Thursday, July 10, 2008

Now that I M txting will I B spammed?

I’ll admit it. I’ve been slow to this mobile phone texting craze. I have an old Verizon phone that doesn’t have the fancy keypad that most savvy texters are using these days. I’m also in the generation that generally views mobile phones as something to make a phone call on, not to type on (although one of the TV station’s 50-something reporters has become a whiz at texting information to the newsroom from closed courtrooms where he’s covering trials – shhh, don’t tell the judge!).

Last night I felt like I had truly entered the texting generation. My husband and our 8-year old baseball-crazed son attended a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball game, and I experienced something that up until then I had heard about but never witnessed: in-stadium texting. From what I understand from my friends lucky enough to get tickets this sold-out season, the Pittsburgh Penguins do it too.

The premise is simple really. The Pirates have taken over one of the electronic message boards around the rim of the stadium that used to be reserved for baseball statistics and turned it into an instant message board. The board invites you to dial 282-26 and text a message to someone else in the stadium. After what I assume is a process of weeding out those messages with profanity or other inappropriate content, the message is posted on the big board for all to see. As we sat there waiting through what would be the first of two incredibly long rain delays (the game didn’t finish until after 1am), I couldn’t help myself: I texted a “hello” message to my son. When my message finally appeared on the message board we both got a big kick out of it.

I got a different “kick” out of the experience this morning when I checked my cellphone and discovered that the message board (to be exact, the Pirates) had texted me back with the following message: “Thx for txting. Get a taste of All You Can Eat Seats at PNC Park this season, just $35 in advance! Visit Std msg rts aply.”

I was taken aback. Did sending the text to the message board mean that I’ve opted into getting marketing text messages from the Pirates? Is this the only one I’ll receive or will I suddenly be bombarded with mobile spam from the team?

This reminded me of the ongoing debate about opt-in, not necessarily whether to do it, but how to define it. The Mobile Marketing Association (MMA) code of conduct requires all mobile marketing to be opt-in, as does the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA) license agreement for the use of short codes (those 5 digit numbers like the one the Pirates used to text me). Yet a 2006 study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 18 percent of cell phone users report getting spam on their cellular phones, and two years later, you’d have to think that this statistic would be higher. If opt-in is required, how can this be?

As Issac Scarborough of Chappell Associates writes there could be a couple of issues at work here. The first is the fact that as in every industry, there are those marketers who will not behave ethically or follow the rules. A second issue, says Scarborough, is the fact that cell carriers are initiating a lot of what’s perceived as spam, “leveraging their existing relationship with the consumer” to get around the rules (kind of like the FCC allowing companies to telemarket to current customers even if those customers have signed up for the do-not-call list). The third, and probably most problematic, is the differing definitions of spam:

"Those of us with experience in email marketing," writes Scarborough, "know that consumers often talk of "spam" very differently than do advertisers. At the end of the day, what counts as SMS spam? From a cell phone users' perspective, this seems intuitive-- if I didn't ask for it, it counts as spam. For many industry participants, however, the question is less about whether an advertisement has been "asked for," and more if the consumer has opted-in to a SMS marketing campaign. The MMA defines wireless spam as "Push Messaging that is sent without Confirmed Opt-In." Since "Push Messaging" is the equivalent of un-requested or unsolicited, this does allow marketers to send SMS ads that consumers might not have directly asked for."

Scarborough's feelings about his experience with mobile marketing spam echoes my experience with the Pirates: it wasn’t obnoxious, but it was unexpected, and thus a little bit disconcerting. But I agree with him that if the industry continues to keep its focus on avoiding spam and nailing down what true opt-in should mean, most of us may come to accept the fact that our mobile phones are another marketing channel.


Unfrozen Cave Girl Marketer said...

You got to text your son on the stadium board? COOL!!

OK, on to the spam issue. I question whether something as individual as one's "perspective" on their privacy boundaries could ever be agreed upon?

Do you think we'll have to start expecting an advertising message every time we choose to participate in a community we don't own? I dunno, but I'm tempted to close off this comment with a cheesy remark: "the only free lunch in Web 2.0 is spam!" (sorry, I couldn't resist)

Heidi M said...

I've never texted a vote for, say, American Idol. Has anyone else voted by text? If so, does American Idol send messages back?

It would be interesting to survey what companies do with mobile marketing and what they consider opt-in. And I also wonder if pretty soon the industry will get some ethical guidelines for mobile marketing.

Anne said...


Thanks for your comments. I agree with Heidi that the industry will have to do something -- just like direct marketers have had to adjust their codes of conduct to include rules about e-mail. But cave girl makes a good point that finding the boundaries for mobile phones will be hard. Everything we've read says that peoples' cell phones are a very private thing, so I think there's more room for offense than -- say -- their e-mail in box. Plus, unlike e-mail, many people have to pay to receive incoming text messages. That takes mobile spam to a new level: it's not only costing me time, now it's costing me money.