SMS Ads: Talk to Your Next Date

"Who are you calling?"

"A dating service, I think. The SMS ad told me I could 'talk to my next date.'"

My fiancée is not amused. Note to self: when you buy an engagement ring, consider the pain it might inflict when driven into your rib cage.

"Ow! I am testing in-text SMS ads. They come in text alerts and SMS search results from a bunch of providers."

"Uh, huh. And why are they sending you dating ads? What do they know about you I should know?"

"It seems to be what most of them are sending. That, and a lot of satellite TV pitches. I have gone through a dozen of them from three different providers and mostly they ask if I want a date or better reception."

"But you always tell me how well targeted mobile marketing can be. They are supposed to know where you live, who you are, and what you want. So why are they sending my possibl fiancé ads for dating?"

Which is an open invitation to my daughter to make trouble. "Check his phone for porn," she says. "I bet that triggers the dating ads."

At some point in the future of digital advertising, targeted ads will be de rigeur, and so legitimate, non-paranoid-fiancee questions will arise about who sends us what kinds of pitches.

But this clearly is not the case in the fledgling SMS ad world. Companies like 4Info, ChaCha, MoVoxxx, and Limbo (the inventories I played around in) still look a lot like early search ads, very generic DM inventory served across joke lines, stock tickers, and trivia contests.

In a random test of all these systems, I got a high percentage of date and chat lines, DirectTV, DishNet, and a Nationwide auto pitch. Most of the units are direct response, with click-to-call links.

I get varied results from some of them. For instance, I like that the call-through voice response from a 4Info ad gives me the option to opt-out of the text service, but then the chat line advertiser recited a local number for me to call without connecting me directly. And I am not convinced that in other ads "Get the BEST channels w/DirectTV" is a compelling or convincing enough pitch to evoke a direct dial to the vendor.

I confess, I may be out of the loop on this one. I tend to think that calling an advertiser directly is a last step in a more prolonged product evaluation process. Intuitively, it doesn't seem to me that five or six words in an SMS ad are enough to move me to contact a salesperson. But if the advertiser is paying on a performance basis, then casting a wide net is acceptable to them at least. Over time, I have to wonder if untargeted SMS ads will render the bottom lines of a text alert as invisible as online banner placements in social networks.

Both Limbo co-founder Rob Lawson and MoVoxx Managing Partner Alec Andronikov tell me that SMS ad campaigns are seeing response rates of 1% to 2% typically, with some much higher. Limbo released survey results last week suggesting that 39% of mobile phone users in Q3 recalled some form of mobile advertising, up from 31% a year ago. By Limbo and survey partner GFK Technology's count, 60.1 million of us recall SMS. I am not entirely on board with the scale Limbo/GFK are seeing in this survey. Their count of overall mobile Web use (78 million) is considerably higher than the 36 to 43 million I have seen recently from M:Metrics and Nielsen. Regardless, the internals are interesting. Limbo sees 64% of those recalling SMS ads as male, and the mean age of those recalling mobile ads generally is increasing rapidly, from just under age 35 in Q1 to 38 in Q3.

Which suggests the inventory is expanding demographically and at some point should be targeting more effectively. Lawson tells me that about three-quarters of his clients are looking for straight media buys now. "As our inventory has blossomed, we see more standard advertising buys, where two years ago there were more custom projects." Limbo has SMS, WAP, Web, and now iPhone presence, so current ad campaigns from Yahoo! Mail, Butterball Turkey and Hallmark can get cross-platform exposure. For all of the talk of iPhone, smart phone and WAP growth, says Lawson, "we still get blown away by growth in SMS activity. We see it across the board. The sophisticated consumer with the feature phone will download an application, but even those people are used to what we do in text messaging."

And like Limbo, MoVoxxx is finding that brand campaigns also work in this format. A recent promotion of an experimental Land Rover model grabbed a 1.7% CTR, says Andronikov, and 16% of those who landed on the WAP page downloaded wallpaper. Out of that same clickthrough audience 1% offered up their email address to get contacted when the model was available.

I imagine there will be a land grab over inventory as the SMS text alerts become commonplace across media. Limbo and some other social networks leverage their own inventory. 4Info, with investments from NBC and Gannet, has access to those and other media partners. MoVoxxx says it has 40 publishers representing 60 million monthly impressions, including WSJ and many Viacom properties. The nature of the SMS inventory could become an interesting point of differentiation as these companies find new ways to link SMS campaigns to other media. For instance, in a recent MTV text-to-vote program for one of its TV shows, the SMS exchanges with the opt-in audience included back-to-school messaging from a major retailer.

Arguably, the SMS advertiser was getting the benefit of TV without the cost. "The engagement happens through traditional media, and the advertiser is exposing itself to a traditional TV audience, but at a fraction of the cost of showing an ad on MTV," says Andronikov. The power of SMS advertising comes not just in hitting the medium's most popular messaging type but leveraging the specific media partners and their other platforms.

But we may be a long way away from that sort of common SMS ad use. Until then, the untargeted and potentially embarrassing dating service pitches will likely be the norm.

"See, he has Playboy's mobile site bookmarked," my daughter taunts as she and my fiancée rifle through my phone and keep me at bay with a deadly engagement ring. They have more faith in mobile marketer's ability to target my errant behaviors than I do.

Tags: mobile
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