A sales pitch in your pocket?

It's easy to see why the marketing community is so excited about gaining access to cell phones

To you or me, it's a communications device, good for making phone calls, sending text messages to friends and colleagues, and maybe checking e-mail or looking up something on the Web. But to marketers, your cell phone is an enticing potential conduit to your wallet--and the race to exploit it is gathering steam.

It's easy to see why the marketing community is so excited about gaining access to cell phones. How often are you separated from your cell phone? It's almost always close at hand, and unless you neglect recharging (as I frequently do), it's almost always turned on.

Even more appealingly, from a marketer's standpoint, it's very personally yours. Several people in a home might watch the same TV or use the same PC, but few people share a cell phone. As a result, any usage data collected for a given phone number can easily be pooled to create a profile of you to serve as a basis for future targeted ads.

The downside for marketers: Carriers charge their customers for data services on cell phones, and customers don't want to pay for ads they haven't requested.

Text spam

Text messaging in particular has been in the vanguard of mobile marketing efforts. In Europe, where text messaging has been a popular means of communication for several years, text-message spam has been a problem. But text messaging was slower to catch on in this country, giving legislators and carriers time to put some effective safeguards in place.

The federal CAN-SPAM law expressly prohibits sending unsolicited commercial messages to wireless devices. Unfortunately, according to the Federal Communications Commission's Web site, the ban applies only to messages that are sent using the Internet address format (a user name followed by @ and a domain name). The law doesn't apply to phone-to-phone messages or to short-code messages such as the ones people use when voting for American Idol participants.

Industry efforts

However, the industry has stepped up to the plate to establish its own, more stringent rules against text-messaging spam. It's much more difficult to gain access to carrier networks in the United States than in Europe, and carriers have greater ability to protect their customers.

The Mobile Marketing Association, an industry group consisting of carriers and their marketing partners (businesses ranging from content providers to aggregators that route short-code messages to their destination) have developed guidelines for strictly policing text messaging ads. Marketers must sign an agreement to abide by these guidelines to gain access to the carriers' customers.

The MMA's guidelines include, among other things, a double opt-in policy, says John Styers, director of data planning and programming for Sprint Nextel and secretary of the MMA's executive committee. "If you see a commercial for content on TV and send a short code [to get it], you will not be sent that content until you [respond to] a confirmation message," Styers explains. The confirmation message must state exactly what you're receiving and how much you've agreed to pay for it. In addition, you must be able to easily opt out of taking such messages.

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Yardena Arar

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