Wednesday, 21 November 2007

SMS text messaging; the next PR, Marketing Campaign Channel?

There is something happening out there.

SMS or Text Messaging is fast becoming a method of interactive PR and Marketing. The evidence of its popularity is all around but no one has really grasped the significance of this new tool that bridges the online and offline world for consumers. Text messages today can include graphics, video, and the infamous MMS.

So what are the numbers out there today? With a 213 Million mobile subscriber base growing at nearly a million year-on-year as opposed to an abysmal banking penetration of 30 per cent and an internet penetration of 60,000,000 Internet users as of September 2007, 5.3 per cent penetration, as per ITU, and 2,520,000 broadband Internet connections as of September 2007, as per IWS.

Mobile marketing has really been what is know as a 'push' game so far, with an inability to get delivery reports or replies back to a text message. All this is now changing with the technology becoming available to enable 'pull'. The latter really being an ability to link responses to a campaign, thus making for very exciting possibilities.

Internationally, the uses of the sms as a tool are many and some that impressed me most include Televox, Smile Reminder, among many other innovative uses of sms or text messaging.

In India, The traditional use of bulk messaging has been traditionally made by large consumer facing companies in the credit card , DTH, consumer loyalty application, job portal and airline space.
Bulk sms brokers, Google, Service providers include all mobile operators including GSM and CDMA (...and I am going to save the current controversy on 3G spectrum for another post!) who provide short codes such as the ones we sent sms' to for polls and interactive programming on TV etc. A popular show like Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC) generated 58 million SMS over a 3 month period.

Some quick and dirty research on the IAMAI portal on statistics and VAS although a little dated was revealing. The companies that own a short code (e.g. 8888, 3456 etc) which is basically sold to a third party client for some keyword, and for a specific period have a tie up with multiple operators to ensure customers of all operators send the SMS to the same number.

There are around 10 national level players and several regional players in this domain. The entry barrier is very high because of high initial deposit and need to tie up with each operator for each individual circle. Our research reveals that most operators also ask for a deposit of Rs 2 million and a minimum guaranteed volume of half a million SMS per month for entering into an arrangement with a Short Code owner.

All this is fast changing with a recent use of mobile marketing as a tool by the Anti Corruption Bureau in Mumbai, India recently. The arrival of mass usage of technology is clearly evidenced when the babudom (India term for the bureaucracy) starts using it.

Like I said above, the trick is to find the technology with the 'pull' factor in addition to the 'push'. Imagine a press briefing where you could in addition to sending an invite to the media; also receive replies back from them via the same short code that could then integrate back into a database, which sent a report with the numbers of invitation deliveries, special requests, confirmations, regrets and so on. Sounds like a boon?

Internationally there are already associations such as the Mobile Marketing Association are the Industry bodies that bring together the myriad parts of this business as well as rules that govern its members. The MMA is a global organization with over 500 members representing over forty countries. MMA members include agencies, advertisers, hand held device manufacturers, carriers and operators, retailers, software providers and service providers, as well as any company focused on the potential of marketing via mobile devices.

We need something similar in India quickly to address the regional topicality of the market. With the new NDNC regime and the added concern for privacy and text messaging spam it will be important to lay down the rules governing mobile advertising and consumer protection guidelines to ensure that the channel does not get embroiled in controversy before maturity so that the full potential of this application can be felt in the market mix. Maybe the IAMAI will address this?

So clearly the time maybe right for a classic disintermediation enterprise, maybe from the VAS space, with both the push and pull aspects of the technology in place, as well as interconnect agreements in place with all GSM and CDMA network operators to offer this as a service.

Imagine a web portal where you can go and pay by a payment gateway, enter your mobile number database, send off a campaign with pre-determined templates, as simple as sending a greeting card! Imagine the ease of an inbox, sent box and a report folder with responses! I know that there are people on the anvil to do this as I write this from a recent visit to Hyderabad, anything beyond which could be violation of the NDA.

It will be interesting for me to see who will be a first mover in the PR business to use this for inviting media to press conferences, stop press notifications and use as a heads up tool. Of course with the opt-in permissions in place to avoid peeving some of the more aggressive journalists as we all have known to at some point!

Note: The author has no stake in the above space!

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