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Wireless marketing: Is it worth the effort?

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As many companies rein in their marketing budgets and lay off employees by the thousands, big-name technology players such as Motorola Inc. and Microsoft Corp. are releasing applications designed to expand b-to-b wireless Internet services.

The introductions beg a much-debated question: What does wireless technology hold for b-to-b marketing and, more pressing, should marketers pursue it when theyre forced to cut back in so many other areas?

Earlier this month, Microsoft launched Microsoft Windows Powered Pocket PC software along with the introduction of Pocket PC 2002 devices. The new devices have color screens, as well as integration with Microsoft operating systems and applications. As important, the Redmond, Wash.-based company is producing state-of-the-art wireless advertising development tools, distribution management techniques and analysis capabilities.

And late last month, just prior to the introduction of Pocket PC, Motorola, Schaumburg, Ill., released Overnight Apps, a wireless application starter kit that gives businesses a quick, low-cost tool in creating custom, real-time wireless applications.

But adoption of wireless devices has been less than stellar. The number of Palm brand personal digital assistants sold quarterly is about 300,000 to 500,000, according to some experts. Meanwhile, wireless BlackBerry hand-helds, manufactured by Research In Motion Ltd., Waterloo, Ontario, and featuring miniature keyboards for full e-mail services, are gaining momentum with sales at 100,000 to 150,000 units quarterly.

Less than predicted

Yet such sales are still a drop in the bucket when compared with the wild predictions of wireless ubiquity predicted when those products were originally developed.

Jim Nail, senior analyst at Forrester Research Inc., Cambridge, Mass., said most b-to-b marketing and sales organizations have enough of a challenge just getting the basics of e-commerce and Internet brand advertising right to worry today about wireless Internet marketing.

"If I were spending a dime today on a wireless Internet b-to-b marketing system, even if Id spent a lot to build it, I would switch it off and concentrate on basics," Nail said.

But many, including Bill Hurley, partner at Peppers and Rogers Group, Norwalk, Conn., disagree, arguing that wireless Internet marketing services are ideal for b-to-b marketersnow.

"True, wireless advertising has turned out to be questionable, but broad thinking companies understand that mobility will provide an opportunity for one of the first times to have a one-to-one relationship with customers 24 hours, daily," Hurley said. "Now is then the time to go out and deliver what the customer needs from a wireless perspective."

First-hand experience

David Florence, president of the New York office of DraftWorldwide, has first-hand experience running a successful b-to-b marketing services campaign aimed at wireless business customers.

The agencys b-to-b direct marketing accountswhich include American Express Co., Verizon Communications Inc., units of Sprint FON Group and Compaq Computer Corp.have shown significant interest in developing non-intrusive, useful b-to-b marketing services for competitive advantage, he said.

For example, Compaq has had "good success" offering information technology buyers free wireless local access network computer receivers bundled into new laptops and desktops, Florence said. At the same time, it has tightened the bond with those desktop computer buyers by providing order status, trouble calls and other wireless services.

Peppers and Rogers Hurley said the wireless package tracking services offered by United Parcel Service of America Inc. and FedEx Corp. prove that "wireless is out of infancy and into the toddler stage."

Another example is eBay Inc., which has begun to deliver outbid reminders to bidders who have wireless devices. Those types of applications have obvious crossover to sales and marketing on b-to-b corporate sites and exchanges, Hurley said.

The recent moves by Microsoft and Motorola could help spur creation of b-to-b marketing services, Hurley said.

David Hayden, president-CEO of market research and consulting firm MobileWeek, Palo Alto, Calif., agreed, saying the involvement of major computer and communications industry companies is vital to the development of easy-to-deploy wireless b-to-b services.

"Over the next two to three years, youll see an increase in the number of users with wireless-enabled PDAs targeted at the business market," Hayden said.

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