I Have Been Unsubscribed

The girl got busted.

"Mom was really mad," my daughter recounted.

"Did she do the simple eye roll, mouth puff, followed by the long exhale?" I probed. You try to stick to the divorced parent textbook in cases like these and remain supportive of the other parent. You never take the bait to go negative. But I figure I can help my daughter out a bit in understanding the rage levels of my ex-wife. After all, I am responsible for giving her basic survival skills: not playing with fire, getting out of the way of runaway trailer trucks, and knowing precisely when her mother is going to go to Def Con 5. There is a remarkable similarity among these three life dangers, and some of us will argue that suffering the first two combined is preferable to the third.

"Well, she did all that, followed by a growl that actually scared the dog."

"Yeah, OK, I've seen this. If you got to the point where she growled, then my experience is that you better stand down. You don't want to see the next stage."

And so the girl is now on text rations. This was all about the exorbitant text message overages on the cell phone account the two of them share.

Since economies of scale seem to be a foreign concept to carriers, per-message pricing for SMS has gone up despite the incredible escalation in usage. My daughter is feeling the pain -- and it is almost chilling that the telcos have become so transparent, even to a 15-year-old. "They are just trying to get us to sign up for the expensive bundles plan," she says.

Pressure for better texting plans will only increase as more publishers use them as an alerts channel. In this primary season some of the news providers are getting a little more aggressive with their alerts than I would like. A year ago, a few headlines a day seemed a polite, restrained use of SMS, but some publishers seem to presume now that theirs is the only feed a user carries and that most of us have large messaging bundles. The recent university shootings merited an alert, of course, but four in one afternoon from one cable brand? And was it really urgent that I know Hillary was replacing her campaign manager? In a channel where potentially someone is paying 15 cents for every alert you send, what is a judicious use of that channel? Imagine if ISPs charged us for email message bundles? Would consumers really stand for that?

I am not sure if monetizing this SMS alerts channel with ads will aggravate the problem. Will publishers be tempted to push more alerts out if they actually make money on each one? It has been about a year now that companies like 4Info - and, more recently, Movoxx -- have been weaving their SMS alerts inventory into ad networks. I have never been entirely convinced that people will respond to tiny text ads at the bottom of their incoming messages. I tend to glance at my news messages just to grab the first few words of the headline and then move on. But Alec Andronikov, chief media strategist at Movoxx, tells me that a small change in that small text ad at the bottom of an alert can make a big difference in response rates. "One or two characters can change the response rate by 1% or 2%," he says. Simply putting an asterisk in to separate an ad from the text content can trigger more clicks. Conventional wisdom holds that a big, fat, direct discount offer is the most effective mobile ad lure, but Andronikov says that clever messaging like "Got pants?" netted one apparel client a response of over 4%, while a 25% discount that called attention to the brand got under 1%.

Movoxx is claiming about 45 million monthly impressions across 23 content providers at this early stage. Andronikov admits that only about 10% of SMS alerts inventory now is carrying ads, but that when they match the right client with the right audience, people are clicking into the ads. For the Super Bowl, Movoxx had signed up an audience of 100,000 for game alerts. W Hotels ran a campaign touting an extra night's stay and got a 3.4% response rate. A campaign for a video game targeted the younger demo in social networking inventory to get a 2.7% clickthrough to a WAP link. The one thing SMS text ads are now especially good at is pushing people back onto the general Web. Andronikov says he is not impressed by the performance of mobile coupons that get redeemed online.

Like search ads before it, in-message SMS ad bugs seem to be a "you-never-know" kind of technology. It might be a monstrously popular format, if only because the reach could be so huge. Unlike search and email, however, I think the text message in-box puts some kind of natural ceiling to the number of alerts a user will take. As this platform matures, I suspect there will be a gentle art for publishers to balance message frequency. As long as consumers are paying for the alert, the value-add for them is harder to see.

On the other hand, think of the potential in a medium that gets full share of mind and works in a serialized format. If a sponsor were to buy the news inventory for a major media brand, then it could be hitting consumers several times in a day, perhaps with a serialized message. There is a challenge to putting a call to action in a handful of characters, but what if you had three or four such units in a row over the course of a day or two?

Ultimately, I would love to see SMS systems that used advertising to support both the publisher and more obviously support the user with zero-cost messaging.

Or at least my ex-wife would like to see this model because the monthly wireless bill eclipsed the heating bill last month. And when she puts my daughter on text rations, you know who is the first one to get cut out of the SMS loop.

"Honey...you didn't answer me. I am picking you up at school today."

"Honey? ANSWER ME!"

"DAD. STOP!"

Does this mean she is trying to unsubscribe her father?

Tags: mobile
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