September 2004 - Can You Reach Me Now?

Internet cell phone trends give direct marketers new and creative methods for promoting their wares. Will consumers turn onto mobile marketing or simply drop the call?

By David Lustig

Trends, no matter what field they are in can be extremely difficult to predict. On the plus side, hard-nosed police detective Dick Tracy® figured his out, the two-way wrist radio, perfectly. On the other side, those who felt the next trend was hot pants sure didn’t, nor did the Edsel executive who looked at the trends and thought another mid-sized luxury car was just the ticket. Then there was the poor public relations schnook who, after figuring out the trend in ocean liners was leaning towards bigger and better, officially coined the Titanic “unsinkable.” Of course, there was the pre-1929 trend of putting everything one owned into a skyrocketing stock market. You get the picture.

But what detective Tracy, or more accurately, his creator, Chester Gould, got so right so long ago was that he looked at the then state-of-the-art forms of communication and then correctly extrapolated it. Tracy’s two-way wrist radio was eons ahead of its time, and adjusted to today’s electronic database, is a near perfect look into the future.

Today, we know the device as a cell phone and it is more advanced than our famous comic cop could ever have dreamed. Cell phones not only keep us in contact with loved ones and business associates, they have become a one-stop resource of information with the Internet a simple click away.

Looking at Internet-connected cell phone trends can be fun, especially for direct marketers looking for new and creative ways to reach their target base. We can let our imaginations run wild because it can not only be such an exciting gadget, its potential seems almost unlimited.

Today’s state-of-the-art cell phones allow for PC synching, Bluetooth functionality, E-mail, document viewing, two-way video conferencing, video recording and encompass an integrated full-color camera, to name only some of the innovations that keep rolling onto the marketplace. On the horizon, new innovations and trends only dreamed about today will be reaching consumers at an ever-increasing pace.

But where are we going? Are we the ones guiding the trends? Or are the trends actually guiding us?

“New models will be commonplace within the next five years,” says Bill Schacht, CEO of Stockholm Sweden’s Aestheticom. “Progressive approaches like the various ones Steve Jobs has taken [with Apple] will be copied and likely improved. Media will become far more pervasive, as we have seen is clearly the trend with computing.”

Ben Mendelson, president of the Interactive Television Alliance (ITA) of Santa Monica, Calif., agrees, especially in the field of direct response, the commerce that occurs directly with the customer, such as selling a product or service directly or adding its eventual sale.

An example, says Mendelson, would be the hit television show, “American Idol.”

“Shows that have viewers voting for people have some sort of cell phone activity are invariably related to the advertiser. Even if I’m voting for Billy rather than Bobby, I’m giving them consumer information that the advertiser can use. They can capture your telephone number and demographics of where you’re calling in. They can tell where you are and if they want, can send you information applicable to your area.

“Right now in the U.S., there is very little delivery to your cell phone,” he continues, “but there is a lot in Europe and Asia and it’s coming here soon. It’s still an unknown factor how Americans will accept their cell phone, which everyone considers a very personal device, being sent unsolicited messages, however. If content is not sent in a logical way and all of a sudden you get something from a major toy store chain or an all-in-one superstore, there may be a backlash. Targeting is more important in a personal device rather than television advertising.”

With seemingly everybody over 11 years old owning or having access to a cell phone, advertisers know if done right, they can get a good response.

It is an incredibly appealing idea to be able to have the local coffee shop send an online coupon to you as you walk by or the local dentist advertise his services to you because he has automatically been provided a list of not only everyone who owns a cell phone in his area, but those who are out-of-towners and may need emergency services.

From our perspective, that sounds wonderful. But when those very thoughts were broached to a senior marketing executive of a major beverage firm, instead of seeing it as yet another way to reach his potential customers, he immediately turned inward and thought of himself and “his” cell phone, by replying, “That’s just what I need. More spam!”

Mendelson agrees. “Unsolicited direct response advertising, if not done right, would not only be intrusive but might even spawn a huge backlash,” he says.

David Hutchinson, an independent consultant based in Los Angeles, agrees, saying that if we’re not careful, the people being targeted are going to drown in a sea of advertising and mentally shut it off.

“With the measurability of the Web and what digital technology has allowed for us, now that we’re more accountable, we can actually measure this stuff,” he notes. “At the same time, there’s been this slow motion explosion of digital capability and digital choice pulling consumers’ attention in a million directions.

“It is fair to say that advertisers have crossed the clutter line and evidence coming back indicates that some consumers think there is too much advertising that is intrusive and not effective, and it’s starting to [make] people [mad].”

Which, says Hutchinson, introduces the trend of customer relationship management, the ability to get smarter and closer to your target audience and not only effectively reach him or her, but keep that relationship going.

“For the first time since World War II, corporations are going through this gear-grinding transition from product focus to customer focus,” he says. “There is an operational shift that has to happen in today’s corporations. Everything else is a symptom of that.

“It’s the actual mechanics of communicating with customers. That’s the bear, the big challenge. If you go down this customer-centric path, you come smack dab from vertical postwar product focus to horizontal post Internet customer focus.”

Will this cause government regulation? Hutchinson believes it will be a combination of both government and self-regulation. “The consumer is becoming more and more empowered with more filtering capability,” he says, “both physiological and blanking stuff out mentally. There will be a transitional window, where the buckshot broadcast advertising technique is going to stay, but the smarter companies are going to hone their communications more and more over time. The industry should become self-regulating. If you’re starting to really annoy customers, it obviously isn’t a very good business plan.”

While cell phone technology opens the door to a new marketing channel, direct marketers must be careful not to bombard their target audience with intrusive advertising or worse-spam.

Aestheticom’s Schacht, whose company has produced spots for Nike and Volvo created especially for cell phones and Palm devices, believes one of the biggest problems creating quality advertising for the market is complacency.

“People cling to traditional marketing approaches though it is obvious next-generation models need to be employed, yesterday. Massive corporations like Sony and BMG are merging, while four years ago they had many opportunities to create models that may have affected different results by now. In many cases, a clash between new thinking and old thinking, created an impasse that they are now finally getting beyond, as iTunes passes the 100 million sales mark.”

Schacht also contends many thought-to-be bright ideas have faded off the radarscope.

“I think the current administration in the U.S. is responsible for a lot of that,” he says. “We went from a platform that embraced this new frontier back to a focus on, can you believe this, fossil fuel? I see that some of the brightest people in the forefront of where we are going have thrown their weight behind presidential candidate John Kerry. I think we will see a rebirth of a focus on the future, not the past.”

“The advertising needs to be of high enough quality that people won’t skip them,” says Mendelson. “The most important thing is to target the demographics. It has been shown that people don’t skip them and with as little as a 10-second hook, it’s bookmarked.”

So where is Internet-driven cell phone advertising going?

“I’m an optimist,” says Mendelson. “Shopping today is entertainment. We’re a consumer society. That’s why direct response exists at all. Twenty years ago, if you told me people would pay to watch somebody sell them something, I wouldn’t have believed it.

“But today, if your passion is, say, horses, and you get an Internet cell phone ad about a saddle, there’s a good chance you’re going to watch it. We have to make sure that advertising being delivered is something you want and will enrich your life and is done in an opt-in fashion. Advertisers don’t like wasting their money.”

“It has to be done in a way that is not considered intrusive,” says Hutchinson. “If you’re traveling to Florida during the rainy season, you might need an umbrella, and a local advertiser can take advantage of that by sending you information on where to get one. As long as the information has content, it’s a good way to advertise.

“The beauty of the world that we’re in now and crossing into is that the consumer will soon will be driving the train and business will morph accordingly.”

Everyone, however, agrees that the transition will not always be smooth or easy.

Adds Schacht, “There can be a lot of stress. But that’s also what keeps things fun. The future,” he says, looking at the industry as a whole, “is looking bright.”

If we could ask our fictional cop, Dick Tracy about what the future holds, he would probably agree with us most wholeheartedly.

David Lustig is a contributing writer based in Southern California.


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