Back in 2002, I took a research trip to London to investigate the emergence of mobile marketing. Then as now, the Europeans were far ahead of us Americans when it came to mobile. Americans in 2002 were just realizing that they could receive and actually send a text message from their very own cellphones. Meanwhile in Europe, teenagers were furiously texting to each other, and big brands were beginning to experiment with mobile as a marketing channel. So, in those days, if you wanted to glimpse the future of mobile marketing in America, you only needed to hop a plane to Heathrow and start taking notes.
I went to see a friend who worked at an interactive agency in London. He’d said that they were doing some mobile marketing themselves, and I wanted to see first-hand how it was being done. I had already set up a shop to start testing mobile in America, but I was a bit stymied by the technology end of things. I’m a marketer, not a telecommunications expert. So the first thing I wanted to know was how the guts worked. How did the messages actually get from your database out into the cellular ethersphere and into consumers’ handsets?
When I met the CEO of this agency, that was the first question I asked. He looked at me like I was an idiot. He pointed to his laptop sitting on his desk.
“I don’t understand what you’re asking,” he finally replied. “It all comes out of there.”
I begged him to elaborate. “I just plug my phone into the back of my laptop,” he explained, “and we wrote a little script that just, you know, sends them through the phone.”
To my British friend, it was the most obvious thing in the world. But to my American ears, it didn’t add up. There was no way to plug my American cellphone into a laptop. And even if I could, there’s no function to just send text messages. I knew enough about the American market to understand that there were many complications to take into account. Each American carrier (like Verizon or Sprint) had their own very particular way to send messages through their system. And even if you were technologically able to send bulk messages, you needed the carriers’ permission to do so.
I’m still no expert on the British mobile networks, and I’m not entirely sure whether what my friend was doing was kosher. But our firm has now operated scores of mobile marketing campaigns in the U.S., and there’s one thing I’m sure of: In the U.S. there simply is no “plug and play” way to operate a mobile campaign the way you’d send an email blast.
It is tempting to think of sending text messages like sending email. But there are crucial differences on both the marketing and the technological fronts that every marketer needs to think about. Here are the key differences to think if you’re someone who is familiar with email marketing, and thinking of moving into mobile marketing:
1. The Pipes are not Open: The Internet is not owned by anybody, so if you have an Internet connection then you can send email. There’s no real barrier to sending out batches of emails, notwithstanding whether they’ll make it through spam filters and to their intended recipients. This is not the case with mobile. Each mobile carrier owns its own network and has the right to control what passes through its system. Carriers typically require explicit approval of whatever you plan to send to their subscribers. Carriers have an acute interest in making sure that their hard-won paying subscribers are not bombarded by messages they do not want. So you’ll need to plan for the time and effort to get those carrier approvals before you can start sending text messages.
2. The Pipes are not Free: An email service provider may charge you to send your emails out through their system, but there’s no fundamental cost to using the Internet. Sending a text message incurs a cost that must either be paid by the sender, the consumer, or both. It’s more like postage than like email. If you’re a marketer, you probably don’t want to charge your consumers to receive your message, so you’ll wind up footing the bill. It’s only a few pennies per message, but with volume it adds up. That’s a significant constraint that you need to bear in mind and budget for.