Targeting The Conversation

Every year around iPhone upgrade time, my daughter and I seem to have the same conversation, regardless the platform. This time I was using the textPlus free SMS program. The app has over 6 million downloads across iPhone, iPod Touch, Blackberry, Android and iPad platforms because it gives its young audience what it wants most: free anything. My daughter is into that, especially when Dad pays. According to Polly Lieberman, vice president of ad sales, Gogii, which publishes textPlus, my daughter and I were among two million monthly unique users on the platform. The free SMS model may be relatively new, but it isn't going to change the nature of an old conversation.  

"Get home alive?" I ask with the usual parental expectation of doom.  

"Yup -- Duh. I am answering, aren't I?" she writes.

 Just checking. She had driven up from Delaware to my parents in Northern New Jersey last weekend to surprise me on my birthday. "Where are you messaging from?" she asks. I had sent the SMS via textPlus so it shows up differently on her end from my usual texts.

I explain how it works (in 140 characters, no less) and she decides she wants it. "IF I HAD AN IPHONE!" All roads lead to this relentless, crushing truth. The girls is iPhone-less and she doesn't quite understand why. She plays the professional pride card on me at times. "You are the mobile guy aren't you? Shouldn't all of your family have iPhones? We can help you test things. Isn't it a little embarrassing that the women in your life aren't iPhoned up?"     

"I need you on the Blackberry," I explain. None of the carriers send me RIM review phones. Anyway, you don't need an iPhone for this," I reply. Actually, the beauty of textPlus is that it works on WiFi-only iPod Touches, which actually accounts for 65% of the user base, Lieberman tells me. "We hit on that sweet spot of text over WiFi," she says. About half of her audience is under 24. The app lets you send SMS messages to contacts and to groups of friends without eating up your carrier's allotment, and you can create or join chat-like communities on any topic.

These communities hold special promise for Gogii's future ad plans. The company crafted an ad program around the TV show "Glee" because it could see that the user-made community around the show was growing. "When it launched Season 1 last year we were the only mobile play they were using for promotion," says Lieberman. "We launched a campaign and teased it out [with lead-up banner ads] and drove tune-ins the night of the opening episode and then every week after." The  company could see spikes in community activity both before and after the show premiered and get a rough sense of the success of the campaign.   

Having a handle on the flow of conversations among young people can spin into countless marketing models. From sponsored conversations to real-time market research, all of the possibilities of social media marketing open up here. Lieberman plans to create branded skins that can wrap around sponsored conversations and branded emoticons. The system generates 300 million impressions a month already off  its two million uniques. And I am guessing that users like my daughter can do the simple math to see how much value they are getting from a free texting service. I would expect this audience to trade free texting for being targeted by ads any day. 

Ironically, Gogii's textPlus has the potential to engage in a highly conversational style of personal marketing, but for now it is very old school. The most successful programs are 100% share of voice campaigns that give sponsors a full screen prestitial at open and then a dominant banner position throughout the session. For film and TV properties, like the upcoming "The Last Airbender" film, Lieberman will sell a package of teaser banners that precede the release date by a couple of weeks and then give the client full share on release weekend for a couple of days. Traffic for the app spikes 20% or more on weekends. "We're seeing anywhere from .75% to 1.5% click-through rates on these and can serve 10 to 12 million impressions a day," she says.  

And the prospect of having this app on her deck only buttresses my daughter's relentless campaign. "If I got an iPhone I could use this app and you wouldn't have to get unlimited texting for me." 

She finds so many ways for me to save money, by spending it. 

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