If you did not get a Valentine’s card from your true love this year, perhaps you got a spam Valentine’s message instead.
Spamming, or unsolicited messages sent by text to your mobile phone or email, is becoming ever more prevalent.
One text message doing the rounds this week is: “If you were a chicken, you’d be impeccable… Get loved up at lastminute.com/valentines”.
You may or may not have read it – many people just press delete before they are even halfway through the message.
Others are simply bemused as to how the sender of the spam managed to acquire their mobile phone number, or email address (in this case, Lastminute says your contact details have been posted by someone who knows you and it promises not to reuse them).
These unsolicited messages are undoubtedly irritating and can also be costly if email is being downloaded at home or the recipient is duped into calling a premium-rate telephone line.
Despite this, however, text messaging has become the hottest new way to market a company, brand or product. But if most of us tend to ditch the messages sight unseen, how are they effective?
Lars Becker, chief executive of SMS marketing company Flytxt, argues that text messaging campaigns can have a very high success rate if they are carefully designed.
A recent survey by the technology research firm, Forrester, also found that 56% of the responding companies planned to use text messaging as a marketing tool in 2003.
Flytxt itself has found that a well-crafted text message can get a response rate as high as 10% – for a relatively low cost. The company, which has devised text message campaigns for clients such as Cadbury and Emap, uses the medium in a variety of ways. For example, it runs text clubs designed to build customer loyalty for Emap’s Smash Hits magazine, sending text messages containing pop gossip to members and inviting them to participate in competitions.
But one of Flytxt’s most well-known campaigns was for the chocolate maker Cadbury last summer. Customers learnt whether they had won a competition by sending a text message to a number on the chocolate bar wrapper. The campaign enabled Cadbury’s to collect information about the times when customers ate certain bars and which other bars they liked.
Mr Becker, however, is careful to differentiate his company’s tactics from the more unscrupulous senders of spam. He says that recipients of messages are always given the chance to opt out from receiving any further messages. Flytxt also only uses customer information it collects itself – with permission – or from reputable databases.
“The danger is that the market follows the email model, which has automatic associations with spam,” he explains. “And it got a bad name.”
To this end, Flytxt helped found the Wireless Marketing Association which has established a code of best practice for text marketers. “We are against unsolicited messages and we want to protect the industry,” says Mr Becker.
Indeed, spam emails are notorious and almost inescapable if people have signed up for free email services or bought products on the internet. Companies can also pass on your personal information to companies, if permission has been given. The moot point is whether customers were aware that they were giving permission.
Even if you only registered to look at a website, you may have inadvertently agreed to a clause buried in the terms and conditions that allowed your data to be used or passed on.
Consumer groups are also keen to stamp out spammers in both email and text messages. Last year, Consumers International discovered that the vast majority of websites gave users no choice about being on the site’s own mailing list or having their name passed on.
The European Union is also working to tighten up laws on data protection in e-commerce. A new directive could require companies that use email or text messaging to get explicit permission from the recipient through an “opt-in”.
Last year Flytxt’s Cadbury campaign printed terms and conditions on the wrapper and then asked the customer to send a text message. By sending the message, the customer implicitly agreed to the conditions.
Under the new EU directive, customers would have to be asked for permission up-front, as well agreeing implicitly to any terms and conditions.
Ursula Pachl, an e-commerce policy officer at the European Consumers’ Organisation is optimistic the new directive will be passed, despite some quibbling over whether an opt-in takes away companies’ freedom to provide information.
Too many controls, however, could end up hurting the consumer. Inevitably, free text clubs, such as the Smash Hits gossip service, depend upon being able advertise to the customer.
“We have not found the holy grail of how this works or what exactly the model should be,” says Mr Becker. “But if consumers want something, they have pay for it one way or another.”
Clearly, the art of using text messages to market is still in its infancy. The trick will be to cut out the spam and keep customers on side by disguising any blatant marketing with useful or entertaining messages.