About once a month, I get a SMS (text message) from a five-digit number asking me something like, "Would you like to receive great relevant offers from so-and-so?" I can't say that this has ever seemed like the most compelling pitch; I don't remember ever signing up to receive this sort of marketing, nor am I told what sort of ads these will be. The SMS also states, "If so, txt YES to this number. If not, txt STOP to this number." So I send a four-letter SMS in reply and about a month later get the same message again.
Evidently, I'm not alone. According to a new study from the Pew Internet and American Life Project, the Associated Press and AOL, 18 percent of cell phone users report getting text message spam on their phones.
More spam than you'd expect
This is almost a little surprising. Mobile marketing remains a relatively new market in the United States, and the same Pew study reports that only 35 percent of cell phone owners use text messaging. What this means, in fact, is that half of all SMS users have received spam on their phones. And this is a little disturbing-- especially given the efforts by many mobile marketers and the Mobile Marketing Association (MMA) to make sure spam wouldn't threaten the legitimacy of the SMS channel.
The MMA's code of conduct even goes so far as to require all mobile marketing to be strictly opt-in, as does the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association's (CTIA) license agreement for the use of common short codes-- those five-digit numbers like the one from which I receive a monthly missive. I doubt either the MMA or CTIA would be heartened by the figures in the Pew study.
On the other hand, it's not entirely clear to me that consumers and the industry aren't talking past one another here. Those of us with experience in email marketing know that consumers often talk of "spam" very differently than do advertisers. At the end of the day, what counts as SMS spam?
According to the study from Pew, wireless spam is the equivalent of "unsolicited commercial text messages." From a cell phone users' perspective, this seems intuitive-- if I didn't ask for it, it counts as spam. It's also largely similar to the standard used by consumers in reference to email 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, which is not to say that the MMA is being lenient: all SMS ads must still follow a consumer's confirmed opt-in. Most of the mobile marketing firms, SMS senders and others I spoke to gave definitions that closely resembled the MMA's.
So there are, I think, some differences between the definitions of "spam" used by mobile marketers and those used by cell phone users. But the variations are slight, and may not explain the amount of reported spam. Overall, it seems, the focus in the industry has been on making sure all SMS marketing is the product of consumer opt-in. This is certainly laudable. But given the number of consumers reporting having gotten SMS spam, should more be done? Or are these rates outside of marketers' hands-- a product of over-sensitive consumers or other players in the market?
Where does mobile spam start?
The least we could say, of course, it that it's quickly becoming clear that a lot of industry participants are talking about SMS spam, and working to make sure that mobile campaigns avoid it. Industry insiders whom I spoke to emphasized this fact-- and made sure to note that misusing consumer opt-in is a risky path to take.
If this is the industry focus, though, then why do half of SMS users report getting mobile spam? Some mobile marketing executives pointed out that not all companies have yet to sign on with the MMA's guidelines. Moreover, they said, a significant portion of text-message based spam actually originates from cell carriers. Kelly McIvor of the mobile messaging service TxtGroups agreed. "Carriers are the biggest culprit here," he said, since "they leverage 'an existing relationship with the consumer--' a play on the FCCs Telemarketing rule" that lets companies skirt do-not-call restrictions.
There might be something to this. Reports from this month's CTIA Wireless trade show have mobile operators showing a new-found interest in being the ad server in addition to content provider. If this is true, why shouldn't they be interested in serving third-party SMS ads? On the other hand, the carriers may be looking beyond the short term gain this could provide them. At the same trade show, Verizon Wireless COO Lowell McAdam told reporters that "We're going to be very careful about allowing access to our customer base."
When I spoke to Charles Giordano, associate director of privacy marketing strategy at Bell Canada, he echoed McAdam's thoughts. "Bell Mobility," he told me, "has aligned itself with the Canadian cross-industry wireless association to develop best practices." SMS spam, he cautioned, hasn't yet had much of an impact in Canada, but providers there are looking to make sure that it doesn't become a problem in the future.
So there seems to be increasingly broad recognition of the benefits that come from restricting mobile marketing to an opt-in model. And it's worth remembering that SMS marketing is still new-- and probably one of the reasons consumers object is that they don't know what to make of it. To be entirely fair, the "spam" I've gotten on my cell phone isn't obnoxious. I just wasn't expecting to be marketed to. If the industry continues to keep their focus in the right place -- on avoiding spam and focusing on opt-in -- I, like many other consumers, may come to accept SMS as just another marketing channel.
Isaac Scarborough is manager of market intelligence at Chapell & Associates.