Cellphone marketing fraught with hang-ups

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If you think the mobile phone is going to take over from TV, think again.

The marketing world is buzzing about the potential of cellphones as a medium, but there are so many hang-ups it will be years before that potential is achieved. "2005 the year of the mobile?" said Brian Levin, CEO of Mobliss, a mobile-media-marketing company. "I've heard that for the last seven years."

True, there were some 185 million American mobile-phone users at the end of 2004, and 95% of them are text-messagine enabled, according to the Yankee Group. But hurdles in technology, privacy and winning consumer buy-in hamper the so-called third screen from becoming a mainstream medium. "I really can't see the viability of it as a channel yet," said a telecom chief marketing officer. "There are constraints with the screen size, bandwidth, the creative messaging and of course, there is the constraint of who is going to pay for it."

"The cellphone is way down on my list," said Paul Guyardo, senior VP-chief marketing officer Kmart, who is concerned about consumer opt-in. "You want to do it as a customer service, not as a customer annoyance," he said.

Chrysler Group's Julie Roehm, director-marketing communications, has experimented with text messaging and is readying a mobile-phone game. But, with complicated transmission speeds, video quality and phone types, Ms. Roehm said for now the lowest common denominators, such as text messaging, are the best opportunity for marketers. "It will take a little more time before we use it from a visual perspective."

Complicating matters, major wireless network carriers such as Cingular, Verizon Wireless, Sprint/Nextel and T-Mobile own the cellphone ecosystem, and each is holding onto its own turf.

Even telecom companies themselves have mixed feelings. David Dess, VP-brand development and communications, Sprint, said the carrier has a number of priorities, but "mobile marketing and advertising doesn't hit the top 10 list."

Unlike quick and easy Internet marketing buys, mobile marketing is still in the trial phase, requiring a longer lead time of six to eight months to clear carrier and technical hurdles. "If you take the [early Internet] battle between Internet Explorer vs. Netscape and you multiply that by 1,000, you have our world," said Mobliss' Mr. Levin.

Movie marketers have made inroads with ringtones and wallpaper. A number of sports teams and leagues are starting to integrate text-messaging promotional surveys where the results are projected onto scoreboards. Frito-Lay's Doritos is in the middle of an integrated campaign targeting teens that asks them to text in "innw?" ("if not now, when?") to "score free stuff."

Last fall, Fairchild Publications' Jane ran a promotion that allowed readers to take photos with their picture phones of any ad in its September issue. Some 8,334 readers responded-pretty good for a promotion that cost less than $10,000, said Pamela Madden, associate publisher. American Airlines spokesman Billy Sanez reported "really good" return with response rates of one in four frequent fliers responding to cellphone alerts about seat upgrades.

Jim Manis, global chairman of the Mobile Marketing Association and VP of mobile marketing developer M-Qube, said the association found simple mobile entertainment programs (like text messaging) produced a 3% return rate, while more comprehensive customer retention programs generated an 18% rate.

Still, some are concerned that the new medium will take off well before the industry itself develops standards and practices. "We have a vested interest in the media staying pristine and uncluttered," said Michael K. Baker, president, Enpocket, and chairman of the Mobile Marketing Association's standards committee.

contributing: jean halliday

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