Taking the mobile experience to the text level

April 1, 2009 — The Canadian Business Journal

If it seems like you’re the only one without a smartphone, don’t feel bad. You’re not alone. In fact, you’re in the majority. Sure, almost everyone on Bay Street is connected with their mobile-internet experience, but they don’t represent even one quarter of the mobile phone market.

For those that are unsure what a smartphone is or does, here’s a brief explanation. Smartphones are cellular phones with advanced offerings-some run complete operating system software, while others simply feature email and other internet capabilities. In short, they are miniature computers with an earpiece and microphone. What makes smartphones so likeable is their ability to add downloadable applications to personalize the phone for the user (i.e. local movie listings, weather updates, Facebook).

Sounds like a great device, but what about those of us-the overwhelming majority, I might add-with a regular cell phone? How are we supposed to get up-to-the-minute news if we’re not close to a computer or radio? Do we just suck it up and shell out the $500 to $1,000 to get one? As the only person at The Canadian Business Journal without a BlackBerry or iPhone, I’ve often wondered this very thing.

Enter Marcus Anderson, Broadplay Mobile and the answer to our problem.

As the President of Broadplay Inc., a Toronto-based digital marketing agency, Anderson spends a lot of his time creating effective mobile solutions for the masses. While the company offers a full range of digital marketing services, its main focus at the moment is on mobile marketing. And they’re right on time.

Broadplay recognises that smartphones garner way too much attention relative to their actual market penetration-15 to 20 per cent of the entire cell phone market, which leaves an 80 to 85 per cent consumer reach that is virtually ignored. While a lot of companies have created exciting applications for smartphones to better connect with their customers, they have overlooked the common denominator that unites regular cell and smartphone alike: text messaging.

Where other businesses have dropped the ball, Broadplay has picked it up and ran.

“Text messaging is ubiquitous,” Anderson explains. “Texting is available to 99 per cent of hand sets, so right there you have a desirable reach from a marketing perspective.”

Anderson couldn’t be more right. Last year, the world saw the global user base for text messaging surpass three billion people-reason enough to at least consider the medium. Beyond the opportunity to reach a huge market, Broadplay pursued a text messaging platform for a few other reasons.

“First, texting does not require anyone to download an application to the hand set,” says Anderson. “Information is delivered to the phone in the user’s inbox. Second, we don’t need to educate the consumer on how to use the technology. There are billions who already embrace text messaging. Finally, it’s relatively cheap. In most cases, people already have unlimited text messaging in the bundle package from their service provider.”

At last, an answer for the masses. But how does it work?

While the text phenomenon has largely been communication between two people, messages can also interact with automated services. And that’s where Broadplay focuses its business plan.

The text-based applications that the company has developed are accessed by simply sending the query to a specialised short code in lieu of a phone number. Once you send out the information you need (i.e. traffic reports, hockey scores, celebrity gossip), you’ll receive a message, filling you in on what you need to know. SMS (short message service) is delivered in 140 characters or less, which is enough to get info in bite-size chunks.

You might recognise short codes from popular television shows, such as American Idol or Big Brother, where viewers enter the unique five- or six-digit short code to vote for their favourite personality. But Anderson assures me that short codes have more potential than for gimmicky campaigns, saying “we use the power of texting for good, not evil.”

Anderson has a point. The services offered are completely voluntary on the part of the user. Those who text to access the information they need are pulling content onto their handsets, as opposed to receiving arbitrary and unwanted spam. The user guides his or her own experience.

“I see short codes as the gateway to information for business-to-consumer or business-to-business applications,” Anderson continues. “They are similar to URLs. Each combination allows you to access a different service through text messaging, the same way you access websites online. Our short code, for example, is 123411; this makes it ideal to market our applications as “it’s now as easy as 123 to get info (411) to your cell phone.”

Included in Broadplay’s extensive roster of text-based applications are Price By Text and Business Card By Text. The first allows consumers to compare the price of a product before they purchase it. For example, if you text a product name to 123411, you can receive a list of price points and retailers to compare and make an informed purchasing decision. The second allows you to send your contact information to any cell phone or receive someone else’s information on-demand. The user can update his or her information online and disseminate it as needed or requested. The service assures that you will never have to worry about running out of or forgetting your business card again.

Of course, this a mere sampling of what Broadplay’s proprietary Mobile Marketing Intelligence platform can do; sending text-based content of any sort is within reach.

As far as the fancy interface factor is concerned, Anderson doesn’t buy it. “Sure, you can pay data download fees to deliver your news in graphical format, but it’s not necessary,” he maintains. “Mostly, you’re looking to find out if the Don Valley Parkway is closed and text works perfectly well for this”.

Down the road

For now, Broadplay gets to enjoy the opportunity to reach out to 80 per cent of the cell phone market share. But what happens when smartphones become more prevalent? After all, as people get rid of their older models, many will replace them with smartphones. How will that affect Broadplay and its text-based mobile applications?

Anderson doesn’t seem too concerned. In fact, it’s quite the opposite; he believes mobile marketing will become more universal with text being a core distribution channel.

“In terms of penetration rate, smartphones are expected to surpass the 50 per cent penetration rate in the next five years,” Anderson explains. “That means, in five years, we will still be relevant to at least 50 per cent of the market. Even then, everyone will still text message, regardless of whether or not they own a smart phone. People aren’t going to just stop texting.”

Based on what the current trends in global markets, Anderson is on to something.

“Europe and Asia have seen an adoption of the rich mobile-internet experience-sending images and videos to cell phones. But that hasn’t displaced the use of text messaging; it exists in parallel. Text messaging is still really useful for sending quick, text-based information.”

“Cell phones are always with you; they are always on; they’re always connected,” Anderson concludes. “As long as people have that one-to-one relationship their cell phones, we feel that mobile communication is the best mechanism to connect clients with their customers.”

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