariably, the technology is there, but applying the technology as an advertising medium is iffy at best.

Many of these wireless pitches involve some sort of message being pushed to a wireless user based on an opt-in mechanism. “We can push out your message to X users who have opted in to our database to receive targeted offers” is the typical pitch I’ve been hearing lately. Usually this line is delivered along with a facial expression that seems to say, “We can do this, but you probably wouldn’t want to.”

While an opt-in strategy for commercial messages may work for web-based advertising and applications, this strategy is often unfit for wireless messages. There are two principles that lead me to this conclusion:

  • The chafe factor. My wireless phone is my center for doing business while I’m on the go. I can’t be bothered by commercial messages while I talk to my clients, who often use my wireless phone to reach me in emergency situations. It is often not an appropriate medium for pushed commercial messages. If my phone starts making noise and flashing every time I pass a Starbucks to offer me 40 cents off on a cafi latte, I will remove it from my belt and throw it under the wheels of the closest moving delivery truck.

  • The bandwidth issue. In many ways, advertising through wireless phones is a throwback to narrowband days. Not only are messages often limited to blurbs of text, but also users often must pay for their delivery. Not everyone has an “all you can eat” wireless Internet plan. Same goes for text pages and short-message-service communications.

As you can see, pushing commercial messages via the wireless Internet might set your brand up for a negative consumer experience. But what should we do? How do we make sure that we address the two issues above? Here are some suggestions:

  • Ensure that the message is expected and welcome. “Send me periodic wireless updates from foo.com” is not going to cut it as an opt-in mechanism anymore. With the bandwidth and annoyance issues playing such a huge role, we need to let opt-in wireless consumers know exactly what will be delivered and when. Something like “Receive a brief text message from foo.com every day at approximately 2 p.m. EST” would be better. The addition of “You will not receive information from foo.com’s partners or any affiliated companies without your permission” would be even better still.

  • Do not oversaturate. Unless someone explicitly requests five email alerts a day from you, it’s probably not wise to send out several messages per day. The day that wireless phones become an oversaturated medium for communicating commercial messages is the same day that users revolt and send you nasty emails for making their lives more complicated. Offer options to users so that they can regulate what types of information they receive and how often they receive it. More is not always better.
  • Put yourself in the consumer’s shoes. This will help you head off any potential negative brand experiences that could result from your wireless campaign. Always check to make sure that your message offers value (perceived or actual) to the consumer. For example, if you work for Partnership for a Drug-Free America, maybe pushing text messages every two hours that say “Drugs are bad, OK?” is not the best idea. Maybe the occasional text update on breaking drug-related news stories would be better.

The idea of wireless phone advertising is by no means dead, but for the two reasons cited earlier in this article, advertisers have to be a lot more responsible with these campaigns than they might be in administering their web advertising campaigns. It remains to be seen whether consumers will look to their wireless phones for push information or whether they will consider wireless advertising to be spamlike. If we are responsible, we can steer this medium toward the former and away from the latter.

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