Getting Personal Gets Results

Traditional business school doctrine teaches us to delight the customer. But it doesn't tell us how to please empowered consumers and Digital Natives who consider mobile to be integral to their daily routine and an essential part of their personae.

Indeed, a raft of recent reports underlines the pivotal importance of mobile in our daily lives. We won't leave the house without our keys, wallet, and our mobile phone. What's more, mobile is a technology that shapes our lives and our social interaction. A 2008 survey of some 2,000 youth conducted by the market research firm Harris Interactive found that the vast majority of respondents feel mobile phones have become a vital part of their identities and "key" to their social lives.

Mobile is a fiercely personal device. It follows that consumers expect that anything they get on their mobile-including content, services, applications, and marketing messages-will be personal, relevant, and aligned with their expressed interests.

Thus, there is little tolerance for the "few sizes fit all" digital deluge that characterized the early days of mobile. A decade ago, a piece of free content or the promise of regular alerts was a novelty and consumers were curious. Fast-forward to 2010, and pushing people unwanted stuff is spam.

Fortunately, mobile phones are designed for two-way conversations. It's dead simple to find out what people really want: Ask them. Even better, ask them in their preferred means of mobile communication: via text (SMS).

It's important to remember not to solely focus on targeting people who have the newest, coolest mobile devices, such as smartphones, or the digerati, who have gone gaga over apps. In fact, a recent study from Pinch Media, which analyzed more than 30 million downloads from Apple's App Store, reported that just 30% of people who buy an iPhone application actually use it the day after it was purchased. And the numbers plunge from there: after 20 days, less than 5% actively use these downloaded apps. Content or advertising linked to these apps is likely to gather dust, not capture audience.

If your objective is reaching a truly mass market, do not ignore the popularity of plain old mobile phones. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), an intergovernmental organization, reports that the number of mobile phone users worldwide is expected to pass 5 billion this year. In the U.S., the hype may center on the opportunities offered by the tech darling du jour, such as the iPad. But the rest of the world requires content and services people can access on low-end mobile phones.

No wonder the majority of my interviews and briefings at CTIA Wireless in Las Vegas were with companies and startups introducing new services and strategies to get more mileage out of text messaging. From appointment reminders to content update alerts to sentiment technologies that "read" text messages on a child's mobile phone and then warn parents (via SMS to their
own phones) when their child is being bullied and by whom, the innovation and new ideas coming online to help companies wring more value out of the mobile conversation (and build a more satisfied and loyal customer base in the process) is astounding.

Mobile marketing and advertising is also evolving to take on a more personal touch. In April, Alcatel-Lucent, a telecoms company some could argue was a little late to the mobile advertising party, launched Optism, a service that potentially puts it ahead of the pack.

This is because Optism brings together key players (specifically, mobile operators and advertisers) to enable a mobile marketing ecosystem. In practice, the solution is designed and commercialized with the help of input from stakeholders-including major mobile advertising company GroupM.

However, it's not just about a new offering that brokers relationships between mobile operators and advertisers. Alcatel-Lucent also encourages a two-way conversation between brands and consumers who have opted in to receive their marketing message. As Thomas Labarthe, vice president of mobile advertising with Alcatel-Lucent, put it in a recent interview, the mobile advertising approach "focuses on making permission and preference-based SMS/MMS the most responsive and targeted, high-reaching media available in the mobile media business."

Alcatel-Lucent's blueprint is a model for more than the mobile advertising industry. The way to deliver any message or content or anything effectively is to deliver it to people (after getting their permission) and on their no-frills mobile phones rather than focus on sophisticated devices. Following this strategy ensures companies will truly connect with consumers and get a positive response.