SMS ‘tidal wave’ about to hit

In the wireless world, there are countless new ways to reach out and touch audiences - particularly the youth market - with everything from texting, to ring tones, to games. However, even though the sector in Canada is rapidly maturing, so far only a handful of Canadian marketers are entering the fray - leaving the majority either oblivious or cautiously observing from a distance, experts say.

In the wireless world, there are countless new ways to reach out and touch audiences – particularly the youth market – with everything from texting, to ring tones, to games. However, even though the sector in Canada is rapidly maturing, so far only a handful of Canadian marketers are entering the fray – leaving the majority either oblivious or cautiously observing from a distance, experts say.

‘Next year, 70% of Canada’s youth will be using cell phones and text messaging. This is definitely the market that will influence everyone else, and it’s going to move quickly,’ says Roman Bodnarchuk, CEO of Toronto-based N5R.com. ‘For the youth market, SMS (short message service) and soon MMS (multimedia message service) – when you can send colour pics and audio clips – will be the things for marketers to watch. The capabilities are exciting, but companies aren’t using them. It’s still so new that consumer marketers are just figuring it out now. They’re just starting.’

For those who do lead the wireless way, it won’t necessarily be a case of the blind leading the blind – there are plenty of international success stories. European and Japanese marketers have had plenty of practice.

Direct marketers in fact, according to Forrester, may be the first to jump on board – a recent study revealed 66% of direct marketers in Europe plan to use text messaging in their campaigns in the next 24 months.

Hallmark, for example, launched its mobile entertainment development arm HIYA, which allows users to select an image of a licensed character – like Garfield – from its Web site and send it along with a tiny greeting to a friend. McDonald’s placed a texting promotion on its tray mats in the U.K. that explained how consumers could enter a contest via SMS: as soon as consumers entered, they received an instant message, which they were to take to the counter to redeem for a free order of fries – the promotion reportedly attracted up to 40 people per second.

In Canada, carrier networks are now up to speed, and handset-makers, like Nokia and Sony Ericsson, are starting to churn out new phones that allow MMS – both hoping the new bells and whistles will encourage consumers to buy more gizmos, and burn more airtime. The phones can send and receive digital photographs, often with the camera built-in to the phone. Already available in the U.K. and the U.S., the phones should be ‘on hand’ in Canada later in 2002.

Meanwhile, last year, Microcell hooked up with Santa Monica, Calif.-based wireless multimedia provider Your Mobile Networks to permit its users to download ring tones featuring music from artists in rotation on MuchMusic or MusiquePlus. Consumers can also download other interactive content from Fido’s site, like daily tarot readings and games. Canada’s other carriers also have similar initiatives underway. For its part, Telus recently signed a deal with Vancouver-based Impulse Media Technologies to allow its users to purchase and download songs they hear on the radio via their mobiles.

‘Imagine downloading a simple ring tone, or a black-and-white picture – that’s sort of exciting. But when you start to get richer content, that’s going to drive more usage, and in turn, more marketing,’ says Alan Lysne, CTO and co-founder of Davinci Technologies of Toronto, a provider of automated customer management solutions for global wireless carriers. ‘It’s more compelling for a company to send a nice high-res graphic or colour image of their product or logo – a Britney Spears picture instead of a news update, for example.’

However, the majority of phones on the market today only support sending and receiving text via SMS. WAP-enabled and i-Mode phones on the market also allow consumers to surf the Net and download music. (U.K.-based Orange, for example, has a WAP phone that features animated caller IDs and messaging, making standard cell phone apps that are much more kid-appealing.) Since April of this year, the four major Canadian carriers – Bell Mobility, Microcell Solutions, Telus Mobility and Rogers AT&T – have collaborated on ‘inter-carrier operability,’ allowing users to send messages across the platforms, regardless of whom they’ve subscribed with.

‘That was a huge barrier for the adoption and familiarity of text messaging,’ says Bill Parisi, VP of business development at mobile applications provider ZIM Technologies of Ottawa. ‘So what it means is that we’re going to start to see the types of youth adoption rates that have already taken place in Europe and Asia: We’re going to find that over half of the people under 25 years of age will be sending SMS messages more than once a day. We’re on the verge of a tidal wave of SMS washing over North America because the catalysts have all come together.’

So for marketers targeting the youth segment, the key is implementing wireless strategies to cash in on the craze – and SMS is the place to start.

‘We’re largely unaware in North America about this phenomenon that is really sweeping across the rest of the world,’ Parisi says, adding that worldwide, over half of the volume of SMS messages are being sent by individuals under 25 years old.

The recall rates on SMS are unparalleled, he says: Virtually every SMS that gets delivered is read almost immediately, and given that recognition and retention rate, the cost of delivering an SMS message is a bargain. ZIM, which has run campaigns for the likes of the Ottawa Senators, Bell Mobility and Nokia, has delivered the highly targeted messages of a campaign for less than a couple of cents per message.

Zim worked with Nokia Canada on its ‘kissing booth’ campaign this spring whereby users could go to the www.nokia.ca site to send a Valentine text message to a cell phone for free. It subsequently maintained the program for Mother’s Day, and may make the service available on a regular basis.

Over the next six weeks, ZIM will also deliver 1.3 million mobile marketing messages to Canadian consumers for a clothing retailer that specializes in youth clothing (name withheld). The client, he says, knows customers will be excited to subscribe not just for e-mail updates, but to get messages pushed to their phones about when one of the outlets has sales in their area.

‘Even beyond just the youth market, this channel is not clogged with all the noise of a mature channel – it’s still got a very cool factor to it and a fresh and unique appeal. That’s why every single one of these messages is being read,’ says Parisi.

Experts agree, however, that the channel can not be abused – people must give opt-in permission to receive messages, and the content must be relevant to be effective. There are also other safeguards that protect the channel, compared to vehicles like e-mail, says Bodnarchuk.

‘The difference with text messaging is that you’ll see little or no spam because the system is owned by the telcos and they can block any messages that are sent to over five or 10 people. It’s unlike the Internet, where it’s free and a 13-year-old in the Philippines can send 70 million people the ‘I Love You’ virus,’ he says.

This year, CHUM Television also launched a substantial carrier-agnostic mobile initiative in Canada, offering original MuchMusic-branded content on wireless devices across the country. Cell phone users are able to call up the MuchMobile channel and enjoy access to free interactive content, including entertainment and pop-culture news updates, artist-of-the-day trivia, the Ed the Sock insult generator, Mobile Music Games, and What’s On listings. Users could also save game scores, send content to friends, and participate in chats and leaderboards.

‘As the technology evolved and new companies sprung up, many were coming to us with very creative ideas. Instead of just taking CityPulse, for example, and delivering news clips, it became, ‘What can we do with the brand?’ MuchMusic made sense because it’s youth-oriented, and youth are the early adopters,’ says Maria Hale, managing director of CHUM Television Interactive, which is currently working with Airborne Entertainment of Montreal, for the MuchMobile program.

‘We’re trying to create some synergy between the three vehicles that we have – TV, the Web, and now wireless. I think we’re doing that.’

Earlier this summer, the television station spun off an event tie-in with its wireless polling for the MuchMusic Video Award’s (MMVA) People’s Choice. Canadian youth were driven to MuchMobile – via television references and spots – to wirelessly cast their votes for favorite artists. The MMVA 2002 section of the MuchMobile channel recorded almost 1.7 million hits, with an average of more than 6000 users per week during the three-week campaign. In the end, over 15,000 votes were cast wirelessly for the MMVAs.

‘We tracked our traffic and every time it was mentioned on-air, we saw a spike in usage. There’s an important message to marketers there and that is that if you expect this to work, you have to support it – either promote it on TV or posters. Wireless marketing programs are like children – you can’t give birth and not continue to nurture them,’ says Andy Nulman, president of Airborne, which is also working with the likes of Disney and MSN in the U.S. to develop wireless entertainment.

Cell phone usage and marketing in Canada will eventually broaden beyond SMS to include an even wider range of apps – mobile entertainment for the small screen medium including licensed/branded content and advertising, to real-time, multi-player interactive gaming and increased personalization features.

Some of the games that are very popular on the handsets right now – and drive a massive number of minutes – are fairly simple text-based games, says Davinci’s Lysne. As the more advanced phones hit the market, full-colour, action games that are affiliated with a brand or the release of a new movie will be prevalent, he adds. ‘The latest Austin Powers movie comes out and you can get screen shots of all the characters and hit a button and hear them say their lines – things like that are excellent ways to reach the youth market.’

The bottom line, say experts, is to keep it fun and entertaining. ‘You’re not selling anybody anything. You have to get them involved in your message – the line between content and commerce has to be incredibly blurred,’ says Airborne’s Nulman, who scoffs at the thought of mobile location-based ads, which, he says, will be so annoying, people will turn into ‘psycho-killers.’

‘The way to reach this very cynical youth-oriented mobile marketplace is to make sure the stuff you’re sending is real content that they can interact with. Communication is the most important element in all of this.’