By  on February 13, 2009

Imagine you’re a hip young urbanite and you pass a street mural that contains the perfect color combination for a pair of sneakers. You take a picture of it with your phone, text it to Nike and, in no time at all, Nike sends you back a message with a picture of specially designed shoes and a code that enables you to go online and order them in an instant.

Or you’re in a bar and can’t decide what to order. One quick click to Smirnoff on your phone, and you’ve not only got a full cocktail menu but mixology directions, too, for a bartender who may not be as plugged in as you.

Talk about reaching out and touching someone. The above are just two examples of recent mobile phone marketing campaigns, representing a new generation of brand communication where cellular phones are fundamentally changing the rules of how companies interact with consumers—and vice versa. Though mobile marketing is still in its infancy, the numbers alone dictate that it is a force to be reckoned with.

“If you were to lock a scientist up in a room and ask him to come up with the ultimate marketing device, he’d come up with a phone,” says Daniel Rosen, head of mobile at the London-based ad agency AKQA. “A mobile phone is with you all the time. You can transact with it, take it with you wherever you go, buy things with it. It knows where people are and can deliver location-based relevancy for any advertisement you deliver in a targeted way. There has never been an advertising or marketing device that allows a brand to deliver rich media transaction capability to a targeted demographic in a location-based way. That is entirely unique. That’s why it’s the most exciting marketing device ever.”

Small, it seems, is the new big.

The numbers appear to support the hyperbole. Globally, there are more than four billion mobile phone subscribers versus one-and-a-half billion Internet users, according to Berg Insight. Ninety percent of phone owners have their phones within one meter—arm’s reach—24 hours a day. In the U.S. alone, there are more than 255 million mobile phones; collectively, Americans send more than 50 billion text messages a month.

Compared with other areas of marketing, the size of the mobile market is still tiny. Berg Insight estimates a 2008 market value of about 1.2 billion euros, or $1.6 billion at current exchange, with half of all revenues being generated in Japan, according to its telecom analyst Marcus Persson. Berg’s estimate for all digital advertising, including the Internet, is about 30 billion euros, or about $39 billion.

“If you look at how advanced the Internet is compared with phones and the amount of time you spend in front of a computer, mobile is still a tiny fraction,” Persson says. “However, mobile is growing significantly faster than most other mediums,” he continues, noting Berg forecasts that the market will reach 6.1 billion euros, or $7.9 billion, in 2013, an annual growth rate of 39 percent.

Like the numbers, mobile marketing’s creative potential is seemingly boundless, —particularly as third-generation phones (aka smart phones) such as Apple’s iPhone—become more prevalent. Currently, though, simple text messages account for the majority of campaigns, particularly in the U.S. “I break mobile into three areas,” says Jordan Greene, principal of mobile media at Mella Media. “The first is text messaging. A consumer sees an ad, such as a billboard, with a simple call to action, sends in a text and gets another text in response.” Text messages can consist of a maximum of 160 characters, including spaces and punctuation. “The next level is a brand responds with a phone call to a text, with either a celebrity voice or a live person,” Greene continues. “The third category is the mobile Web, but looked at slightly askew, because you have a 2-inch screen on the average telephone, versus a 17-inch computer screen.”

According to a presentation Persson saw at an industry conference, there are four levels of consumer response to a mobile campaign. “The lowest is to ignore it. The second is review—this is kind of interesting, what is it?” he recounts. “The third is engaged, so you send a message back to the company, and the fourth is when it’s so good you recommend it to your friends. The iPhone apps are a typical example of that.”

The most successful campaigns are those that take advantage of the dialogue inherent in the medium. “Mobile can activate customers and engage them,” says Yaakov Kimelfeld, senior vice president of digital research and analytics for MediaVest. “You give them the chance to interact with the brand as opposed to just basically absorbing the message. You provide entertainment value,” he continues, citing as an example an “irresistibility quiz” MediaVest developed for a Procter & Gamble toothpaste campaign. “So when someone is bored in the doctor’s office, you provide entertainment in exchange for their time.”

The medium is also popular for offering freebies or discounts, but even promotional offers can’t be boring. “You want to deliver value to the consumer, have an interesting hook and deliver the brand message,” says Greene. “If you can do those three things, you have a winner.”

As an example, he cites a campaign he created for the birth control pill that was designed to send consumers a daily reminder to take their pill, working within the restrictions of pharmaceutical advertising. The solution: A daily message that went out saying, “This is your daily reminder,” followed by a fun fact targeted to the demographic, such as Julia Roberts’ middle name (Fiona, for the record), and a tag line at the bottom saying, “Brought to you by”

“You got your reminder, a cute fact to make you smile and the branding bumper which pushed you back to the Web site,” Greene says. “The beauty of this was in its simplicity.”

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