NEW YORK -- The tone of the recent Mobile Marketing Forum (MMF) here was rather upbeat. And why not? With an audience of what Nielsen reports to be 57.3 million mobile users in the United States, marketers have an incredible opportunity at their fingertips -- or more specifically, their thumbs. At the same time, participation in social networks has reached record levels, with active engagement from roughly one-third of American adults and two-thirds of teenagers, according to Chris Golier, vice president of mobile agency Mobile Behavior and moderator of a social media panel at the MMF event. Mobile, Golier told the crowd, has played a significant role in perpetuating social media participation, enabling consumers to extend their social Web presence beyond the desktop.
As Brian Johnson, senior vice president of sales at mobile transaction network mBlox, stated in his session just prior to the panel, "You can't be social if you never leave your computer." Simply put, people are mobile -- and social networks will follow the people. SMS text messaging, Johnson said, has become a significant part of social networks: Twitter updates now represent an average of 240 text messages on a quarterly basis for every twitterer, far outstripping the number of text messages sent to the average MySpace user (80) and Facebook user (40). And, contrary to the conventional wisdom that Web-enabled smartphones threaten the growth of text messaging, Johnson says that people with Apple iPhones are actually the most active texters of any group.
By now, marketers know that monologues are out, and dialogues are in. According to panelist Webster Lewin, senior vice president and director of digital innovation and strategy at communications firm MS&L, the dialogue itself may soon be outdated, replaced with the concept of the "multilogue."
"Consumers are bouncing around various communication portals," Lewin said. "We need to be in all those places." It's no surprise, then, that marketers believe they need to be involved in social media. Once marketers have entered that space, mobile can then be used to augment the entire experience.
Paul Smith, president of mPulse Media, noted three events that he said paved the way for the birth of the mobile-social relationship:
- the release of the iPhone, which showed how mobile devices can be used for more than just calling and text messaging;
- viewers voting by text message for their favorite "American Idol" contestant; and
- the race between Ashton Kutcher (@aplusk) and CNN (@cnnbrk) to reach 1 million followers on Twitter.
"Underlying all these [events]," Smith emphasized, "is simplicity." As consumers grow increasingly accustomed to mobile-device communication, the more they will engage with the interface, and, in turn, the more opportunity marketers have to get consumers' attention.
Unlike other communication channels, mobile phones are rarely out of reach. According to a report last month by The Associated Press, a survey conducted by The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that 20 percent of households had only cell phones in the last half of 2008, marking a three-percentage-point increase over the first half of 2008 and a dramatic rise since the first six months of 2003, when just 3 percent of households only had cell phones. As a point of comparison, 17 percent of households in the last half of 2008 had only landlines, down from 43 percent in 2003.
"One of the main benefits coming out of mobile is ‘always,' " Smith said, adding that the "always-on" nature of mobile is one of the main reasons it's perfect for engaging in social networks. Advertisers, he said, should not focus solely on how much revenue mobile generates, but on recognizing that the targeted individuals are using mobile in addition to television and PCs -- all of which contribute to what Smith called the "advertising interaction you're trying to choreograph."
"Mobile is not a strategy," said Jim Manis, chairman emeritus of the Mobile Marketing Association. "It's a channel." In light of that, while some users may only use a mobile device, experts are hesitant to say that mobile is ready to shoulder a standalone marketing strategy. The industry is seeing a gradual convergence of all media channels: Print and television ads, for instance, increasingly encourage viewers to access more information via a site URL. The fact that mobile provides instant access means consumers can immediately visit the Web page, call the customer service number, or become a Fan on Facebook.
Only when asked about what makes a "successful" mobile-social implementation did the panelists express dissenting views. Christine Loredo, vice president of marketing at Tribilis, argued that marketers need to recognize that they're no longer steering the conversation. "You're allowing your customer to talk about your brand," she says. "You need to have a product that has legs to stand on." In other words, instead of trying to control the message, companies are challenged to deliver better products and services that excite a fair discussion around success and failure.
Lewin disagreed, stating that there are times when a brand and its audience can benefit from a measure of control, particularly in the form of community guidelines -- and direction regarding the goals of the community. He cites the recent social media campaign run on behalf of the Mars, Inc., Skittles candy brand as an example of a social initiative gone awry. This past March, visitors to the Skittles.com Web site were redirected to a series of social media Web sites, including the Twitter search page for the term "skittles." Every tweet containing that word showed up on the page -- "no matter how outrageous," Lewin recalled. "As a responsible agency," he said, "we can't allow our brands to be hijacked in that way." (Mars seems to have come to a similar conclusion: Skittles.com now requires Web visitors to acknowledge they're of a certain age, and to agree to terms and conditions, before gaining access.)
The social networks are still looking to find a way to monetize their offerings, and panelists suggested that mobile may turn out to be a critical component. Loredo said she hoped it will be just a matter of time before social networks and mobile carriers figure out a joint effort to generate revenue. Merging mobile and social data, for example, will create a gold mine of information for marketers -- location, behavior, preferences, and so on.
Smith told the crowd that there's curiosity from small businesses and local retailers, but until marketers figure out a method of targeting without intruding, they're wisely leaning toward caution. "There aren't enough clean case studies that the local retailer has in mind to say, ‘I want one of those,' " he said.
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