Text appeal works for mobile marketers

17 Nov 2003

When it comes to m-business, Ireland is a hotbed of innovation. It seems you can hardly move without some company or entrepreneur ready to leverage mobile telephony.

And no wonder. Ireland has one of the highest mobile phone ownership rates in Europe. It is estimated that 81pc of the population owns at least one telephone. And on top of that is the propensity for Irish users to use text messaging. Ironically, text messaging or short message service (SMS) was an add-on to the GSM standard. But according to figures from the Commission for Communications Regulation, over 700,000 person-to-person text messages were sent within Ireland during the first quarter of this year. Assuming those figures stay constant, the three operators will carry over 2.1 billion messages during 2003. This makes Ireland one of the top texting nations in the world.

Go2Mobile is just one company operating in the SMS market. “We are into corporate and media text messaging,” explains John Ahern, managing director of Go2Mobile. “From a corporate perspective we provide email and group messaging facilities. These would be aimed at companies that want to target a mobile workforce as well as customers and prospects. On the media side, we provide a product called media text into radio stations such as Newstalk 106 and Spin FM.”

While those would be the company’s core products, it also does loyalty-type programmes with well known brands, targeting opt-in customers with text messages.

“The Irish market is particularly lively,” says Ahern. “Corporate messaging is definitely following consumer messaging and the companies that use our software products and services find it very good value.”

But why is the Irish market so vibrant? “I think it’s because we like to communicate. We spend more on voice than the rest of Europe. In other EU countries in general a mobile phone call will last a few seconds. Whereas in Ireland we talk about the weather and so on. People stay on the call,” Ahern adds.

Gillian Taylor, managing director of iTouch, agrees that the talkative nature of the Irish is one of the reasons that mobile business is so buoyant. “We talk by both voice and data,” she says. “I think as well that the large proportion of young people is another reason. That would certainly push up the statistics.”

Ahern isn’t so sure that the youth have a monopoly on text messaging. “People thought texting was exclusively a teenager phenomenon but look at Newstalk 106. Its listenership is certainly not made up solely of teenagers but they are getting a phenomenal response from listeners.”

Whether it is being driven by youth or not, there is a demand for value-added services. While there are no official figures available, Taylor estimates the premium market is worth €7m in its first year. “Premium short codes were launched in April 2002 and the market has got off to a good start,” she says. “It was a combined effort. Everyone got together to discuss the best way forward. A white paper was published and the plan was that we would launch premium services at the one time across all the networks. In other countries, some networks launched before others and that caused problems. In Ireland the simultaneous launch was a key advantage. As well as having lots of users and people keen on texting we had a good solid industry from day one.”

iTouch offers a range of consumer value-added services such as ringtones, java games, SMS games and so on. “We are developing new products and services that consumer wants,” says Taylor.”

Like Go2Mobile, iTouch runs text-based marketing campaigns sending messages to phone users who have opted to be included in a contact database. However, isn’t there a potential for this to be abused and for users to be sent unsolicited messages or mobile spam? Both Taylor and Ahern point out that there are protections in place.

Taylor points out that the premium industry has been regulated since day one and that Regtel, the body responsible for regulating premium services has a free phone number for users to make complaints. Ahern also points out that mobile spam is not the best way to get a message across. “If someone comes to us asking to buy a database of numbers, I say that if people out there start getting unsolicited messages it will injure your brand. Once you get an opt-in system, however, people love it. We ran a promotion for six months on behalf of a client using an opt-in database and not one person opted out.”

With the advent of GPRS and the imminent arrival of 3G, the notion of pushing information out to users may eventually give way to the idea of users pulling information down. While the technology already exists in the form of Wap (wireless application protocol), in truth the takeup of this technology has not lived up to expectations.

“Wap is a technology and technology doesn’t sell itself. It never has and it never will. It needs a useful purpose.” So says Kevin McCloskey, CEO of MobileAware, an Irish company that is developing solutions to allow mobile operators to create and deploy services to all mobile phones.

One of the problems with Wap is that although the markup language it used (WML) was similar to that used by web pages (HTML), the pages still had to be rewritten. MobileAware’s goal is to remove that need. “What MobileAware does is take the web and enables the web to be delivered to all mobile devices,” says McCloskey.

One of the barriers to demand was the lack of appropriate devices. “No one wants to look at mobile content on a black and white device,” says McCloskey. “The proliferation of colour devices is beginning to solve that. The secondary obstacle is the lack of relevant content. There are two approaches and MobileAware fits with both. The first is the mobile operators try to decide what is relevant and try to create their own services such as Vodafone Live. Or, there are billions of existing web pages out there. They can be delivered to mobile devices in a form tailored to each device and we play that side as well.”

By David Stewart