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American Idol's Launch of Text Voting Shows Mobile Data Can Thrive

American Idol's Launch of Text Voting Shows Mobile Data Can Thrive

Fueled by the popularity of reality TV and the immense success of text messaging worldwide, the American market is embracing mass media as a catalyst for SMS usage. One innovative solution has paired AT&T Wireless and "American Idol" in a promotion that is taking the U.S. by storm.

The wireless industry is on the verge of one of its periodic reinvigorations due to the joint leadership of AT&T Wireless and FOX Broadcasting Company (FOX). The implementation of a high-visibility messaging component for the TV program "American Idol" has made text messaging a household term in North America. The success of the promotion is already remarkable, clearly the first major step toward fully realizing the potential inherent in messaging technology. However, this race is a marathon, not a sprint. There's still much to do.

Our industry tends to revere the European and Japanese markets as wireless markets that "work." Mobile device penetration is almost total. Mobile data services are in a state of full adoption and utilization. The ubiquity of mobile data services in these countries spurs the development of new technologies, all of which impress American consumers, but not enough to dive into the oft-confusing world of mobile data adoption.

The early challenges we've faced have been varied and widespread. Two years ago, we heard time and again about the hype associated with "the Internet in your pocket," which had invariably let people down when unsatisfying brief forays into the Web browsing applications on their phones met with confusion and frustration. Thankfully, those days are behind us and we have come a long way.

Meeting the Challenges
Marketing on the Internet has been a free-for-all, with the end result a jaded user base that blocks spam, banner ads, pop-ups, cookies - in short doing all they can until someone discovers the next way to defeat their filtering efforts. Business as usual on wireless networks would crush any movement to adopt mobile data ser-vices, so it was critical to develop resentment-free marketing methods.

Another hurdle has been infrastructure-based. As predicted, mass broadcasts drive tremendous spikes in traffic on a continental scale. From carriers to media companies, there were certain network capacity improvements that had to be made in order to accommodate these spikes. Capitalizing infrastructure improvements in a segment that was showing marginal revenue was its own challenge, but one to which many carriers and media companies have risen.

Mobile media companies have done their part to surmount these initial hurdles. At Mobliss we've provided the tools to adapt content for the mobile format that entertains and informs. We've developed opt-in marketing mechanisms tied to these entertainment and information products, which studies indicate actually boosts the positive perception of both the product and the advertiser. We've swallowed hard and spent the money on the necessary improvements to our networks: building a high-capacity, large transaction-oriented infrastructure.

For proof of the potential of the medium, we need look only as far as cross-carrier messaging. No sooner had cross-carrier messaging been activated than we saw a marked increase in text-messaging traffic. "If you build it they will come" seems to describe the process. We've made all the initial moves, some of which were downright painful. We successfully forged agreements with major North American carriers. We navigated an alphabet soup of competing technologies, negotiated gateways, and exhaustively tested on handsets from all major manufacturers, just to deliver unprecedented cross-carrier text-messaging delivery capacity.

So, everything should take off now, right? Well, no. There's still the small matter of convincing the North American public to adopt mobile data services and grow accustomed to relying on them for information and entertainment. In order to accomplish this goal - this dream of mobile data usage on par with Finland or Japan - we need to give them a suitable spur not just to act, but to talk about having so acted. Because American popular culture is as pervasive as it is appealing, AT&T Wireless and FOX Television realized this was the key to gaining acceptance.

Teaming with AT&T Wireless and 'American Idol'
AT&T Wireless's vision of the "American Idol" promotion with FOX has solved the puzzle of wireless alchemy. "American Idol" is a show anchored in audience participation where viewers' opinions truly influence the outcome of the show. This - coupled with the show's tremendous popularity - provided an ideal environment to introduce text voting to this country. FOX offers simple, clear texting instructions on-air during the show. Viewers see the results of their texting. Yes, text voting is a drop in the bucket of what mobile data services are capable of, but baby steps are precisely what are called for.

"American Idol" presented its own challenges. The current state of mobile data usage in the U.S. meant that we were going to have to do more than just convince people to text. Rather, we were going to have to teach people how to text. We knew there was going to be a limited amount of promotional space available for this instruction, and far less time for instruction on the actual broadcasts.

The wireless feature of "American Idol" has been nothing short of spectacular. Mobile participation has been far greater than anticipated. Many long nights went into the development and implementation of this promotion, but that just proves this medium rewards diligence, patience, and vision.

Let's not get ahead of ourselves, though. The first step in this process was the most important one. AT&T Wireless, FOX , and FremantleMedia (the show's producer) showed fearless predictive thinking in undertaking the wireless component of "American Idol" with so high a level of visibility and impact.

The escalating potential of the wireless industry doesn't stop with "moTV" (mobile TV). The long view of the future includes such milestones as mobile-to-media interactivity with billboards, magazines, sweepstakes and promotions, radio broadcasts, events...even product packaging. Imagine picking up a six-pack of your favorite soft drink and texting the short code on the package to download a coupon code, or to see if you get the drinks for free!

Taking the Next Step
It's true a rising tide lifts all boats. With "American Idol," AT&T Wireless and FOX have gotten all of us off the launch pad. The challenge to the wireless industry - both carriers and media companies like Mobliss - is to take the next step and build on the momentum we're creating by fashioning an environment in which mobile data services can thrive. When today's baby-stepping text voters decide they'd like to check their e-mail, play a game, or get some stock information on their mobile, we in mobile media have to make sure that we continue to grow this exciting opportunity by ensuring the following:

  • There is content of sufficient quality and quantity that first-time users will explore, get what they want, and be compelled to return.
  • The user interface, organization of information, and mental ergonomics of the experience are intuitive, comfortable, and rewarding.
  • The marketing that they encounter isn't invasive or detrimental to the experience.
  • The overarching sense of the experience is positive.

    In addition to these tactical goals, there are broader strategic goals that we must consider as well:

  • We must continue to exploit the opportunities that new handsets are bringing to the market. Consumers are replacing their old handsets with the latest color screens, polyphonic ringtones, and powerful interfaces. We are getting better opportunities to interact with consumers through color images, games, and sound. Better devices mean better usage experience, which means higher adoption.
  • As important as voice communications are, we all have to do more to teach people how to use their phones to the fullest extent the technology permits. While texting peer-to-peer is a self-fulfilling aspect of this, mass media content must be utilized to get consumers to change their behavior, and interact using their phones.
  • Carriers coming together to agree on common short codes alone can spark an explosion in text messaging.
  • Mobile marketing companies can't just hang up a shingle and say, "Here we are!" and expect to survive. We have to take a strongly proactive stance to making it easy for marketers to communicate en masse with their audience. We have to give them the tools to analyze their campaigns, all the while being flexible enough to allow marketers to decide what works best for them.
  • We all have to ensure there's an infrastructure in place to provide the earnings incentives to all players (carriers, hardware manufacturers, media companies). Billing for mobile data ser-vices has to be simplified and coordinated. Mobile data services have to be easier to promote. All of us need to ensure there are continued revenue opportunities for all players.

    Admittedly, the value chain in this process is highly complex. Media companies, broadcasters, advertisers, content owners, carriers, and technology providers are just the major players in the process. The challenge of making sure all parties are happy and making money is one we face with every new mobile marketing campaign. There is no hard and fast paradigm - no silver bullet - but clearly there is a right way to go about it. Smart thinking has to take place at every step along the way, with parties cooperatively solving problems but not losing sight of the greater goal.

    No more asking "Are we there yet?" We're there. Now it's our industry's responsibility to capitalize on the momentum. Each of us can either build on this and take it to the next level, or we can let it slip through our fingers. I'm betting on the future. Who's with me?

    "American Idol" airs Tuesdays 8pm/7c and Wednesdays 8:30pm/7:30c on FOX.

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