U.S. patiently awaits wireless texting that's soaring overseas

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Pamir Gelenbe is glad the Starbucks scenario is losing its froth. Two years ago, marketers were toying with this oft-repeated fantasy: Just as consumers stroll by a Starbucks, a drink coupon appears on their cell phone screen.

"That is the biggest piece of unsubstantiated hype," says Mr. Gelenbe, director of corporate business development at Flytxt, a mobile advertising company headquartered in London. "It's more a nightmare scenario. It never happened because consumers don't want to put up with it."

Mr. Gelenbe is involved with less-intrusive wireless marketing techniques that many consumers are tolerating, using lists of cell phone owners who've expressed willingness to receive advertising, or relying on people to respond to traditional ads, such as commercials or print ads, via text messages on their phones. Flytxt has created such targeted opt-in efforts with clients ranging from Rodale's Men's Health to U.K. broadcaster Channel 4 and News Corp.'s Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp. A U.K. Men's Health branding promotion, for instance, invited men to join the "Belly Off Club," a weight-loss program to which guys could subscribe via premium phone services. Flytxt has plans for expanding in the U.S.

While mobile marketing has been creeping along in U.S. trials, Western Europe and the Asia-Pacific have been busy with campaigns ranging from branding promotions to wireless direct-response components touted in print, TV or outdoor ads. While the U.S. has the second-largest installed base of cell phone users (130 million), second only to China (148 million), only 46% of the U.S. population had cell phones in 2001, compared to 82.5% in the U.K., and 75.3% for all of Europe, according to the Yankee Group.


Ovum, an international research group that tracks the wireless industry, predicts ad expenditures for global wireless marketing will hit $1 billion by 2003 and $12 billion by 2006. The majority of this marketing will take place over cell phones. And depending on recession cutbacks in spending, it expects North American wireless ad revenue to reach $2.97 billion by 2006, or 25% of all global revenue. Western Europe (33%) and Asia-Pacific (31%) will still be in the lead.

A handful of British-based mobile companies, including Flytxt, 12snap and Aerodeon, are leading the way in wireless advertising, most of which is aimed at teen-agers who've created their own shorthand language for text messaging called "texting."

"The youth market is text-crazy in the U.K.," says Anne de Kerckhove, managing director of 12snap,a London-based mobile ad agency. "The average British 16-to-18-year-old text-messages eight times a day."

12snap just finished an instant-win promotion for McDonald's Corp. centering on "Monsters, Inc.," the film from Walt Disney Co. and Pixar. Created with Marketing Store, London, the promotion asked people to interact with the brand by "texting in" a code they found on a box of french fries for a chance to win a TV or other prize. Participants received a movie-theme reply.

Texting is "a medium that talks to people in the way they want to be communicated to," Ms. de Kerckhove says. "It drives people into shops, it drives people to buy."

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