Email-marketing solutions provider ExactTarget announced today the release of an SMS marketing platform -- an effort to provide marketers with another channel to target customers one-on-one. While there's little doubt that the use of SMS is growing among consumers, it's still highly concentrated in the peer-to-peer realm, rather than being used for marketing purposes. Compared to the 95 percent of consumers who willingly receive marketing messages over email, only 7 percent report opting in for messages via SMS, according to ExactTarget's 2008 Channel Preference Survey. Still, ExactTarget's new capability adds to a line of offerings that provide marketers with a "single platform for managing SMS, email, Web, and voice campaigns," the company says.
"The most appropriate thing that we see [with SMS] are messages that are portable or time-sensitive," explains Scott Roth, director of product marketing at ExactTarget. SMS, he says, should not be used as a promotional tool the way email and direct mail are; rather, SMS is more valuable as a method for customer service and customer engagement, such as services that alert people to an incoming storm or a flight delay. While these services are considered valuable, there remains a big discrepancy between the 48 percent of consumers who use SMS, and the 7 percent who have opted in for promotional materials. "There's definitely an appetite for broad-based messaging, both from marketers and from consumers," says Morgan Stewart, ExactTarget's director of research and strategy. However, he adds, "what we've found in our research is that appetite is stronger among marketers than [among] consumers."
Analysts agree that consumer receptivity remains low. Forrester Research analyst Julie Katz, for one, doesn't see marketing through SMS hitting the mainstream anytime soon; it's still very much a peer-to-peer phenomenon, she says. (For instance, according to ExactTarget's survey, 75 percent of cellphone users between the ages of 15 and 17 used SMS in the past six months, making it that age group's most common form of written personal communication.) A few years down the line the situation may shift, Katz says -- but as of now she's not entirely convinced consumers will be up for it.&;
Certain fears continue to perpetuate and hinder consumer willingness to adopt SMS as a marketing channel. To combat that, marketers have to be sensitive to two things when it comes to targeting consumers on their cellphones, according to the survey:
- consumers are still uncomfortable with the intrusion of an unwanted message from a marketer -- and even wanted messages are often seen as intrusive; and
- the cost associated with receiving a text message (24 percent of those surveyed don't even know how much they're paying for text messages, nor are they on an inclusive plan, Stewart reports).
Moreover, marketers have technical concerns to keep in mind as well:
- text messages are sent over private networks, so carriers maintain a lot of control, requiring upfront, highly detailed plans of what marketers intend on communicating to "their" customers;
- the wait to get a short code, for instance, can take an average of six months; and
- ExactTarget strongly encourages its clients to use a double opt-in, thereby reinforcing the importance of permission-based marketing.
Roth says that ExactTarget sees its role as helping marketers with the implementation component and, perhaps more important, the strategic component of SMS marketing. "We find that most [companies] know they want to do something with text messaging, but don't know how to integrate it with what they have or how to use this effectively with their customers."
The SMS launch does bring ExactTarget up to speed with the other top-tier email service providers, many of which partner with "mobile specialists" that have the expertise to untangle the complexities of working with mobile carriers. "It's almost a box they need to check," Katz says about ExactTarget having a mobile platform -- when and if SMS technology gets embraced by the mainstream, the company will be in a good position to provide the service.
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