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Mobile texting paradoxically sounds like “old news” as far as new technologies are concerned. After all, we were able to send each other texts before our mobile phones even had color screens. While the Western world has focused on smartphones and flashy apps that let you pull up RSS feeds, find information, or fling exploding birds at structures, SMS marketing is still a hugely important part of our mobile lives.
Consider that while smartphone adoption has been slower than anticipated, nearly every mobile phone user in the U.S. is capable of sending and receiving text messages. Additionally, SMS has become increasingly important in developing countries where the penetration of feature phones far outnumber smartphones.
Companies or small business that can nail down their SMS marketing strategy, especially when the space is still ripe for innovation, can open up a number of opportunities. We spoke with four mobile experts for some tips, advice and insights on how to include SMS in a global business strategy.
Small Businesses Can Reach a Broader Consumer Base
There’s a huge population of consumers in the U.S. who do not own smartphones, notes Tom Cotney, CEO of mobile marketing firm Air2Web. “And if you’re going to provide some kind of customer service capability on mobile phones, you really need to reach as much of the population as possible.” That isn’t to say that mobile apps are useless, but having a way for text to complement or introduce those services can help you reach a larger base of people. This is especially true in developing countries where the percentage of smartphone users is even smaller.
Even though it may seem like global mobile marketing is just the purview of large, international companies, small businesses can also jump in. “We are a small business with no outside funding,” said John Pelphrey, CEO of One-Txt, an SMS broadcast service. “The trick is to find the right niche, something that you’re knowledgeable about and have some connections in and work it from there.” Pelphrey saw opportunities on continents like South America and Africa where cell phone access is more common than landlines or even open Internet access. “Their first access to the outside world is their cell phone,” Pelphrey added.
The Mobile Phone is an Intimate Technology
It’s one thing to say there are opportunities in global mobile texting. It is another thing to come up with a plan and put it into action. For Pelphrey, a successful strategy is about intimacy and immediacy: “To have the right information for the right person and at the right time.”
Most expert advice focuses on capitalizing on the intimacy of a cell phone. “The mobile phone is the most personal form of technology there is, barring hearing aids and other medical technologies,” Cotney said. Rather than sending out a text blast, treat your messages like a conversation with the customer while offering them value: “You really need to offer consumers a foundational benefit as the primary reason for having a mobile relationship with you.”
Of course, mobile texting isn’t all just sunshine and rainbows. There are some key limitations to consider before jumping in. First, SMS is necessarily limited by its character limit. In the U.S., text messages are limited to 160 characters — which is fine if you’re checking in with friends but more difficult when you’re trying to connect with or sell to consumers. That limit further varies by country. While Asian countries are closer to 70 characters, their individual characters usually have more meaning than Western letters.
There’s also the problem of getting your message to its destination. “There’s no single international body that goes and hands out short codes,” said Andrew Kenney, Chief Operating Officer at ONEsite. “You have to get one for a specific region. Carriers won’t deal with the particular brands.” After that middleman, it’s important to think of how your audience receives your messages. Not everyone has premium messaging or unlimited texts, Kenney warned. Texts can be expensive for your consumers, so make sure there’s value to make it worthwhile.
Ideally you could set up regional offices to best understand the communities you’re contacting. If that’s out of the budget, try to set up a contact already living in that community or do your research to make sure you know what times of day people are most social or what kind of information or language will be most effective. “Every country, every tribe, they’re all going to be different,” Pelphrey said. “You can’t take the lessons you learned in South America and take it to Africa. Those cultures are so distinct even within a few miles of each other.”
Is SMS Marketing Here to Stay?
One hesitation businesses have when it comes to SMS is determining if it is a dying breed of marketing, especially when faced with smartphones or the increasing emphasis on mobile apps. While SMS has greater reach, it also has less interactivity. “It’s certainly possible to set your DVR using text, but it’s not a great user experience,” said Griswold.
Anyone worried about text disappearing as a marketing tool should consider that 2008 was the first year that text messages outnumbered cell phone calls. Cotney cited a study that showed users get mobile text alerts seven times more than they used to with feature phones. “Text is not just a technology, it’s an actual type of interface,” Cotney said. “Usually the older a technology, the less frequently it will be used, but text will be around for a long time.”
Tips and Tricks
There are a lot of ways to approach SMS marketing, whether you’re a big company or a small startup looking to branch abroad. There are basic tips like offering your consumers real value, emphasizing intimacy, and being conscientious of cultural norms and traditions. Part and parcel, Kenney advised that “people should go do their research and they should pick partners that they can trust to build long-term relationships.”
Cotney emphasized reach, namely, how many people is your mobile strategy going to touch? While mobile apps may look nice, they can sometimes be a case of prioritizing new technology over a real strategy. “Have a strategy and incorporate how many people you’re going to be able to reach when the product actually gets out there.”
Still, it seems that the most pervasive advice was just to get started. “If businesses think they may want to do text, it’s never too early to collect numbers for the opt-in lists. There are lots of ways to do it…” Paul said. “You don’t have to have everything in place. By the time you do start, you’ll have a head start.”
The cell phone is really the first piece of technology that people started carrying with them all the time, Kenney said. We use it to find our friends or find information on a daily basis. That personal proximity and it’s social capability allow us to have an intimate relationship with our phones and what they can do. SMS is an immediate way to capitalize on those qualities without having to worry about downloading an app or compatibility issues. SMS, if done properly, is an effective way to reach customers both domestically and globally.
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