Years ago, my daughter explained to me the appeal of SMS among her peers in a convincing way. "You don't have to listen to them and you don't have to answer." In other words, SMS is great for teens largely for what it is not: full-on human discourse. And what it represents is control. "On a call you get stuck having to listen to them and not knowing how long they are going to talk. You can't get off," she says.
There may be a lesson in this for marketers. SMS is not really a conversation. It is a different kind of communication, and we may not want to mistake having someone's mobile number for having a "relationship" with them. "Relationships" are established and maintained elsewhere. SMS is one thin tether, and it is critical that the user is the one controlling it.
An ad agency executive once mused about the emotional buffering SMS provides our kids. He told me that for years he kept trying to get his son at college to call him back after leaving a voice message. The kid never calls back. He consulted his wife, who told the executive, "Try texting him." It worked. And it turns out that the son had his phone wired to warn him when dad was calling in. "He assigned a ringtone for me that used the old 'Dragnet' 'dum-da-dum-dum' theme."
My daughter has another ploy: the network ate it. She claims that Verizon isn't delivering all of my text messages to her. When I ask her why she didn't respond to my last message, I get "Verizon just hates me sending and receiving text to other networks, I guess." That it always seems to happen when I am making a direct request is a point she prefers not to address. But I have to say, along with a number of other parents I know, SMS has been a godsend in terms of keeping in contact with otherwise surly and uncooperative children. For years I was the noncustodial co-parent, and so my daughter has always had the option of avoiding exchanges for extended periods if she likes. Text gives her the emotional buffer she needs to maintain contact without "hearing your crap."
And of course the thinness of SMS as a communications platform becomes most obvious when you try to get serious interpersonal work done here. My daughter and I have been in pitched conflict of late -- over everything from wedding invitee etiquette (not her wedding) to money to finding her a job to "when the hell am I going to see you?" These are not issues that work well in 140 characters or less. In fact, the one SMS message she claims Verizon dropped on her was the one telling her to come over for a chat. Dum-da-dum-dum.
For my daughter, of course, all roads lead to her need for an iPhone. After all, we'd be on the same network, which would ensure messages get through. "We could do video chat!" she exclaims, and for a split second there even I believe that she actually would use it to communicate with me. Psych!
The exchanges have gotten longer and longer between us, as the issues get deeper and the principles more important. We are stretching the limits of the SMS format, but she is determined to keep control of the conversation in this frame.
I have resorted to marketer techniques. I am using avatars to get messages through to her. The Talking Tom iPhone app is brilliant for this. The animated cat renders your voice message, lip-synched to the cat character and deliverable by email. Not that this works very well with her generation, because they check their email about once a week.
I discovered that you definitely don't want to send a video of yourself to your teenager ordering them to call you or come over. Having your parental mug show up in their MMS box barking an order? Real bad idea. Remember the scene in "Wizard of Oz" when Dorothy is holed up in the Wicked Witch of the West's tower? The massive crystal ball is running scenes of Auntie Em calling out to her, and they suddenly change to the extreme close-up of the Witch cackling? That is pretty much the effect of sending your kid an instructive MMS video of yourself. Dum-da-dum-dum.
Instead, try sending a baby avatar. E-Trade just partnered with tech messaging marketer Mogreet and the old online avatar maker Oddcast to send customized video messages from the familiar E-Trade talking baby. Oddcast has been doing this lip-synched animation thing for years, but marrying it to a brand icon and mobile delivery is very effective. While I would prefer that it came to me in the form of an MMS, the link to video works well on the iPhone and gives the marketer a nice canvas to recruit new users. But oops. The Oddcast process requires Flash. The link on my baby message kicked me over to a Flash error page. Good start, but like a lot of mobile marketing programs, they are still working on seamless follow-through for a range of devices.
There is something to be said for trying to cultivate deeper relationships by extending the SMS platform on which many marketers began, but doing so in a way that keeps the exchange anchored in SMS itself. James Citron of Mogreet recently showed me an example of concatenated SMS, in which the sender can knit together multiple messages for up to 900 characters in a single block. By way of example he sent me a long chunk of the Tom Cruise vs. Jack Nicholson "You can't handle the truth" exchange in "A Few Good Men." Oddly, this scene bears no small resemblance to the back and forth my daughter and I are having... but never mind. In practical terms an SMS extension like this can be used by the consumer to pull in more information from an exchange, like product specs. The end user still is paying for or using up multiple SMS credits, but by keeping the format in SMS, it all is left elective for the user. SMS offers a little push, but the relationship comes when the user has the opportunity to pull more.
But somewhere in this tale I believe there is a lesson for us all about the limitations of mobile messaging and the need to remember that the real innovations here are not necessarily technical. They are innovations in voice, content, and finding better ways to communicate thought and feeling in truncated platforms that in some way limit communications as much as they enable it. We started the journey into mobile media with the understanding that these are "personal" devices, and so your exchanges with users have to be especially respectful. And yet if we take seriously our own personal uses of the technology, we have to see as well that in person-to-person communication the reality is even subtler than that. We use devices as much to limit and control the flow of information and communication among us as we use them to facilitate communication. Somehow, that understanding has to inform both media and marketing uses of mobile as well.
And by the way, I could have used concatenated SMS in arguing with my daughter. But it seems that trying to teach a lesson about developing better communication skills in a 140-character frame is on some level oxymoronic. As soon as I step into lesson-teaching mode, the wall comes down.
Talk about control. Which brings up another unanticipated issue: do parents get a waiver from the universal STOP unsubscribe command for SMS? She can't "cancel" me, can she?