Ken Hein of Brandweek wrote a lengthy piece on mobile marketing and interviewed me for this story.
Mobile Marketing Fantasy Vs. Reality
April 02, 2008
By Kenneth Hein
Those who doubt that mobile marketing hasn’t made headway might want to go amp themselves.
Among the brands that ponied up millions for a piece of the Super Bowl this year was PepsiCo beverage Amp Energy. While its 15-second TV spots didn’t venture far from the proven realms of Big Game locker-room humor—one featured an overweight truck driver starting a stalled-out car via jumper cables hooked up to his nipples—a quieter, related effort was reaching much further out. How far? Well, to people who might not even have had the game on at all. As part of its NFL deal, Amp Energy sponsored Sprint’s exclusive Super Bowl mobile channel, which allowed it to run ads via cell phone. A photo of the Amp can materialized on cell phone screens along with music, swirling green flames and the tagline “Go Amp Yourself.” (Hopefully, none of those cell phone users elected to do it with jumper cables.)
When a Super Bowl ad effort stretches into the cellular realm, it’s surely a sign that mobile marketing has arrived, right? After all, even though the third-screen spot was a timid boil-down of the in-your-face TV version, the very idea of adapting a commercial for mobile distribution would have seemed like an alien concept only a few years ago.
Today it is a reality, sort of. Around this time 12 months ago, experts were busy touting mobile marketing as the Next Big Thing. It wasn’t. And not a whole lot is different. Mega brands like Pepsi and Burger King are still toe-dipping in the mobile pool, testing various forms of advertising and promos even as the bulk of their spending dollars go elsewhere.
As mobile expert John Hadl puts it: “It’s hard to get a real read on the value of mobile when you’re only spending $25,000 to $50,000 on it.”
But things are beginning to change. Mobile marketing is “headed in the right direction,” said John Vail, director of the interactive marketing group at Pepsi-Cola North America, Purchase, N.Y. “It’s just taking a lot longer than people thought.” Mobile analytics firms such as U.K.-based Bango are helping companies measure mobile Web site traffic, what devices recipients used and the countries they’re in. In February, 58 million mobile subscribers reported that they’d already been exposed to mobile advertising, per San Francisco-based Nielsen Mobile (a unit of Nielsen Co., which also owns Brandweek). While that’s only 23% of today’s total mobile subscribers, that number will spike as marketers’ mobile experiments continue to grow. And Hadl, who serves as managing partner of Beverly Hills-based BrandInHand, overseer of Procter & Gamble’s mobile efforts, added that a threshold is approaching: “Once there’s direct proof of ROI,” he said, “the spend will shift faster than the industry can handle.”
That might happen as soon as two years from now. Forrester Research forecasts that mobile-marketing spending in the U.S. will surge from the $270 million it stands at now to $405 million in 2009. Then it all goes exponential, doubling every year through 2012, at which point the Cambridge, Mass.-based research firm predicts mobile marketing will be worth $2.8 billion.
Marketers view the mobile marketing explosion as “inevitable,” said Bill Jones, president of Atlanta-based mobile Internet platform provider Air2Web, which counts Starbucks and UPS as clients. Some are “really trying to accelerate” the channel because “properly used it is the most effective mechanism to interact with customers and prospects.”
All of which begs the question: How can marketers profitably use mobile devices to deliver their brand messages right now?
What follows are some of the answers. Like many emergent ideas in the tech realm, mobile marketing’s birth has been attended by as much fantasy as reality, and marketers are learning the painstaking (and, at times, just painful) differences between the two. For instance, studies repeatedly show that many consumers don’t like to get ads on their phones. (A mere 10% of mobile data users deem ads received via PDAs to be acceptable, according to Nielsen Mobile.) At the same time, a third of the same respondents said they’d be OK with seeing ads, so long as the spots offset their mobile bills—say, via free minutes. “That,” said Nielsen Mobile corporate marketing vp Paul Okimoto, “is where we’re starting to see an uptick.”
No doubt, we’ll start to see many more of those. For now, here’s the story on the mobile-marketing phenom today—both fantasy and reality.
Customers dig mobile games.
Videogames were once synonymous with geekdom, but one glance at who’s using a Wii these days (including AARP members and the physically disabled, at last check) shows how dated that stereotype is. This love affair has carried over to mobile devices. In fact, some watchers are now predicting that the global revenue from mobile games will eventually surpass that of traditional console and handheld versions. According to U.K.-based consultancy Understanding & Solutions, mobile gaming is expected to hit $6 billion by 2011.
Some brands are already prepared to embrace this passion by offering free downloadable games for mobile devices that keep their brand front and center. The latest is BK City, debuting April 21, an elaborate game with three worlds (five games in each) ranging from a castle to a BK drive-thru. It will be available across all carriers except for Verizon. POP, online ads and mobile ads, of course, will support the effort. BK City is the latest creation of Mobliss, Seattle, whose prior efforts include Nickelodeon’s Rugrats Food Fight and Brady Bunch Kung Fu.
“A lot of what mobile content advertisers throw out there is cheesy,” said Tia Lang, director of media and interactive for the Miami-based chain. But, “as players progress, our game gets more difficult. It’s fun, funny and relevant to our target.”
People will never use their phones to buy stuff.
Think again. Remember when everyone was worried about using credit cards online? Even some tech-savvy shoppers wrung their hands over cyberthieves stealing their identities and draining their savings accounts. (Psst—it rarely happens.) Even as those same worries have swirled around mobile banking and on-the-go transactions, the truth is that a quarter of cell users with mobile Web access have already trusted their handheld devices to do their shopping, according Harris Interactive, Rochester, N.Y. Sixteen percent already use mobile banking services and one-in-five respondents hope their phone becomes a mobile wallet.
Smarter brands are beginning to respond. In January, Pizza Hut began allowing U.S. consumers to order from any of its 6,200 stores using the mobile Web or text messaging. The chain said it expects half its sales to come online or via mobile devices within the next five years. Papa John’s began offering the ability to text in orders last November.
“If privacy and security issues can be caged, mobile banking and mobile wallet services could launch the next leg up for mobile operators,” predicted Joseph Porus, vp of Harris Interactive’s technology practice. Rajeev Raman, CEO of mywaves, a mobile video destination whose clients include MBW, concurs. In the near future, he said, “purchasing movie tickets, fast food and music via mobile phones will be considered normal, everyday behavior.”
Skip the cleverisms; brands that give consumers information that makes their lives easier are the ones that’ll benefit. “That’s why we bought the phone in the first place,” Hadl said.
Starbucks, for example, makes it easy to find the nearest latte with a mobile-based store locator. When is that blue turtleneck you ordered going to show up? UPS will let you track the whereabouts of your package on your mobile device.
“Too many people pigeonhole mobile marketing as just being ringtones or wallpapers,” said Air2Web’s Jones, whose company created both applications. Brands that sponsor services that tell users things like where the is nearest baby-changing station or where is the store where I can buy what I need, will thrive, added Hadl of BrandinHand. “Soon,” he said, “mobile devices won’t simply be a push medium.”
Texting (aka SMS) isn’t effective.
Like hell it isn’t. While many are looking at mobile video, the mobile Web and other features, the simple, text-only brand campaign often still is what works the best. Why? Because even the oldest, most primitive cell phones out there have the technology that lets people receive a text promo and respond to one. Plus, the practice of text messaging has already been widely adopted.
In December, 1-800-Free411 attached ads sent to users who opted in to receive text horoscopes, diet tips and other information from a company called Limbo. While the free-information service usually gets about 40,000 to 50,000 new callers daily, that volume shot up to nearly 80,000 a day after the mobile ads ran. Overall, Limbo received a 7.1% response rate for text ads it ran for its clients in the fourth quarter.
“The forgotten technology of SMS will be a much bigger factor in digital spends than anyone is predicting,” said Jonathan Linner, CEO of Limbo, Burlingame, Calif., who’s amused that so many marketers are buzzing about putting a movie or banner ad on a cell phone. Those people, he said, “Don’t’ get it yet. You’ll get 10 times better performance from SMS.”
The iPhone’s changed everything.
One of the biggest hang-ups (pun intended) for mobile marketers is the lack of “high” in the tech. We’re talking about antideluvian cell phones that everybody was carrying around prior to last summer, when the Apple iPhone hit stores. In January, CEO Steve Jobs had promised the iPhone would “reinvent” telecommunications. Some disagreed. Some still do. But mobile-marketing advocates generally aren’t among them. The average iPhone user over the age of 18 is five times more likely to explore the mobile Web and 11 times more likely to use mobile video or TV, per Nielsen Mobile. An iPhone-toting American also is 70% more likely to use SMS.
“Look no further than the iPhone for proof that improving the device and user interface can radically increase media consumption,” said John Najarian, svp-media and business development at the Comcast Entertainment Group, who oversees E!’s mobile page.
Better still, the iPhone’s popularity has meant lower-price imitators—triggering a new generation of “smart phones” that experts like Chetan Sharma, co-author of the just-released book Mobile Advertising, believe will make up as many as 20% of the domestic market in two years. (More powerful data pipelines as well as all-you-can-eat data plans will help, too.) Thanks to the iPhone, Sharma said, Americans finally think the cell phone “is more than just something you talk with.”
It’s getting easier to run mobile marketing programs.
Dream on. It still takes about two months to get a major carrier like AT&T or Verizon to approve a text program. And that, according to Gene Keenan, vp-mobile services at Isobar, San Francisco, and vice chairman of the Mobile Marketing Assn., Denver, is “ridiculous.”
“You can by a URL and have a Web site up in two hours,” Keenan said. “It’s still way too hard for brands and agencies to do mobile.” Even worse: “Until it’s easier for big brands to participate, you won’t see the big money.”
Keenan and experts like him have likened carriers to walled gardens: nice to be part of, but good luck getting in. They exert authoritarian control over their on-deck content (that’s the proprietary stuff available only to subscribers) and move with Soviet-style bureaucratic slowness in approving marketing programs.
For instance, WAP sites and banner ads have to be customized by handset and by carrier. “It introduces a lot of complexity,” Sharma said. “You can’t press a button and have a program launch nationwide. You have to negotiate everything and get your content approved.”
But stay tuned; fantasy might turn to reality by this time next year. “You can get over the wall,” Hadl said. “You’ll get hot and sweaty doing it, but you can get over. AOL already proved that this [walled approach] is a model for failure.”
The mobile ecosystem is evolving rapidly.
Quick as the pace of technology is, sometimes it never seems quick enough. But mobile advocates hamstrung by tools that haven’t kept pace with their marketing dreams may soon be doing a high-tech jig. In November, Google announced Android, a new Linux-based operating system for mobile. Microsoft just inked a deal with Nokia that’ll bring its Silverlight platform to mobile. And this quarter, Yahoo! will launch what it calls onePlace, a mobile bookmarking tool that will allow better control of information. These developments come on the heels of AOL’s ‘07 purchase of Third Screen Media, a company that serves banner ads to mobile Web sites. Nokia bought the mobile agency Enpocket last year, too.
All of it, said Sharma, means that “there’s a cautious optimism” out there. “Optimism, because of the uniqueness and reach mobile presents. Caution because of the enormous fragmentation in the industry.”
There is one killer application.
Just like Gilda Radner and Dan Aykroyd debated whether New Shimmer was a floor wax or a dessert topping (it’s both!) on Saturday Night Live, each marketer seems to have his own miracle claim for mobile marketing. And so far, nobody’s quite nailed it.
Take GPS-enabled initiatives, which some see as the potential holy grail of mobile marketing. CBS Mobile announced a test earlier in the year that’ll pinpoint ads to customers based on where they happen to be standing, and Burger King’s Lang has been lovingly nurturing the idea of “serving customers an ad at lunchtime, asking them if they’re hungry.” The problem? “Those kinds of things are fantasy.”
Hardly the only one. “My fantasy is offering Pepsi Smash [music programming] as video-on-demand optimized for the third screen for millions to view,” Vail said. P&G, General Mills and others are currently in test with Cellfire, a company whose technology allows customers to store e-coupons on their cell phones.
There’s the dream of direct-to-consumer mobile video, alive in the mind of BMW Mini as it kicked off a program with mywaves in January. Still others are excited about mobile search; more than 46 million used their phones to search for information in the third quarter of last year, per Nielsen Mobile.
Alex Muller will tell you that GPS-driven mobile marketing won’t be a fantasy for much longer (then again, he’s CEO of GPShopper, which enables mobile-using customers to track down the best deals on stuff they want to buy.) “There will be a point,” he said, “where flipping through a paper circular won’t make sense.”
There needs to be standards.
Mobile marketing is still a lot like the Wild West: a landscape of many players of various reputes, each a competitor peddling his wares and promises. “We need to develop more standards to reduce the friction out there,” said Jordan Berman, executive director of media innovation at AT&T Mobility, New York. “There needs to be more uniformity about how programs get off the ground. I’m on the MMA board of directors and we all agree it is a confusing marketplace out there.”
Then again, people said much the same thing about the Web itself when it was new. The growing pains, Berman said, are natural: “Online is like a toddler; mobile marketing is still in the womb.”