We're going through a similar phase in mobile's relationship to other media, especially TV. Short-code promotions are the new URL pushes. How and when to insert that SMS pitch is becoming a dark art with its own set of conventions and oddball controversies only a direct marketer could love.
Air2Web is among the most experienced firms that mobilize on-air SMS polling and contests. Their latest project empowered viewers of Proctor & Gamble's People's Choice Awards to text in votes in select categories. Vice President of Marketing Alfredo Narez and CTO Dale Gonzalez recently walked me through some of the early learnings about the TV-to-mobile push mechanism. The little nuances involved in dialing up a successful campaign are eerily reminiscent of the Web circa 1997.
Ironically enough, offline media remain the most effective ways to engage users in mobile campaigns, Air2Web finds. Except for ringtone offers, which Web sites can demo easily, TV, radio and billboards beat the Internet for driving people to first engage a program via texting.
Frequency matters. The more times a short code gets promoted in a TV program, the better the results. Ongoing programs are by far the most effective, however. A one-shot polling opportunity, like SMS voting in an awards show or sporting event, requires more teasing prior to the event and thus more costly broadcast investment. You also need to fight for more reminders in the course of the show. Understandably, air time is precious, so mobile marketers are always struggling for more, while the programmers are always calculating the cost and benefit of devoting extra seconds to a short code explanation.
Shows that maintain an SMS program across multiple episodes are most successful, because the traffic tends to grow as the season progresses. "Over the first two months you see the ramp go up," says Narez. The overall cost may decline as well, since viral distribution among the fan base begins to replace explicit on-air pushes.
Follow-up and following through appear to be the secrets of SMS engagement. Sending users back a message that pulls them into an ongoing conversation and acknowledges their contribution in some way is very powerful on a platform that is designed, after all, for one-to-one intimate conversation. "The most successful campaigns have been when they actually see what their outcome path produced," says Gonzalez, "when they immediately see who they voted for and what the result was." In fact, the actual proximity of the results to the SMS voting can relate directly to the level of traffic a voting opportunity will produce. When SMS voters are influencing shows and seeing their contributions live, "that real-time involvement gives them a strong sense of interaction and command and keeps them coming back," he says.
A year ago simply explaining the technology to viewers/listeners was a major hurdle for SMS campaigns, especially when marketers ventured outside of what was considered the sweet spot for the once-hip platform, 18- to 34-year olds. The age range for texting promotions has widened considerably, Air2Web says, just as the need to educate audiences about how to send text messages is going away. And in some respects less is more when it comes to on-air prompts. The most effective on-air mentions combine personalities promoting the texting option and a superimposed graphic spelling out the short code.
But too much explanation can undermine traffic. Clarifying the fee structures of an SMS program has become the choke point for on-air messaging, and it may take a while for this one to go away. Many SMS promotions entail premium pricing (i.e., $.99 a vote) that requires notification, but even "free" programs involve some kind of ancillary cost to a consumer. Since data-plan pricing is all over the map, it is nigh impossible to explain all of the possible ways a simple SMS vote could cost the user. And it turns out that the more marketers try to outline the fee structure the more they lose participation. "The more of that stuff you include, the less traffic you are going to see," says Narez.
Balancing frequency with length and complexity will be the new art of on-air SMS pushes. As the market evolves, it would be nice to see mobile marketing and other media settle on some kind of boilerplate language that communicates responsibly the necessary provisos and exception for SMS interactivity without sounding like a pharma ad.
Even better, it would be nice to see the carriers work together for a "free to use" model that relieves data plan customers from ancillary costs associated with a marketing campaign. Let the marketers absorb these costs, if that makes the process of engaging users in SMS exchanges truly frictionless.
The mobile phone can become a highly interactive universal remote control for TV shows and marketing - but, like every universal remote, we need to learn more about programming it properly.