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In Europe, when mobile phones beep, advertising follows

At its best, marketing executives say, it's a direct way to target people from sports fans to chocolate lovers to business travelers with information they want.

At its worst, it's wireless spam.

Throughout Europe, advertisers and marketers are turning to cell phone text dispatches to get their message across. When people get a pitch, their phones beep. But they can open a message when they feel like it -- and decide whether to delete it instantly or read it.

In Britain, for example, Short Message Service has been used to promote everything from Cadbury chocolates to the ``Harry Potter'' film. The marketing technique, which often involves sweepstakes or electronic coupons, is also popular in parts of Asia.

In Europe, short messages are big business, representing more than 10 percent of mobile revenues. Most of the money comes from quick text messages sent between friends or colleagues. The service was unexpectedly popular -- and quickly led the marketing industry to figure out ways to cash in.

A Forrester Research study released in January polled 205 direct marketers in Europe and found that 36 percent have already tried phone message marketing. Some 32 percent hadn't but planned to.

At a conference on wireless communications in Cannes this week, Israeli company Starhome showed off how it can help operators target business travelers: Many attendees at the 3GSM World Congress saw a welcome message pop up on their phone when they arrived in the French Riviera resort.

Starhome technology helps operators detect when a caller's cell phone is ``roaming'' -- essentially, when it's away from home. Once the network knows you're in town, it can guess who you are and send you information about what to do there.

``If you're arriving in midweek, you're probably a business traveler, and you'll probably want information about taxis, restaurants and hotels,'' said Assaf Benjamin, marketing and strategy manager. The company has agreements with nearly 30 operators, including Vodafone.

Many of the mobile phone campaigns are sweepstakes. Britain's Cadbury, for example, printed candy wrappers advertising more than $1.4 million in prizes for people willing to hand over their mobile number. The company got a response for about 8 percent of the candy bars. Also in Britain, Carlsberg, the beer brand, encouraged soccer lovers to send mobile messages to win a free pint during a World Cup qualifying match.

Flytxt, a British wireless marketing company, was behind both campaigns.

Some campaigns offer digital coupons if people sign up their cell phone numbers on the Internet or send a message to the advertiser. Often, they get something in exchange. People who sign up for alerts at the Australian Web site www.blueskyfrog.com, for example, can download catchy ring tones.

In many cases, customers must show interest in a product before they get ads or coupons for it.

But many messages are unsolicited and some are considered offensive by many -- such as ads for adult telephone chat. Sometimes, people get text messages that say ``call me,'' with a phone number attached.

People call, thinking a friend left the message, only to find themselves connected to a phone sex line that is running up charges.

Some companies are careful never to send out unsolicited ads.

Flytxt, for example, runs only campaigns that are permission-based, and it helped start a British forum on standards for the wireless marketing industry.

There is little mobile marketing in the United States, probably because text messages are still fairly unknown there. Still, they're catching on fast: Officials at Cingular Wireless, for example, say they've seen text message traffic increase by 450 percent in the last six months.

Once messaging catches up, mobile marketing might follow quickly.

``Coupons are something all Americans are familiar with,'' said Hilit Koppel of RegiSoft, an Israeli company that provides the technology for mobile ad campaigns, and had its services on display in Cannes. ``They love coupons, especially when times are tough.''


unknown, Philadelphia Inquirer. February 25, 2002

Copyright © 2002 Associated Press. All rights reserved.