Rule No. 1: Be Of Use

My real estate agent just sent me one of those cheesy grocery list pads for my refrigerator. It hangs from a magnetic business card with a picture of her and her big-haired-I-drive-a-bigger-Beemer-than-thou grin on her face, and by God I use it, because it really is just the right size for my Shop-Rite lists. And, damn her, I now remember her name (Mary something or other), and I know where to call her, and every time I reach for some ice I recall that, no, I haven't made a decision on buying that townhouse yet.

This is customer relationship management at its baldest, most basic, and most effective. Mobile marketing could learn from Mary Whatshername with the big honkin' hair and matching Beemer. While every brand and its brother tries to find unobtrusive ways to get yet another ringtonewallpapershort code on my phone, what really got my attention was a full-blown content app I can use.

To introduce its IS line last fall Lexus tapped mFoundry to brand and customize a mobile RSS reader that it gives away at the site. An SMSWAP push sends the Java LexusISMoblet app to a fair range of phones and operators, and it lets users pull down feeds, headlines, and news blurbs from scores of sources. The presentation is superb, with iPod-like sliding menus and the ability to subscribe to any feed for easier access later.

Of course, like my big-haired agent, the Lexus brand is ever-present on this CRM device, and there is detailed product information here. Among the feeds are tons of info about the car's features, and even some FAQs and a very effective dealer locator. And because this is a connected application, all of the marketing information is fully updatable. Lexus could push new FAQs, product news, even rebate deals and such to anyone who keeps the app live.

And my guess is that a lot of people will keep an app like this live on their phones because it is of use. This thing is actually a more direct line to news across all genres than most of the news apps I pay for from the carrier's deck. According to mFoundry, more than 50 percent of those who used the app have also downloaded a Lexus ringtone or wallpaper, so it provides even more branding mileage. More importantly, after a couple of weeks being on a phone, LexusISMoblet usage actually goes up as people discover how handy it is to have an RSS reader in a handset. The CRM effect works because the app is so good. The brand has given us something of value, and so we let it stick around. That is what CRM is all about.

Which is not to say that an ambitious mobile CRMmarketing play like this is foolproof. The Lexus site does not give enough detail about what you get in this download, nor screenshots, which should be de rigueur for anything that is occupying real estate on your phone. We also had some trouble getting the site to send the SMSWAP push message to our phone. And there were a few weird glitches in the Q&A section where the feeds got a little screwy and the interface was unclear. I say all of this about an otherwise excellent marketing tool because it does show how we remain in those early stages of mobile marketing, where the technology poses more of a challenge than the creativity. (Try the LexusISMoblet for yourself at http://www.lexus.com/ismobile/index.html?s_ocid=20316)

Nevertheless, my suspicion is that sponsored applications have an important role to play in this emerging platform. After all, most users are more interested in trying than buying data services on cell phones. Uptake of 3G networks and mobile multimedia is slower in the U.S. than many in cellcoland had hoped, in part because users are very price sensitive with new content platforms. There is a real opportunity for marketers to give mobile users something that they want and will use in exchange for some branding face time.

Mobile marketers should start thinking beyond simply not annoying people with unwanted material on their phones, and instead start thinking about how their brand can more actively fill a void in the market. And if anyone needs Mary Whatshername's number for more on CRM, I have her number right here on my fridge.