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We chat, argue, flirt and ditch one another via text as never before, but dislike using the Web on the move, so SMS will stay the channel of choice for mobile marketers – for now. By Martin Croft

Britain’s love affair with the mobile phone shows little sign of abating: the latest figures from the Mobile Data Association show that in July, mobile users sent 3.5 billion text messages, compared with 2.5 billion a year earlier. And the Mobile Life Report, a recent survey of attitudes to the mobile phone and its impact on daily life, found that it is now a far more important piece of technology than television for many young adults.

That report, published two months ago by The Carphone Warehouse in association with the London School of Economics and Lord Gould, was based on a survey by polling organisation YouGov of over 16,500 people. Among 18- to 24-year-old women, the proportion choosing their mobile as most important was 32%, compared with 11% for TV. Men in this group are not quite as attached to their phones, with 19% naming it as their most important technology product.

But even though Britons are using mobiles more and more, and even though the mobile phone has become the one item that the majority of us would carry at all times, experts suggest that marketers are still relatively unsophisticated in their use of mobile mark- eting to reach existing and potential consumers.

early adopters Marketers are putting SMS shortcodes on packs and posters and in “text to win” promotions, and while unsolicited SMS marketing messages are banned by the Electronic Privacy Act, marketers are increasingly using permission-based text messaging to maintain contact with existing customers or contacts.

However, few marketers are really exploring the mobile internet as a branding tool to its fullest extent. This is partly because the technologies and the marketing applications are still evolving, but it is also because many marketers are still wary after bad experiences a few years ago with the first incarnation of mobile internet – the first Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) sites which ran on second generation mobile phone networks.

But today’s WAP solutions are a far cry from earlier versions. Craig Barrack, a director of consultancy Mobile Networking, says: “The mobile Web died a death the first time around because you weren’t getting the real Web experience – you were getting something horrible on a tiny screen in black and white – but it was always going to come back from the dead. It’s what 3G is all about.”

Barrack thinks that 3G offers a huge increase in bandwidth over the more primitive 2.5G networks, and the only reason for increased bandwidth is to offer multimedia services: “You don’t need all that extra capacity for text messaging or making voice calls.”

WAP started to come back to life in 2004, as mobile operators began to develop their own WAP portals, and the following year saw further growth because of the explosion in subscription and premium rate services, driven by the ringtone phenomenon. Barrack observes that, while there has been a recent dip in consumer spend on WAP usage because consumers have become wary of getting tied in to subscription-based services, the WAP market should start growing again as more marketers wake up to its potential reach – but only if the networks and mobile services providers can tackle some of the key issues that consumers are complaining about.

Research published last month suggests that almost three-quarters of people actively dislike using the internet on the move. Among the reasons for not using mobile internet were: frustration with slow-loading pages, problems with navigating websites from a phone and some websites being unavailable on mobile phones. The research was commissioned by web- hosting specialist Hostway and conducted by TNS.

let them in Neil Barton, a director of Hostway, says: “At the moment, most websites just aren’t flexible enough to be accessed on mobile phones. There is nothing wrong with having a flash website with all the ‘bells and whistles’ you can muster, but you have got to be aware that mobile users simply are not going to be able to access it. The research illustrates that even if people do wait for sites to load, quite often it is impossible to get at the content itself because of the way that sites are built.”

If these problems can be remedied, Barton believes people will start to use the internet on the move: 90% of the Hostway survey respondents said they would use the mobile internet if they could be sure that pages would load faster and they would not incur high costs from their mobile operator.

What has changed recently is that increasing numbers of technology solutions providers and advertising agencies are developing ways to deliver ads on the mobile internet in the same way they are delivered on the traditional internet, using the display, banner and video formats that are prerequisites for a proper branding campaign. • Digital agency AKQA, for example, appointed mobile marketing expert Dan Rosen as its first head of mobile in February this year. He cites recent research from Forrester which recorded 33% of UK mobile users regularly using the mobile internet, and says: “WAP and mobile internet usage are very exciting. SMS is a great tool, but it is not a brand tool. WAP sites are great for branding, and so are things like ringtones, video downloads and Java applications.”

But Rosen warns that mobile is nothing on its own. Brands that fail to use it will miss out on a huge opportunity, but so too will brands that try to use it in isolation: “It must fit in with an integrated marketing campaign.”

keeping tabs Mobile certainly offers similar opportunities to other electronic media in terms of measurability and accountability. Julian Smith, insight and research director at MEC Interaction EMEA (part of Mediaedge:cia), says: “Being an interactive two-way channel, marketers can easily measure behavioural ‘direct’ response to mobile marketing formats – for example, numbers of consumers texting in keywords to shortcodes, numbers of SMS and MMS sent and responded to, numbers of clickthroughs to WAP pages, clickable SMS messaging and numbers of downloads – just as you might measure e-mails.”

But Smith adds, “to measure branding, and positively influence marketers, you may need to survey customer activity pre- and post-campaign, or monitor customer loyalty – how much ongoing dialogue or transactions you have with them – within the channel.”

Technology solutions company Amobee is launching an ad server-based system for mobile marketing which works regardless of the mobile operator involved, the type of ad or the handset. Amobee vice-president for business development Nitzan Yaniv says: “This market is already complicated enough, and marketers don’t want to have to work with five different suppliers. Nobody knows what will be the most successful business model for mobile advertising, but I suspect it will be a mix, and all formats will have a place.”

bit of a puzzle There are still problems to be overcome, however. Neil Garner, managing director of multi-channel marketing consultancy Glue4, suggests: “We have a toolkit of all the bits and pieces [the range of mobile marketing techniques] we need, and consumers now have enough handsets. But we still have to put them together. People have run campaigns which use all the individual bits in isolation, but nobody has come up with a campaign that puts them all together.”

Another problem is that few agencies can offer creativity in the traditional advertising sense. Robert Thurner, commercial director of full-service mobile marketing agency Incentivated, says: “There is a dearth of creative expertise working on mobile in London. We estimate there are a maximum of 25 people in London who can advise clients with authority on mobile creativity. While traditional agencies are learning what the mobile channel can do for their clients – in theory – very few can claim to have hands on experience, and to understand how to design for mobile.” He also thinks that planning expertise is lacking in this medium. “Planners need to understand how the mobile channel works, and be open-minded to training from mobile agencies.”

Thurner asserts that WAP is growing and will become much more important as a marketing medium: “WAP sites are where we see huge growth potential. Last year, 15 billion WAP page impressions were served up to UK mobile users.”

it’s so easy But he says that SMS is still the main channel for mobile marketing: “SMS now accounts for 36% of total written communications for all women, compared with 23% for men. Texting is a way of life. We chat, argue, flirt, praise and ditch one another every day via text. This is an instant, easy, intimate communication channel. It is the ultimate ‘me medium’. We all get it.”•