Commentary

Getting Into The Circle Of Friends

It seems to me that as the cell phone evolves into both medium and marketing device, so many of its most successful forms will follow the phone's basic functionality -- making connections. Every medium in the past century took hold with Americans in part because it embodied something important about our social and historical circumstances. Film was a mechanical, mass medium for an industrial and urban age. TV was the medium of the post-WWII nuclear family -- entertainment in the living room. The Internet's signature interactivity and bottomless resources conformed perfectly to the information age of highly educated and self-directed consumers. The cell phone may represent that next stage of media, similar in ways to the Internet but much more intimate, much more about peer-to-peer connections, self-expression and feeling part of an important circle of contacts.

Other media, especially the Web, allow for personal contact (IM, email) and self-expression (MySpace, blogs), to be sure. But cell phones give users a feeling of special connection to their correspondents, perhaps because of the platform's inherent limitations.

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Look at T-Mobile's very effective MyFaves campaign that focuses on creating that circle of family and friends on the phone. As media people we look at the space and interface limitations of the deck in horror, but somewhere in consumers' minds the confines of the phone deck may be part of its appeal. The deck filters the world down to the people and things we value most highly and with whom we have the deepest connections. Perhaps we are going about it all wrong if we try to make phones more like the Web, because people may like the fact that their phones are different from the Internet. If marketers really want to make an impact on this platform, then they have to start thinking less about how to get in people's faces, and more about how to get "in" -- how to be something closer to a contact than a commercial.

Of course, all marketing talks now about establishing "relationships" with customers, but the phone allows a level of intimacy, and even persistence, that other technologies can't match. In fact I would say that the rise of the cell phone as a medium and the new rhetoric of "relationship marketing" are not unrelated. The phone extends the feeling of familial intimacy outside the home and throughout the day. A lot of people I hear walking and talking on the street are just narrating to the person on the other end of the phone what they are doing at that moment, or engaged in the sort of idle chatter you have walking side by side. Ironically, it is the trivial parts of our lives we reserve for the people closest to us.

I am speculating and theorizing wildly here, but it seems to me that one of the important psychological functions of the phone for many people is that it brings a feeling of intimacy and connectedness out into that anonymous mass market of the street. The circle of friends is always alongside us.

Of course, we ourselves feel valued to be in someone else's circle. Back in the day when cell phones were rare, many of us chided mobilistas for their exaggerated sense of self-importance; simply needing a cell phone suggested your importance to some organization. The sense of self-importance a cell phone confers is still there, but now everyone has it.

I have to wonder if those same impulses also inform the desire for "relationships" with brands. The phone would seem to be the embodiment of these trends; the perfect way for a consumer to make a brand special is by giving that brand access to the deck.

How we do this, how brands establish relationships with consumers, is the great marketing question of our age. But the phone, and the way people relate to one another on their phones, may offer a clue and an opportunity. John Huffman, CEO of Real Hip Hop, who distributes indie artist musical ringtones and wallpapers on mobile, continues to push for promotional material that is more sensitive to the specific strengths of mobile. He told me the other day that he is trying to get artists and labels to get beyond their event-based marketing cycles and adopt a persistent connection with interested audiences.

"Marketing should be experience-based," Huffman said. "We used to spend four or five months of leading up to a release of an album. But now we should think about someone who shows an interest in your content -- and what mechanism do we have in place via mobile to stay involved and share what they experience. Don't just give me the final version [of the album]. Every other week you need to be thinking about giving me things that will keep me interested in your music."

If we can find a way not to pester, then the phone becomes the best platform for this kind of "sharing" rather than broadcasting. What Huffman is describing is a brand being a contact, finding a way to act like someone on my speed dial, like someone who narrates the trivia of their lives to me because I feel connected to who they are.

If you remember the Web of 1995, most brands really didn't get yet that they had to be interactive because users liked to click. People were showing us how they wanted the brands to behave on the Web, and how they wanted companies to talk to them, as task-directed and in control. Brands also didn't realize that people were coming for more and more information, that this medium was about being a resource that users drilled into. Many brands started on the Web with what amounted to virtual billboards, static, unclickable ads that missed entirely how people used the medium.

With cell phones, too, we have 235 million people walking the streets essentially telling us how they value and use the technology. It gives them a sense of connectedness, intimacy, self-importance and specialness. In effect, they are telling us how to contact them.

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