Companies 2 Customers: I <3 U

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Cell phone in-boxes just may be the next direct marketing holy grail. Now that 90 percent of cell phones in the United States have texting capability and 95 million Americans consider themselves active text messagers, the short message service (SMS) channel seems an obvious choice for marketers to reach out to their desired customer base. However, customers are weary of big business invading their space. Who wants another line of their personal communication jammed with spam? Marketers are also facing stricter regulations on what they can send and whom they can contact. Many marketers (and customers) wonder: Will text-message marketing be shut down from above? Will cell phone in-boxes end up as clogged as an email account? Is there any way for customers and marketers to have a positive SMS relationship? Gerry Purdy, vice president and chief analyst for mobile and wireless at Frost & Sullivan, says that text messaging has quickly evolved from a person-to-person communication system to person-to-company text-ins (think American Idol). Now, the structure is moving toward customer to company on an opt-in basis. Purdy says that while there may certainly be detractors and roadblocks, SMS marketing may "become the largest and most successful media of advertising and promotion of all time." Text-message marketing campaigns have been going strong for some time in Europe and Asia, but there has been a long growth period in the United States. However, this summer saw an outbreak of surprisingly successful campaigns:
  • Starbucks created "Starbucks Summer Pursuit," a scavenger hunt in New York City, in which customers opted in to receive text-messaged questions and reply with cell pictures of the answer to compete for a trip to Costa Rica.
  • Stolichnaya created an opt-in on its Web site that encouraged customers to receive new product alerts and promotions by texting in the password stoli.
  • Meijer, a Michigan grocery retail chain, gave customers the choice of receiving a notification two to four hours before gas prices were about to rise in their stations, a campaign that garnered a hugely positive response due to the recent fuel crisis.
The common theme running through all of these successful campaigns is that they are all user-driven. Each one allows the customer to choose to participate and actively engages the customer by giving him something back, thereby tying the consumer more closely to the brand and giving the company the opportunity to show customer appreciation. Dan Jones, vice president of SmartReply, the company that powered Meijer's campaign, followed a basic recipe: "If it's relevant, timely, and valuable it's going to work." Jones also explains that making sure customers want the information and have the opportunity to reject it is of the utmost importance. Purdy says that customer privacy is the biggest threat to text media as a marketing strategy. The trend could be derailed by "the misuse of the media, getting to people in harassing ways." Additionally, new technologies such as video, sound, and GPS tracking may make it easier to create new, innovative campaigns. But they have their drawbacks as well. "Every time I get within 500 yards of Starbucks I don't want to trigger a text message," Jones says. Both Purdy and Jones agree that the most important thing is for marketers to tread lightly. Jones says the bottom line is, "it has to be treated carefully."
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