Is the Mobile a Personal Medium?

One of the mantras trotted out by all and sundry is that the mobile represents a great marketing medium “because it’s so personal” or is even “the most personal medium ever”. It’s become such a frequent statement that no one really questions its validity. Indeed, it’s become true through repetition – a sort of affirmation principle where if you keep saying something, it eventually happens.

However, I thought it worth exploring as I’m not so sure it’s especially true, certainly in the cause and effect way it’s presented. The argument implies that marketing messages via the mobile are somehow more trustworthy or believable and thus more effective. Or that messages are more personalised in some way than other media.

I think the origin of the thinking came from the old days of SMS Push, which never really got much beyond the foothills of the mobile marketing mountain range. The idea was that because sms is so “personal” – they normally come from friends – recipients were very likely to open sms marketing messages. Unlike say, email or Direct Mail, where many messages get binned without being read.

There might have been some truth in that for a while. But users wised up to screening out unwanted commercial sms pretty quickly.

However, the mobile medium has evolved from those days and now the most common forms of mobile marketing are almost certainly SMS Pull and graphical and text banners on mobile web sites.

SMS Pull doesn’t rely on the medium being Personal at all. Portable is certainly important, so people can react and engage with marketing messages on impulse. You could argue that when they send the sms in response that it contains a unique identifier (ie the mobile number), which allows the marketer to respond. But that’s not an unusual feature – response information in the form of a snail mail address, email ID or landline call is a feature of any form of direct response marketing and the mobile isn’t more or less personal because of it. In fact, it doesn’t even normally cater for an especially personalised response, certainly in comparison to say, Post Code data, unless of course the mobile number is already known and profiled in some way.

So whether or not the mobile is Personal is largely irrelevant for this kind of activity.

Next up, let’s consider banner ads. Really, these are not very different to their online cousins, which have been around a lot longer and thus are more mature, plus have features like Cookies available to track behaviour. Despite this, you’d be hard pressed to argue that these forms of marketing were especially personal in any way.

Even banners related to search results aren’t really personal or even personalised to the individual. And these results are notoriously prone to misinterpreting what the searcher is looking for. Cory Doctorow’s latest short story gives an example of an individual suspected of making rockets on the basis that he’s been involved in launching a brand of coffee called “Jet Fuel” and there are many, many incidences of similar errors.

That doesn’t mean that the mobile doesn’t make an excellent medium for marketing messages. There are loads of case studies of successful campaigns, which deliver far higher ROI than any other medium. But these successes come from context (that it’s on a mobile), targeting, copy writing, creative execution and a few other criteria. No one can claim plausibly today that they personalise this sort of advertising, whether it be online on on-mobile.

The final area that’s worth briefly examining is sponsoring P2P sms. Some companies are trying to jump on the bandwagon of inserting an advertising message into an sms that I might send to my wife or friends. Presumably, I, the user, get recompensed in this model by getting cheaper sms.

Leaving aside the question of whether this is a good medium or not, I don’t see how it’s going to be any more effective because it’s embedded in a personal message on my personal device. Sure, the recipient will open it, but will they be more likely act on it because of that? I doubt it.

Now, obviously the mobile phone is personal – actually many people wouldn’t even lend their mobile to someone else (63% in this example) – but I would argue that it doesn’t mean that it makes a better medium because of it.

Finally, let’s look to the future – maybe 10 years out – will the cause (personal) be any more closely linked to the claimed effect (better medium) then?

We’ll certainly be looking at a very different marketing landscape. All digital marketing will be highly targeted, personalised (where possible) and employ sophisticated algorithms that take into account behaviour, preferences and profiling of the recipient. But will this result in the mobile being a better medium because it’s personal in some way? In other words, will people be more likely to respond to the same message on mobile, as opposed to their PC on the basis that the mobile is “theirs” and the PC is shared?

No, in a word.

Am I missing something? If you’re a proponent of the mobile being personal and thus a better marketing medium, please tell me what I’m missing.

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