Business your connection to The Boston Globe

Marketers see text cellphone messaging as the next great advertising frontier

They're not supposed to call or send a fax to your home. E-mail may soon be off limits, too. So, spurned marketers are now training their sights on cellphones.

But they won't call you. They're betting you'll call them to participate in sweepstakes, get coupons or answer surveys. They've struck a deal with the nation's 12 largest providers of wireless phone service to set up a five-digit call-in system. Consumers dial a "short code" promoted by the company on its products and advertisements to get the company to send them back a text message that appears on their cellphone screens.

More than 150 companies applied to register short codes -- numbers from 20000 to 99999 -- in the first two weeks they were available.

Consumer advocates fear that once a customer uses a code to snag a coupon, that cellphone number could go on a list and be sold to telemarketers, making the cellphone just another target for junk solicitations.

There are no "white pages" with cellphone numbers, so they have remained relatively free of come-ons. Because most users pay extra to send and receive text messages, unwanted promotions could be not only annoying, but also costly.

Many of the companies that have registered for short codes so far have pledged not to share cellphone numbers with others or use them to market products unrelated to the original promotion.

Procter & Gamble Co. is using 3-2-7-3-2 -- DARE2 -- to promote its Clairol Herbal Essences hair-color products. The Weather Channel has registered to secure 4CAST, STORM and RADAR for on-demand weather updates. Coca-Cola Co. already is inviting people to call COKE for a shot at winning prizes. (It set up its four-digit code before the five-digit standard was established.)

Marketers don't plan on having people return messages. The marketers will just send text, which they can do for much less money.

Coca-Cola last month launched a trial by printing its 2-6-5-3 code on posters and cardboard displays at stores to promote its sweepstakes. Customers punch the code into their cellphones and are prompted to type in the numbers printed on the inside of their drink caps, which indicates the number of points they've earned.

Coke keeps track of a user's points in a digital account associated with that cellphone number. The customer then uses the cellphone number to register on Coke's promotional website and redeem points for prizes.

Coke wanted to tap the growing audience of teenagers who use cellphones to send text messages, said Doug Rollins, associate brand manager of the Coca-Cola trademark. If the trial succeeds, he said, Coke might use the codes more broadly in other advertising and promotional programs.

Coke asks those who register on its website for permission to send additional messages to their cellphones. But it is treading carefully on what it knows is now private space. Coke has pledged not to sell its list to other marketers, or to send unwanted messages. "We're not going to push a bunch of messages," Rollins said. "Consumers are paying for each text message we send. We can't lose that confidence."

Other marketers agree and say the messages will be sent only to people who request them. But they think they will be a bonanza. The business of marketing to cellphones could be worth $5 billion in two years, said Peter Fuller, president of the Mobile Marketing Association.

"The biggest thing is the personal nature of a wireless telephone -- it's always on. It's always present," said Mark Grindeland, executive vice president and co-founder of m-Qube Inc., a software company that has contracts with the National Football League, America Online, Procter & Gamble and 17 other firms to set up cellphone marketing programs.

More than half of Americans own cellphones. Two-thirds of the 150 million phones in circulation in the United States are equipped to receive text messages and many display images and video clips. In the United States, text messaging is most popular for receiving sports scores, stock prices and weather reports. Teenagers use it to communicate with their friends.

Short codes are already widely used in Europe and Asia, where they are used not only for marketing products, but also for polling, paying for parking or even hailing a taxicab, said Kenneth Hansen, director of business development for Neustar Inc., a Sterling, Va.-based company that is administering codes for US wireless carriers.

But in Asia, the popular marketing practice has been criticized because messages are often sent to cellphones without permission.

US consumer groups worry that the same will happen here.

"It's the worst of telemarketing and spam rolled into one," said Adam Goldberg, a policy analyst with Consumers Union. Marketers didn't police themselves with telemarketing calls to the home or with e-mails, so it's unlikely they'll control their behavior with text messaging, he said.

There are no federal rules prohibiting advertising to wireless devices, although the Federal Communications Commission bans marketers from using automatic dialing to call cellphones. California prohibits marketers from sending unsolicited messages to cellphones.

"Our concern is that consumers are not going to be aware of the price that they're paying and that this could lead to a massive increase in unwanted text messages coming to the cellphone day after day," Goldberg said.

Advocates of short codes say marketers and wireless carriers will self-police the process, sending messages only to consumers who "opt in." Marketers are expected to allow customers to accept or refuse a message. Also, short-code proponents promise they will make it easy for cellphone users to opt out of getting new messages.

The Mobile Marketing Association plans this month to release a "code of conduct" for marketers to protect consumer privacy, Fuller said.

As proof that customers will pay for information on some products and services, the cellular industry points to the successful AT&T Wireless-sponsored voting in the "American Idol" contest this year.

That program inspired 7.5 million cellphone users to vote on contestants on the popular Fox television show.

During the program, AT&T Wireless users voted by dialing 4-3-6-5-7, or IDOLS, followed by a number corresponding to their favorite contestant. Voters received a reply confirming their vote, and some respondents were sent coupons for a discount on a CD featuring "American Idol" winner Kelly Clarkson. About 17 percent of those recipients redeemed the coupons.

"People enjoyed interactive TV. It's a mechanism to do that," said John Windolph, senior vice president for business development for the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association.

Windolph said the federal government's do-not-call registry, which lets people opt out of receiving telemarketing calls, "has no relevance" to cellphone short codes because people must first dial in to receive messages.

Globe Archives Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months