Only one in four American cell-phone users has sent a text message in the past month, according to a recent study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
That we are still as a nation using our cell phones for something as quaint as actually talking is likely a source of bafflement and amusement to many of our global neighbors. There are, of course, infrastructural barriers to generating the kind of SMS volume that, say, Japan or the UK sees - mainly to do with fragmentation among the carriers - but these are gradually being ironed out.
Unlike these other markets for which SMS was the technology that really tipped cell-phone use from a communications vehicle to an always-on lifestyle tool, for the US it was actually camera phones that started evolving cell-phone use. But while it's the tiny lenses that made cell phones "famous" - the gossip media and blogosphere frequently publish candid shots taken of celebrities by regular folk - and visible everywhere, it's text messaging that is creating a whole new marketing medium.
There has been much media coverage of the impending US explosion and investigations into how sophisticated the technology elsewhere is as a marketing tool, and the major marketing holding companies know that, as people start to see cell phones as indispensable at the expense of TV and even computers (as is the case in China, according to research by BBDO), they need to find new ways to reach consumers.
As Japan is leading the charge in mobile phone and other wireless technology, one of its leading ad agencies, Dentsu, has created innovative marketing campaigns for the medium. Nick Brien, CEO of Arc Worldwide, the Publicis-owned direct marketing agency that is Dentsu's stepsister through a strategic partnership, spent three days in Japan recently being tutored by Dentsu on how to harness the medium, and its users. What he learned, above all else, is that it is the most personalized and customized method that crosses all senses of location or time, and there's nothing more personal than the nature of the mobile phone as a content device - it's your very own medium.
The impact on the PR industry, says Brien, is huge. What he saw in Japan was an entire generation for whom it's so comfortable and natural to be in a marketing dialogue, rather than a monologue. "There's no reason why in the PR world, where the art of conversation is supreme, why the industry can't embrace these technologies," he says. "The PR implications of immediacy, connection, and engagement are huge. Text messaging someone on the move, in the retail environment, say, is a real opportunity for PR to create something; to move from creating buzz to really orchestrating customized events."
The beauty of this is that it's not something that belongs more to one discipline or another. Brien is unusual in that he has spent his long career helming agencies of differing disciplines, including media, advertising, and direct marketing, and asked the Dentsu people who owns this. They scratched their heads and explained that, as a platform of modern marketing, it's just there, and everyone owns it. The ownership will be intellectual ownership through thought-leadership and understanding the technology. Mobile marketing is an incredibly potent fusion of creativity, strategy, and technology. If you don't get all three right, forget it.