'Idol''s Latest Contest: Facebook Takes On Text Messaging


The move announced Thursday to bring online voting to "American Idol" in its tenth season ends the mobile-only era of viewer participation in the show. The show's runaway success helped popularize text-message voting campaigns and the use of short codes in mobile contests and promotions more widely.

Text-messaging remains by far the most common non-voice mobile activity, with 68% of U.S. mobile users tapping away on phone keyboards at the end of 2010. For younger users, texting has all but replaced talking on handsets. More than 7 in 10 teens are text-messagers, typically sending and receiving more than 50 messages a day.

But in turning to Facebook for online voting, "American Idol" producers are pitting text-messaging against another hugely popular service that skews younger. To vote online, people will be required to log into their Facebook accounts before proceeding to the "Idol" site to select their favorite contestant. Fans can cast up to 50 total online votes for that evening's performances.

Viewers will still have the option of voting by calling a toll-free number or -- for customers of "Idol" sponsor AT&T -- via text message. People can text an unlimited number of votes during each voting window. From its perspective, AT&T at least managed to hold on to its exclusive deal with the show for text-message voting.

But it will be interesting to see if online voting via Facebook effectively supplants text messaging as the method of choice for many viewers. If someone's already on Facebook while they're watching the show, it would clearly seem like the easier option.

Still, fans who are AT&T subscribers are conditioned over the last nine years to text votes. And a Yahoo/Nielsen study last year found 86% of mobile Web users watched TV while using their devices. A quarter browse content related to what they're watching.

Then again, AT&T customers who don't have a text messaging package have to pay regular rates of 20 cents a message to text vote. The free online alternative could certainly help push AT&T users who are also on Facebook to go online to vote.

Let the other "Idol" contests begin: social media versus mobile, Facebook versus text messaging, free versus paid. They could prove more intriguing than their on-stage equivalent. 

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