Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Design or Die

Wireless World, Singapore/Kuala Lumpur, February 2005 issue

If there’s one thing the worldwide success of the iPod teaches us, it’s the importance of design. Once more, Apple is showing the world that if your product makes sense, your message is clear and your design rocks, you’re in for the big league. Two out of three won’t cut it – you need them all.

The grapes must’ve been quite sour for Sim Wong Hoo, Creative’s brilliant founder and CEO and Apple’s biggest competitor on the player front. Commenting on the launch of the iPod Shuffle, Apple’s youngest offspring, he grumbled that it was really five generations behind his MuVo One product line. In fact, it was “worse than the cheapest Chinese player. I think it’s a non-starter to begin with.” I’m a great admirer of SWH and I agree with him on many things, but on this one I beg to differ. Design is king, and the unstoppable iPod marketing machine will take care of the rest. Time for Creative to get creative, I guess.

So what does this have to do with mobile phones? Everything. And no, I’m not joining the legions of rumour-fuelling fans who fill countless chat rooms with speculations on upcoming iPhone launches. That’s not going to happen anyway, believe me. But the iPod story does speak volumes about what’s going on in today’s mobile phone market. Or rather, should be going on. ‘Cuz it ain’t. Let me explain.

What the iPod success shows us is that you can take a gadget market, indeed any gadget market, to the next level if you pay attention to what I’d like to call the four Cs of design: clarity, convenience, comfort, and coolness.

‘Clarity’ means clarity of function. If it’s a phone, it’s a phone. If it’s something else, then tell people what it is. The gadget’s form should follow that function – don’t try to distract your users with unnecessary clutter and unrelated functions.

‘Convenience’ means that products should satisfy consumer needs. People need phones. People need cameras. They don’t necessarily need cameras in phones, unless they work like real cameras. Made any pictures with your camera phone lately? That’s what I mean. And don’t get me started on eight-seconds video recorders.

‘Comfort’ means user-friendliness. Make it easy to use. A Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs) is not a guarantee. The iPod shows you don’t even need one. GUIs can work wonders if they offer users a clear path through many functions, but if they don’t, they can be a user nightmare. Ever tried to figure out the Connection Manager on PocketPC phones? Don’t, unless you have a calm mind and a day off.

And finally, coolness. Coolness has everything to do with the product’s message. That message has to be clear and in sync with the product and its intended use. Steve Jobs with his jeans and black turtlenecks is Mr Coolness himself, but you don’t need a Jobs to do the trick (although it helps). But you do need a strong brand. Don’t have one? Build one, like Samsung did. And once you have it, don’t let it go, like Sony and Ericsson.

What about Nokia? Almost from the beginning Nokia has been the strongest and coolest brand in the market. And it still is, although it’s in danger. Nokia made its reputation with nice, clear designs, not only the outer shells but also brilliant, menu-driven interfaces. Once you’d had a Nokia, you wanted nothing else. But the rules of the game changed, with colour screens, GUIs, and all kinds of additional functions. Nokia lost focus, and is still fighting to regain traction.

Will Nokia become Coolness Supremo again? Or will Samsung bring pole position to Asia? Or will an outsider take over with a completely new approach? We’ll see.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Form Factor

Wireless World, Singapore/Kuala Lumpur, January 2005 issue

The other day, Samsung enriched the mobile experience with a handphone with megapixel camera, two colour screens and a 1.5-gigabyte hard disk drive. The thing triples up as a phone/MP3 player/camera all-in-one. Nokia is trying to meet worldwide demand for its latest edition of the Communicator, the 9500. The Communicator is basically a phone that’s also a PDA with a qwerty keyboard. XDAs and iPAQs, touchscreen PDAs that double up as phones, abound. And camera phones with flash and telescopic zoomlenses are due to arrive any moment.

What does this tell us? One, everybody tries to stuff everything but the kitchen sink in one gadget. Actually, the kitchen sink is a serious option as well but then something else will have to go. And two, the definitive form that will wow us all into an immediate run on stores is still as elusive as the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

The first problem is a non-issue. It’ll solve itself. Moore’s Law, the rule that says computer chips double in capacity every year, has just ended an uninterrupted 40-year reign in the personal computing realm, but immediately found a new life in the wonderful world of mobile communications. Before you know it, TV, camera, computing and radio chips will fit on a piece of silicon that resembles a ten cents coin, both in size and in price.

The second problem, the Form Factor issue, is quite a bit thornier. It’s a problem on several levels. To begin with, it’s about physical shape. Long and narrow or fat and short? How big should the screen be? Keyboard or no keyboard? Clamshell or candy bar? It may sound a bit trivial but Nokia’s belated adoption of the clamshell shape shows that it can matter quite a bit.

But the next level is the most important and difficult of all: “What do I tell my consumers about the gadget I’m trying to sell them?” Is it a phone? Is it a camera? Is it a PDA? Or is it something completely new that’s not yet in the dictionary?

This is a serious issue. It explains why manufacturers keep investing gazillions in new ideas and services that hardly anybody uses. Want an example? MMS. Text messages were the big success that nobody saw coming. MMS was going to be the Next Big Thing, and soon colour screens and MMS capability flooded the market. But hardly anybody sent picture messages. No problem, let’s build in cameras, so they can take pictures and send them right away. It’s 2005 now, everybody has a camera phone, and the news is out: MMS usage is falling. Fewer camera phone owners send picture messages and those who still do, send fewer of them. The public has spoken.

What’s the lesson here? People hate complexity. A phone is for communication, clear and simple. So give people a phone and they’ll use it for voice and text. That doesn’t mean that you can’t sell them anything else: just don’t call it a phone.

It’s the message that counts. And in future it will count even more. In a few months time high-end phones will have 3-megapixel cameras, video and MP3 players. By year’s end they will have 5-megapixel cameras and 2GB of flash memory or hard drives for storing entertainment files. Performance and power consumption will be reduced by using dual core processors. Capabilities will keep growing.

But confusion will reign, and sales will drop in the long run, if we don’t get one thing right: to find the right functionality, and above all: the right message to describe it. The big designers of the 20th century already knew it: find the function, and form will follow. And KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Simplicissimus Revisited

Wireless World, Singapore/Kuala Lumpur, December 2004 issue

We’re nearing year end again. So let’s have a look at what ahead in mobile marketing, or rather: what should be.

Soon, the world will go 3G. Or at least, some of us hope so, especially those who have humongous investments riding on the bet that 3G will be the Next Big Thing in mobile services. This is partly why everyone keeps watching Japan, where operators already made the transition. “What will be the next Killer App? Gee I don’t know; let’s see what happens in the Land of the Rising Fun!” Well, dear reader, we have another sighting of the Japanese Killer App: KDDI now offer music downloads. They’ve signed up a number of websites and 20 record labels and offer a choice of around 10,000 songs to those who want to have them on their 3G phones.

What does this tell us? Two things. One, providers still lack creativity. “Hey, iTunes seem to work! Let’s copy!” Two, they still don’t get it. A phone is not an iPod.

Does this mean music downloads to mobile phones won’t sell? Of course not. But linking music to handphones has to make sense to the user. I need a reason to want the music on my phone, rather than on a proper MP3 player. So ringtones, calltones, anything else that makes my phone sound cool. Already global ringtone revenues are becoming a significant proportion of total music revenue. There’s lesson here: think out of the box. And keep it simple.

Mobile TV
Another look ahead, another JKA sighting: trying to get people to watch TV on their phones. Sorry guys – won’t work. A phone simply doesn’t have what it takes. For instance, you need a proper screen. At least twelve inches, as they say. Anyway, more than any handphone can possibly offer.

Does this mean that we should let it go? Again, no! But for Heaven’s sake, don’t try to copy classic broadcasting! Let me give an example: I’m an F1 fan. I love to watch races, either live or on TV. In some ways, TV is even better because you can see the whole track and there’s continuous commentary.

But hey, there are a gazillion cameras all over the circuit. Why not let people take a subscription, give them a list of camera locations and let them choose viewing angles at will? To be able to whip up a quick look at Schumacher’s pirouette in turn 2 would be worth a lot to me, whether on or off the track, and even on a small screen. It beats missing because you were looking elsewhere. Same for soccer matches, or any other sports. Oh and one thing: keep it simple.

Last but not least, my biggest wish for the New Year: simple, comprehensible pricing.

Sometimes I think that modern technology has spread too fast. It’s reached a large part of the population before it matured in terms of user-friendliness and unobtrusiveness. Use your phone for anything but a simple call, you’re in a pricing minefield. Try to work out what it will cost, and you’re lost.

This was already problematic, but it’ll get worse. Much, much worse. Soon, the nerds at M1 or SingTel will try to stuff separate rates down our throats for domestic calls, foreign calls, roaming calls, text messages in the same three versions, data downloads in threefold, not to mention things like subscription fee, caller ID, roaming fee, and scores of other added-value services. I predict a consumer revolt, sooner or later.

It can’t be said often enough. Keep things simple. Avoid unnecessary complications. If your mother understands what you’re doing, you’re on the right track. If she doesn’t, go back and try again.

Monday, November 01, 2004

Phone? What phone?

Wireless World, Singapore/Kuala Lumpur, November 2004 issue

Gone are the days that your phone was for making calls only. Years ago, text messaging entered the scene and turned them into communications devices.

But ‘communications’ doesn’t cover the functions that providers have in mind for us. Right now smartphones are the new new thing, giving us PDA functionality and Internet browsing. Although I still have to see one that combines all the goodies – and I mean all of them.

To my mind a proper smartphone should have – are you ready? – quad band, WiFi, Bluetooth (that’s already no fewer than six radios), full PDA functionality, Internet browsing, media streaming, a multi-megapixel camera and video recorder. The battery should provide enough juice for a full day’s use, including a decent number of phone calls and WiFi always-on. Oh and did I mention size? It should be really, really flat, really, really light, and fit easily within my shirt pocket without dragging it down.

So far, there’s nothing that even comes close. Nokia’s Communicator shows the right spirit but its nickname, the Brick, says it all. Nokia has announced two new and nimbler models. The 9500 comes with the full Monty but it’s still a small brick. (‘Brickette’?) Nokia seems to realize that too, so now there’s also the 9300, sacrificing WiFi for yet smaller size. Wrong again. But give it a year or two and you’ll be able to buy one that fits my ideal description. Not sure if it’ll be from Nokia though, given their current disastrous fixation on lifestyle.

But meanwhile back at the ranch, providers are starting to explore new and unexpected avenues. It started earlier this year, when Korean SK Telecom came up with an insect repellent service. Dial a buzz that insects really hate. If you think that’s funny, then try the Japanese guru who claims to have invented sounds that cause your breasts to grow in size. All you have to do is dial up and listen for a while. I would’ve hardly taken this seriously, were it not for the fact that Hideto Tomabechi is a well known AI engineer with numerous serious publications to his name.

Then there’s Siemens in Germany, no small fry either. They are developing a smell detector chip that can be built into handphones. If you hear a warning tone during a conversation, it means you’ve really bad breath. Better to stay on the phone and not meet anyone in person. And if your breath is fine, then BEDD, a Singapore start-up, can help you meet someone really soon by using your phone’s Bluetooth radio. Download BEDD’s software, key in some personal details and as soon as a kindred spirit gets within 20 metres, you’re prompted so you can decide the next step.

Are these fads that will disappear as quickly as they popped up? Probably. But make no mistake, there’s a clear trend here. Providers are frantically searching for ways to increase phone usage, now that markets are becoming saturated. There’s a limit to the amount of communication a person can take on an average day, so for further growth alternative uses are desperately needed.

What does all of this mean for mobile marketing? A lot. It means that the general public is being educated into expecting more from their handphones than calling and messaging alone. Phones will increasingly be used to sell services and products, making use of the full range of senses – sight, sound, touch and smell.

These are incredibly interesting times for mobile marketers. Pretty challenging, too. Come up with something new and chances are you’ll be way too early to make a profit. Stay on the sidelines and you’ll miss the learning curve.

My motto: stay tuned and watch this space. To be continued.

Friday, October 01, 2004


Wireless World, Singapore/Kuala Lumpur, October 2004 issue

The best thing to send me into a foul mood is to get a marketing guru talking about mobile marketing as a ‘disruptive technology’. It’s stupid, annoying, and all too often heard in mobile marketing circles.

The term disruptive technology was coined by Clayton M. Christensen, a Harvard Business School guru, to describe a new, lower performance, but less expensive product or service that eventually displaces existing ones by gradually moving upwards on the performance scale. Think Johan Gutenberg inventing the printing press at a time when thousands of monks are painstakingly copying manuscripts. Fairly recent examples are digital cameras and, probably, music downloads.

Why would mobile marketing be disruptive? The line of thinking is that it’s cheap, gradually enhancing its performance as we move up the network generation ladder, and that it eventually will displace existing types of marketing. As potential victims Direct Mail and email often get mentioned.

That’s wrong on all counts. Mobile marketing is only cheap for those who see mobile phones as spammable objects; its performance as a medium is only partially linked to transfer speeds on a mobile network; and finally, like all other new media it cannot be compared with older ones, let alone that it will displace them. Neither TV nor radio commercials ever replaced print ads, the Internet never replaced print, email never replaced Direct Mail. Every new medium in marketing history found its new place next to the old ones.

So why do I get so worked up about it? Because this misconception leads to bad and often even annoying marketing practices. And the most frequent mistake is complexity.

Consumers like simplicity. If you want trigger them into action, make the desired action a simple one. Don’t try to drag them over to a website where they have to fill in a complicated form; don’t have them key in long strings of numbers or hard-to-remember codes in text messages; and don’t EVER try to trick them into sending you a message for the sole purpose of using their number for a sales promotion later on.

Especially the latter gives mobile marketing potentially a bad rep: people are extremely privacy-sensitive where their handphones are concerned. Abusing their confidence can turn them against

SMS marketing, like SMS itself, should be clear and simple. Key in a message, as short as possible, dial a number and send it. Even if it’s all of 160 characters and the subject is piranhas, the next girl can do it in 46.33 seconds as a recent record shows.

Simplicity and high effectiveness can go together. Want proof? Here’s a recent example. During a hot spell in Beijing, Coca-Cola let consumers guess the next day’s high temperature. To participate, they simply had to key in COKE and send this to a 4-digit phone number. The prize was a year’s supply of Coke. The promotion yielded millions of consumer interactions and reinforced Coca-Cola’s image as a thirst-quencher.

This doesn’t mean that you should avoid high-tech applications – as long as they do their work silently and effortlessly, there’s no problem at all. Recently I wrote about the great potential of using handphones’ built-in cameras to connect phones to ads and billboards. High tech, but of the point-and-click type. Are you interested? Point here. Thank you – here’s your info, your offer, whatever. Using technology doesn’t need to be complicated.

Developments in mobile marketing are often driven by technology. Colour screens, smartphones, 3G, WiFi, the list is endless. And it's not only poor consumers like you and me who are baffled by all these new gadgets and tricks. Apparently, it's the marketers too. My advice: don’t get distracted by snazzy technology. Use it. Put simply: don’t drool, stay cool.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Opting Out II: Mobile-Phobia on the Rise?

Wireless World, Singapore/Kuala Lumpur, September 2004 issue

The Great Privacy Debate is raging through the media, and its main driver is the spam phenomenon. We’re forced to choose between watching an unchecked flow of garbage and using an imperfect spam filter. In fact, the most common excuse for failing to follow up on something has become the innocent-sounding ‘Oh, did you ask by email? Never saw that – it probably ended up in my spam filter.’

Meanwhile, the Mobile Marketing community holds its breath: will mobile phones end up like PCs? Will unsolicited text messages gradually swell to an unstoppable flood, turning mobile phone users into mobile-phobes?

Here’s one reason I’m still optimistic on the outcome: a handphone is wildly different from any other device. It’s closer to the skin, both literally and figuratively speaking. We carry it always with us, it’s become a necessity. It’s small, ubiquitous and easy to use. In short, it’s everything a PC, even a connected one, is not.

As a result, the spammers’ box of tricks cannot be easily applied to text messaging or any other form of mobile marketing. True, handphone numbers can be harvested like email addresses by scanning the Internet; like email addresses, they can be construed by generating large amounts according to a certain syntax (like eight-digit numbers starting with a ‘9’, in Singapore); and like emails, anything sent to a handphone has to be displayed on a screen.

That’s where all similarity stops. The differences start with the screen itself. Handphone screen sizes, even 3G ones, cannot be remotely compared by the amount of real estate on a PC screen. Then there’s the amount of interactivity. Most spam tries to lead you quickly away from the message itself, to a website where your PC starts to interact with the spammer’s server in a variety of nefarious ways. Your data are stolen, viruses installed, your PC is taken over by the spammer, all of which is not possible with your phone – at least, not yet.

But the biggest distinction that sets handphones apart from all other devices is their sensitiveness to privacy. A handphone is close to the skin, both literally and figuratively speaking. A spam-like SMS enrages us more than a thousand spam emails. Apart from that, spam has shown us what can happen when you let things get out of hand. So people are much more on guard, and the slightest sign of mobile spamming gives cause to a fierce consumer reaction. In short, we’re both better educated and more alert, and that’s the main reason why I’m optimistic.

In fact, consumers seem to be better educated these days than some authorities. Especially the US are busy building an impressive track record of ignorance. First, the infamous Can-Spam Act was passed by lawmakers who clearly spent more time on a catchy name than on the boring business of enforcement. As a result, the world is now blessed with an anti-spam law that sounds nice but to which spammers pay no attention whatsoever.

To add insult to injury, US communications regulator FCC has now regulated that sending commercial e-mail messages to mobile devices is not permitted unless the recipient has asked to receive the correspondence, but that, and I’m not making this up, unsolicited text messages are not included. Let’s get this straight: I’m only allowed to approach complete strangers without their explicit invitation, but not my own customers?

Unsolicited messages are decidedly a thorny issue. They should be allowed, because they’re the lifeblood of new product marketing. But their acceptability depends heavily on the receiver’s interest in the subject of the message, and the medium that’s being used. As long as lawmakers seem to have problems with these subtle distinctions, at least marketers should pay attention to them.

Sunday, August 01, 2004

Opting Out

Wireless World, Singapore/Kuala Lumpur, August 2004 issue

Permission marketing is on the increase. Consumers are becoming more wary of invasion of their privacy, and they're not prepared to let just anybody into their private lives. Everyone has seen what spam has done to email marketing, and all of us hope the same thing won’t happen with, say, mobile phones.

Permission – giving it, or withholding it – is becoming increasingly important, both to users and to marketers. People are bombarded with thousands of marketing messages a day. From the moment we wake up and scan through the morning newspaper, stepping out in the street or enter buildings, opening our mailbox or switch on the TV, advertisements and brand logos are clamouring for our attention. No wonder that today’s consumers increasingly crave some sort of control over these messages, the frequency with which it happens, and the media that carry them.

But permission is a volatile thing. None of us keep lists of who we gave permission or who we refused. If we permit someone to send us information we like to have today, tomorrow we may not be interested at all. So permission has a use by date. It also depends on the medium that’s being used. The same unsolicited message that reaches us through snail mail will enrage us when we suddenly find it on our handphone.

The reverse is also true. Keeping up to date in this crazy society depends for a great deal on getting information without asking for it. You shouldn’t have to ask what’s new all of the time. Please send me information on watches and sports cars, even when I don’t ask. But – and please note this, spammers – I’m not in the market for cheap Viagra, low-rate mortgages from dubious lenders, or male enhancement of any kind. Shoo! Go away! And stay away!

So we can’t all become Robinson Crusoes, left alone on our own little islands in the information society. But we can’t let commercial messages become a free-for-all, either.

This is the curse of the opt-in vs. opt-out debate. Privacy advocates often choose the easy way out and pronounce opt-in the One Ring that rules them all; only opt-in marketing should be allowed. Industry lobbyists find it too easy to respond that innovations may not be curbed and that anything goes until the addressee opts out.

In reality, permission sits on a sliding scale, from implicit to explicit, from opt-out to opt-in. It varies with the intrusiveness of the message, and the medium that brings it. Mobile phones are close to the skin, enter that personal area without invitation and you’re almost certainly trespassing. Mass media – ads, billboards, or sponsors’ logos – don’t intrude as much. But they’re in the periphery of vision, making it more difficult to explain new things in an increasingly complex society.

So here’s our little dilemma. How to solve it? I predict that mobile phones will become Permission Command Central, and connectivity becomes the key.

The one thing that distinguishes mobile phones from any other gadget is that almost all of us carry them with us almost all of the time. Not only that, but they also become increasingly connected. WiFi and GPRS connect to the Internet. Bluetooth connects to other phones in the vicinity. Cameras will be able to read barcodes. And RFIDs, intelligent identification tags, will make themselves known and provide information when we pass by.

In future we will store our personal profiles on our handphones, making ‘permission to speak’ a partly automated process. Opting out will be as easy as batting an eyebrow, opting in can be done by pointing your phone at an ad or an object.

Marketers better prepare, and leave opt-in vs. opt-out to the debaters.

Thursday, July 01, 2004

Killer App

Wireless World, Singapore/Kuala Lumpur, July 2004 issue

Every once in a while there’s an invention that changes people’s lives. In today’s Information Society, where everything hinges on finding the right application for all the technology that’s lying around, such a thing is known as the Killer App.

Well known Killer Apps are email and web surfing. They have changed the nature of the World Wide Web, indeed of people’s behaviour, and made the Internet into what it is today. They truly conquered the world.

But Killer Apps do not only roam cyberspace. They influence mobile phone use too. Take for instance SMS. Invented in 1992, SMS was an accidental success that caught nearly everyone in the mobile industry by surprise. It wasn’t even meant to be used by consumers. It wasn’t promoted either, for that very reason. But consumers didn’t need promotion. By 1999 they found out text messaging was there, and they embraced it. Now life without has become unthinkable.

So what will be the next Killer App? That’s the $64,000 question, as they say. Those who guess the answer and start to act on it before anyone else does, have a pretty fair chance of becoming quite rich.

Well, I’m about to make your Wireless World subscription pay itself back many times over. Because I dare predict the next Killer App in mobile marketing, and I’m going to share it with the lucky readers of this column.

Take a look at today’s new phones. What do you see? They’re almost all being equipped with nice little colour screens, and digital cameras. The latter are nice to have, but not spectacularly so. After all, a camera in a phone is a compromise. But OK, it works.

The colour screens are actually a bit silly. They look nice but lack practicality. Wallpaper here, picture of a loved one there, and that’s as far as it goes on the stamp-sized area. Network operators keep promoting it for mobile browsing or doing email. In vain, because it ain’t fun to do that without a proper keyboard, and since we want our phones to be small and nifty little things, a keyboard is out of the question.

But what if you saw something that raised your interest or prompted you to buy, and you wouldn’t have to do anything except pointing your phone? Point the camera at the ad, poster or brochure and hey presto! The information’s there, nicely tailored to your phone’s screen.

This is made possible by software that uses web browsers now standard in most camera phones, by making the phone act like a bar code reader. People can look up information without the fiddly business of having to type in a URL on a tiny keypad.

There are infinitely many uses. For example, you could scan a code posted on a bus stop to quickly look up a web page with realtime information showing when the next bus is due. Concert-goers can make on-the-spot decisions to buy tickets off posters sporting the codes, making the poster a direct sales link between the poster producer and the ticket seller. Retailers can advertise in-store promotions, pointing bargain seekers to the nearest outlet.

The most powerful tool in sales promotion is the call-to-action at exactly the right moment in time. It’s the magic AIDA formula in its ideal form: Attention, Interest, Desire, Action. People don’t go anywhere anymore without their phones. So now you can radically cut the time between Attention and Action. Any place, any time you want.

Mobile marketers who catch on to this trend will find it has enormous potential. And I hope they’ll remember the poor columnist who put them on to it.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Funeral Fun

Wireless World, Singapore/Kuala Lumpur, June 2004 issue

Mobile marketing is arguably the most exciting game in town. I can’t wait to see it happen. But alas, waiting is the name of the game.

What is mobile marketing, actually? I dunno, but judging by telco standards, it’s sending you a message you don’t want, about something you’re not interested in, at a time that’s not convenient. I can understand someone wanting to welcome visitors, but is there really no way to prevent the system from sending me the same message when I step off my flight for the 137th time?

Of course there is. But it’s a matter of trial and error, or applying creativity. Which seems to be lacking in a big way. In fact the lack of creativity on the part of mobile providers has become so obvious, it’s almost painful. Handphone manufacturers deliver us an abundance of features, frills, and form factors. So many, in fact, that the average user doesn’t even know where to start. So the providers would be the obvious ones to tell us what to do with them, wouldn’t he?

Well, no way. Open up a Saturday copy of the Straits Times and you see what I mean. Endless series of ads showing handphones lined up like tombstones. Which is great, if you’re into cemeteries. Problem is, not many of us are. And it gets worse. Take a look at the epitaphs. What kind of distinguishing features are being advertised? Trade-in value. What? Nothing else? Nope. Just trade-in value. I am trying to picture the meeting in which next Saturday’s ad is decided. Somebody says: ‘Hey, let’s start out with the Nokia!’ ‘Nah, we did that last week. Let’s put the Nokia second and the Siemens first. Then we put the Nokia’s trade-in value next to it.’ Gasps of admiration fill the drab little conference room. Such daringness, such audacity! I wonder what they’ll think of next.

WAKE UP GUYS! Mobile phone penetration is exceeding 100% in many markets. People carry these things literally close to their hearts, all the time. Genuine mobile phone marketing is trouble waiting for a place to happen, my girlfriend would say. I actually have a girlfriend who says such things.

And yet, it’s not happening. Not even close. And don’t start me on the occasional SMS I get from a painstakingly compiled opt-in list. Or those infernal messages telling me to dial some number to get information I don’t need.

On the other hand, take a country like South Korea. Seoul at this very moment is the epicentre of mobile marketing. No caution here. They’re capable of trying anything. This, after all, is the country where you can dial a service that makes your phone buzz in such a way that it drives insects away. In Korea, not only can you personalize the ringtone on your phone, you can now also personalize the ringtone people hear when they phone you. So when your boss calls you, there’s Lee Dorsey’s ‘Working in a Coal Mine’ while he’s waiting for you to pick up, but when your girlfriend calls, she hears Andy Williams crooning ‘Speak Softly Love.’

Ringtones are just one example. It’s no coincidence that the music industry is looking at mobile phones for an increasing part of their royalty revenues. Point is, there’s a new medium out there with limitless possibilities, many of which consumers will positively love.

Now let me get this straight. I’m not making a case for creating a new mass market in mobile insect repellents hereabouts. The point I’m trying to make is, go out there and try out the new medium. Explore its boundaries. Don’t be afraid to go beyond them, it’s the best way to find out where they are, and what’s possible.

Saturday, May 01, 2004

Go Viral

Wireless World, Singapore/Kuala Lumpur, May 2004 issue

What’s the biggest annoyance when you step off a flight? Is it the long queue for Immigration, or waiting for your luggage? If you ask me, now it’s something even more irritating: SMS from mobile providers. I usually get two or three of those, along with the ones real people sent me during the flight. Telcos welcome me to their network or tell me what to dial in order to supposedly save 78% on international calls. That’s 78% on how much? Doesn’t say. And I never asked for the message or gave permission.

Mobile marketing is a promising new medium. It’s close to the skin, people carry their phones with them and they open each and every message. But there are challenges: tiny little screens limit the message you can deliver, and many still have to pay for receiving. And there’s a low irritation threshold. Keep off my phone; it’s private.

Challenges and opportunities travel together. The opportunities are great, as long as you don’t antagonize the receiver. The mobile marketing medium combines high impact with a reading guarantee. And the challenge? Annoyed receivers, ready to accuse you of spamming.

What’s spam? The official definition is ‘unsolicited mail without a recognizable sender address or proper unsubscribe possibility’. That fits the nefarious network messages I mentioned. Wonder when someone is going to prosecute the likes of SingTel and M1.

But the reality is, spam is anything I don’t like, in my inbox or handphone. Especially my handphone. And that’s also our opportunity. If people like a message, if it brings a laugh or affection, or something they can talk about, that’s where you get your high impact without irritation. A marketer’s dream, in other words.

This is where viral marketing comes in. That is delivering your message to consumers in such a way that they will deliver it to others for you. Nothing is easier than have someone forward an SMS. You only need to give him a reason.

The power of this concept was shown not long ago. A Singaporean youngster overheard his sister gossiping with her girlfriend, and thought he heard them mention a bomb in Holland Village. He dashed off an SMS to one of his friends and caused an avalanche. In no time a thousand score messages flew around. Hours later authorities had no choice but to evacuate the entire place.

We’ve seen proof of concept in marketing too: highly effective campaigns that reached hundreds of thousands of messages on an incredibly low budget. Nice examples were the ‘God’ campaigns in Singapore and Philippines, where people received messages from God (“Thank me it’s Friday”) together with an invitation to forward them to others.

What is the secret of effective viral campaigns? One, select your initial target carefully; they are the pillars of your distribution. And two, craft your message even more carefully. This message is the key. If it catches people’s attention, they will act upon it. And if it’s worth talking about, they will forward.

Sounds difficult, but there’s also good news. Thanks to the viral mechanism, your initial target can be small. And delivering the initial message is cheap. That leaves all your ammo for the conceptual part. You can afford to spend a lot of creativity and attention on the message that gets people going. So spend it. Once you get that right, you don’t need to spend a lot more for a successful campaign.

Mobile marketing can do great things for you. Go viral. Be creative. Spend more on a smaller, well-targeted group. These people are your gatekeepers, the road to riches. Give them stuff to think, and especially to talk about. Then sit back and let them do the rest.