The mobile equation

Although this marketing practice has become prominent in Europe and Asia, it has yet to really catch on as a PR tool in the US

Nearly a decade ago, the PR industry was faced with the burgeoning Web phenomena that promised to revolutionize the industry. Although the Web is ingrained in the way PR pros do their jobs now, questions still emerge as the medium evolves. Mobile marketing - though highly developed and used in Asia and Europe - rarely is a central part of campaigns in the US.

There are some practical reasons for this. Lagging technology in the US and the fact that only a small portion of the population has sophisticated mobile devices limit how far PR campaigns can take mobile efforts. That aside, mobile initiatives face other obstacles that are directly connected to the way PR pros define the industry.

"We have to really understand how mobility works first for the PR profession before we leapfrog to how we use it as another way to create promotional messaging for clients," says Mike Brewer, EVP of the consumer group at Brodeur.

Brodeur conducted a survey last year asking reporters what kind of information they wanted to receive from PR pros on their mobile devices. Discouragingly, the findings showed that most journalists didn't want to hear from PR pros on their mobiles, except in rare instances.

"They are willing to give us their numbers, but are very reticent to do it," Brewer notes. "It's like e-mail was 10 years ago. They didn't want to give you their e-mail address because they felt it was an invasion; they'd rather be sent a fax or something in the mail."

Anticipating a shift

Yet, Brewer expects this to shift as smart phones become more common. Right now, mostly tech-savvy reporters, bloggers, and consumers use such mobile devices, but within the next two years, most of the general public is expected to have smart mobile devices, he adds.

But that doesn't necessarily give PR pros the green light to engage in reckless mobile campaigns. In fact, it puts added pressure on PR pros to ensure that the messages they deliver to the public are relevant and not perceived as invasive.

Parker Lee, VP of marketing and new business development at visual communications firm Xplane, recently conducted a mobile campaign for Nielsen Mobile. It included an animated mobile video intended to raise awareness about mobile-marketing innovation. The spot was 45 seconds and sent to reporters at a mobile conference. Although many reporters responded favorably, a handful asked not to be pitched on their phones.

"It's one place where people haven't been tapped," Lee notes. "It's not because it's sacrosanct; it's because there has been a technology issue of getting there."

Moreover, many people are unaware of the capabilities of their cell phones.
"A lot of people don't realize they can grab videos on mobile devices," Lee says. "So a lot of feedback from reporters was, 'Wow, I didn't know you could do that.'"

Connecting directly

But as with many PR programs these days, one of the goals of mobile marketing is to bypass media and connect directly with consumers. Burson-Marsteller is hoping to do so with a program it is developing for Hormel Foods based on the theme of convenience. Knowing that the core Hormel Foods consumer is a strapped-for-time mom who is probably constantly connected to her mobile phone, the agency is developing a campaign that will make the Hormel Foods recipe Web site easily accessible and searchable from such devices. The initiative, which will launch within the next two months, will also allow consumers to mark on-site the ingredients they need for each recipe and have those items sent to their phones like an electronic grocery list.

"It's about having a persistent presence when your consumers want you to," says Erin Byrne, chief digital strategist at Burson-Marsteller. "It can jump from a TV spot to their laptop to their mobile device, then back to the laptop. It's being available to them whenever they need the company."

Byrne says because consumers consider their mobile devices personal, customizing the marketing and making it relevant for the user is critical for an effort to work. For example, a feature of the Hormel campaign will allow users to input their city of residence into the Hormel site. Consumers will then receive recipe suggestions on their mobile device, based on local weather conditions. Someone living in Seattle might get a suggestion to make a hearty stew on a cold day or a salad for a hot day, she adds.

Giving the campaign interactive components will connect with the way users are accustomed to engaging on their mobile devices. The Hormel campaign will let
consumers text message Hormel food experts with questions that can be answered on their mobiles. Because mobile marketing is so untapped, PR pros must be creative about using it to meet the public's needs - regardless of their practice area, she adds.

PR shouldn't lose the chance to become a leader in this space by entangling into territorial disputes over which industry controls the space, Brewer says.

"It's wise to talk to clients now about this," Byrne adds. "So they don't get caught off guard like many... did with blogging."

Mobile features that can be used for PR messaging

Video downloads

The iPhone has made watching videos online more common. As a result of this, mobile de-vices are increasingly adding this feature. As downloads and video quality improves, there could be more opportunities for PR pros to tailor videos for mobile devices.

Text messaging
This feature is most relevant to keep journalists and bloggers up-to-date on the latest news and developments about clients. But as text messaging becomes as common as e-mail, PR pros can use it to stay in touch directly with consumers.

Web browsing
Even though many mobile devices can access the Internet now, it is easier for consumers to navigate sites that are mobile enabled.

Mobile applications
Companies can develop a widget so that consumers can engage with a brand from their mobile device to search restaurant menus or even shop.

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