Just recently, the population of the United States surpassed 300 million people. But there’s a number that’s rising even faster than the U.S. population: it’s the number of mobile phone subscribers. According to CTIA, the trade association for the mobile industry, that number has just topped 225 million. That’s 75 percent of the entire US population, not just adults.
We marketers are having an ever-harder time reaching a broad audience, as consumers are TiVo-ing and YouTubing themselves into smaller and smaller slivers. Those mobile numbers are certainly tempting: there aren’t too many other media that can reach three out of four Americans. Is the mobile phone — the most personal of all communication devices — actually the next mass medium? What do those stellar subscriber numbers really mean for marketers?
First, we need to understand what people are actually doing with their cellphones. After all, just because a person owns a cellphone does not mean that she is willing or able to receive your marketing message. At its core, a cellphone is simply another voice connection, and we are all aware of the limits of voice-based telemarketing in the age of Do Not Call. So what else are all those cellphones good for?
By a large margin, the number-one use of cellphones, aside from talk, is text messaging. The mobile research company M:Metrics estimates that 38% of mobile subscribers send a text message each month. That’s 73 million Americans who are text messaging. And the text messages are adding up: CTIA estimates that Americans sent and received 12.5 billion text messages in the month of June. Granted, we’re mashing together data from two different sources here, but both sources are generally reliable. And unless we’re completely off, that comes out to more than 170 text messages per subscriber per month. That’s almost six texts a day for every texter. Maybe one of those texts should be coming from you.
And what about all those other neat things you can do with your cellphone, like taking and sending photographs, watching video, and surfing the mobile web? Well, the numbers there aren’t quite as encouraging. Although there’s certainly growth, none of those activities approaches text messaging in popularity. After texting, the next most popular data application is photo messaging, but only 14.5% of subscribers do that in a given month. That’s 28 million photo messagers, compared with 73 million texters. And after that the numbers take a nosedive. Only 22 million have browsed news and information, 20 million purchased a ringtone, and a mere 6 million downloaded a mobile game.
Of course, “only” is a relative term. Mobile gamers are probably quite enthusiastic, and maybe they are particularly receptive to in-game marketing. All of these applications are experiencing rapid growth, and it’s early days yet in the mobile revolution. There’s no telling which application will break out to big numbers in the months ahead. But when you consider that mobile gaming is one of the most hyped corners of the mobile marketplace, the actual penetration numbers simply don’t live up to the hype. Not yet, at least.
What all these numbers suggest is that for marketers looking to make an immediate mass impact with mobile, text messaging is where it’s at. It is the most viable mobile medium for marketers looking to reach anything that could be described as a mass market.