Text messaging: valuable marketing tool or consumer rip off?

The BBC’s expose pf premium-rate rip-offs includes the claim that callers to the GMTV breakfast show had been defrauded out of £10m a year entering unwinnable competitions. But we must remember that this example is very much the exception and not the rule, says Robert Thurner …

While early stage industries such as mobile services often attract companies seeking to make quick profits, long term players take a responsible attitude to growing the sector through self regulation and the development of best practice guidelines. Codes of conduct developed by the Direct Marketing Association, Institute of Sales Promotion and Mobile Marketing Association as well as the existing rulebook developed by the Advertising Standards Authority are very clear in such cases and together with the premium rate regulator ICSTIS have teeth.

Text message campaigns can offer a vital service. There are numerous examples which illustrate how the mobile channel is being used to offer consumers tangible benefits however one campaign which springs to mind is an SMS based service The Mayor of London has run in partnership with Transport for London. The service, called CABWISE allows the general public to text the keyword ‘HOME’ to the shortcode 60835 in order to receive contact details by text for the closest licensed minicab firms. The campaign was devised to reduce sexual assaults by illegal minicab drivers and has been very successful. Over the life of the campaign, the levels of serious sexual assault and rape attributable to illegal minicabs has reduced by around two thirds and the Mayor of London has credited the Cabwise campaign and “HOME” as being an important factor in this.

“Advertisers need to tread carefully …”

With an average of 138m messages being sent each day, texting has become a major part of everyday life. However, one of the major challenges the mobile marketing industry faces is explaining how the mobile channel works, and how brands and their agencies can realise its full potential throughout the customer journey: from acquisition to customer relationship management, to long term customer loyalty.

Mobile means so much more than text messaging. Sending an SMS to a short code on a poster, a press or TV ad is only the start of the mobile journey. Today’s handsets serve up mobile internet sites providing rich content, real-time interaction and a superior user experience. According to research conducted by comScore and Telephia an estimated 5.7m people in the UK used a mobile device to access the internet during January 2007 which represents 19% of the 30m people who accessed the web from a PC – a further example of the role mobile plays in bringing people from the offline world into the online environment. Vodafone is the latest of the operators to offer flat rate data charges, removing one of last barriers to people browsing the mobile web.

Anticipating the growth of mobile internet browsing, there’s also been a lot of activity in the mobile advertising space, with Microsoft buying Screen Tonic, and AOL buying Third Screen Media. As figures emerge that people in the UK and US are prepared to accept ads in return for free minutes, content or games, we all anticipate with great interest the launch of Blyk’s free-to-consumer mobile proposition later this year to see just how tolerant people will be. However, what we need to remember is that advertisers need to tread carefully as poorly targeted ads, sent at the wrong time of day, promise to damage brand reputations rather than strengthen them.

Finally, let’s consider the dynamics at work as the giants of the internet search world get set for the world of mobile search. Mobile’s location based capabilities add a new dimension to the traditional search model, allowing browsers on the move to locate everything from record shops to restaurants based on their immediate proximity. Not surprisingly, the mobile operators, who have extensive knowledge of their subscribers’ mobile behaviour will be putting up a fight to monetise this lucrative new revenue source.

So looking forward, the prospects look good. What started as a trickle two years ago – with early adopting brands from the entertainment and leisure sectors cautiously dipping a toe in the mobile channel – has rapidly turned into a stream of blue chip brands now embracing mobile as a core part of their marketing mix. The mobile channel provides immediacy, engagement, interactivity and instant measurement, yet all the while remaining very private. Even those wedded to old media thinking are taking a fresh look at mobile. They, and the consumers they serve, should consider the recent TV quiz headlines as a sideshow to the inexorable progress of the mobile channel.

AUTHOR Robert Thurner is Commercial Director of mobile marketing services specialist Incentivated.