Stephen King Phones It In

Stephen King gave me a call the other day. Well, we're not really on speaking terms, but his voice message was part of a novel and ambitious mobile marketing package put together for his new horror thriller Cell. Along with the de rigueur wallpapers and ring tones, Simon and Schuster and mobile marketer Flytxt put together a very effective package that included voice messages from King, and an opti-in "VIP Club" that delivers a weekly treat via SMS, polls, a link to some goody, or a trivia contest. Doing a mobile campaign off of Cell was a no-brainer since King's story deals with a mysterious "Pulse" that comes through the wireless networks to turn much of America into marauding savages or zombies or some such.

Obviously King's messages haven't convinced me to buy the book, per se, but this high-profile, well-covered project was one of the first stabs at "mobilizing" a bestselling author, and it's already giving back some important lessons. "It was not where we set out to go," says Sue Fleming, vice president-marketing director, Simon and Schuster. "We thought of it as a promotional tool and ended up with something entirely different."

Rather than using just another ringtone and wallpaper, the publisher and mobile marketing partner Flytxt constructed a real mobile entertainment entity and audience database loop. The CelltheBook.com site lets you preview and pass along all the material you can also get on the phone, so users don't have to commit to mobile. You can even send "The Pulse" sound (which zombifies people in the book) to a friend via e-mail. In addition to King's phone greetings, readings from the book also will become podcasts. Giving users multiple entry points is a good idea, and having this dedicated Web hub for all of the available options lets users engage with fun content without having to buy into a particular platform.

The Cell promo works for the same reason any good media promotion works--because the content is of interest and is made creative. Mobilizing a TV show or even magazine articles has intrinsic interactivity, because you are responding to a specific poll or call to action. Finding a creative way to make an upcoming novel interactive in a way that engages mobile users is a different story. Getting a phone call from Stephen King is just eerie-cool. For the first time, Simon and Schuster secured the rights to unused cover jacket art and turned that into exclusive wallpapers. For a fan, that is something of value. The polls and trivia are actually interesting, not just excuses for keeping me in the loop, and they only run once a week for eight weeks, so the program doesn't wear out its welcome. "We built an entertainment experience, which grew out of how the medium works and reaches people," says Fleming, who is herself impressed by some of the early results. Simon and Schuster aimed for the fan base, and got them by delivering non-trivial assets that fed off the coolness of King's basic story idea.

In terms of raw results thus far, Fleming reports that many of the VIP Club messages produce between 6,500 and 10,000 page views coming from mobile, which means this isn't a reach play. "The individual numbers are not in and of themselves big, but the percentage of responses and conversions have been very high." The response rate on the text messages is a stunning 75 percent. "From our perspective, what that means is we are talking to a very targeted user," says Fleming. And because the VIP Club and Web site have longevity, she is seeing a steady level of participation. Mobile is giving the book campaign some legs. "We were surprised by the stickiness of it."

The Cell project is a modest promotion, to be sure. There could have been more direct in-store and in-book tie-ins to mobile, short code placements in all of the venues where the massive book push ran. But then you have to ask yourself, what is the point of pushing a mass audience into a mobile marketing campaign? With a more tightly focused campaign that delivered real entertainment value to a self-selecting fan base, Simon and Schuster could use mobile marketing as a tool of engagement, more as a CRM component than a sales tool. By filtering the audience to your product down to a dedicated core, you can start a conversation with the bulls-eye of your target. And if the initial results from the Cell program are any indication, then once you hit that target market, its members are very willing to talk back--as long as you keep the rewards coming.

However, there is one person the Stephen King VIP Club will not be conversing with--Stephen King himself. The author was an eager participant in the marketing plan, willing to record his voice for phone messages and podcasts. But don't try to call his mobile numbers. "He doesn't own a cell phone," says Fleming.