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Can SMS serve as holiday mobile catch-all in yo-yo economy?

Brands and retailers should leverage SMS for the holidays to push private sales, holiday-themed merchandise via coupons, wish lists, mobile commerce-enabled sites and special store hours during this busy time of year.

Approximately 72 percent of American adult consumers send and receive text messages, according to Pew Internet Project. Virtually everyone is text messaging, making it a convenient way for retailers and brands to communicate with consumers.

?Consumers are quickly becoming more and more receptive to receiving offers and deals from companies on their mobile devices?especially via SMS?as long as they are relevant and valuable,? said Tom Cotney, president/CEO of Air2Web, Atlanta. ?The holidays provide a particularly good opportunity for companies to use SMS to support their promotions.

?Think of Black Friday,? he said. ?Many people will scour the ads for deals and promotions and head for the stores with pockets and purses stuffed with paper coupons.

?A lot of consumers are willing to do this just to get a deal.?

The process becomes so much easier if the mobile coupons are stored on a mobile device.

SMS enables the transmission of coupons and an opportunity to send the customer even more deals while they are in the store shopping.

Research Hipcricket conducted last year shows that 83 percent of consumers are still waiting for a favorite, trusted brand to market to them via their mobile phone.

The brands and agencies that do it right this holiday season will emerge with a significant advantage in 2011: the opportunity to remarket to opted-in consumers and continue an engaged dialogue.

The immediacy of SMS makes it an ideal channel for retailers to push timely sales and also perishable inventory such as food and seasonal items.

Florists, restaurants and holiday card companies, for example, can use SMS to drive sales of items via coupons or even just standard alerts that say, ?Hi, we have this item, come and get it.?

Companies can ask consumers to opt-in to an SMS list via existing assets such as social media, email campaigns and even include a call to action on their Internet Web sites asking permission from consumers to communicate with them via text message.

?The important thing is to focus on the customer, not the medium,? said Eric Harber, president and chief operating officer of Hipcricket, Seattle. ?The holidays are a busy, stressful time, and resounding themes this year will likely be about getting everything done and doing more with less.

?SMS campaigns need to tap into these themes,? he said. ?Customers will be willing to opt into programs that share recipes at Thanksgiving, offer special members-only shopping discounts at Christmas and Hannukah, and suggest special cocktail mixes for New Year's Eve.

?The opportunity exists to be more than just a favorite brand. By using SMS right, brands can become trusted partners that help their customers create the perfect holiday season.?

Consumers may not respond on the spot to SMS marketing communications, but the message received was most likely read and the impression has been made.

SinglePoint found that 90 percent of text messages are read within three minutes of delivery, and that the recipient eventually reads more than 99 percent of all text messages.

SMS can be used as a connecter to holiday-inspired mobile wish lists in the form of a microsite, just like mobile display ads have been leveraged in this way.

The opportunity with using SMS relies on the greater reach that the channel provides.

According to Pew research, 72 percent of adult consumers send and receive text messages, compared to only 38 percent that access the mobile Internet.

According to Experian, consumers are open to mobile ads that push some sort of sale or promotion, making mobile coupons a great way to target cost-conscious consumers during the holidays.

Coupons can push holiday-themed items, driving purchases because of the discount and also just acting as a means of letting the consumer know that this particular retailer offers a specific item.

While still nascent, mobile couponing is becoming an increasingly effective way to bring people into the store and increase sales, according to InsightExpress.

Brands and retailers can turn to limited-time-offer mobile coupons that are good from, say, 6 to 8, to drive consumers into stores during the holidays.

Consumers are looking for a deal, especially during the holidays with so many gifts to purchase.

InsightExpress found that 10 percent of consumers have been driven in-store via a mobile coupon.

A majority of consumers want to receive coupons via SMS, according to InsightExpress.

?Drive opt-ins while the stores are busy ? post calls to action in-store and on cash register receipts for instant coupons that get people signed up for future mobile programs,? Mr. Cotney said.

?Or, how about a holiday loyalty program administered via SMS that tracks some kind of points between Black Friday and New Years that rewards shoppers with a gift card based on how many points they accumulate," he said.  

?Retailers should look for unique and targeted ways of reaching their consumers with SMS, both ahead of sales and at the point of transaction." 

A Deloitte study conducted right before the holidays last year found only about one-third of consumers search for coupons via mobile. 

This year has seen enormous growth in the use of SMS and mobile in general ? a recent Peninsula Strategies report found that 64 of the Fortune 100 have a mobile strategy.

The economy has not really improved much over 2009, so people are still looking for ways to save money while still providing quality gifts and holiday staples for their families and friends.

With a 97 percent open rate, mobile coupons via SMS can help them do that, Mr. Cotney said.

Driving mcommerce
According to Aberdeen research, 38 percent of retailers have adopted some sort of mobile presence, the majority of which consists of a mobile commerce site. 

What is a better way to let a database of opted-in consumers know that a retailer has a mobile Web site, than sending a link via an SMS message?

A lot of mobile retail sites are offering free shipping on all mobile orders during the holidays. This too, is a great way to encourage mobile shopping during the holidays.

SMS can also be used to drive a consumer back to a mobile commerce site when that individual has abandoned an item in the shopping cart.

Imagine a consumer sitting on the train and trying to buy something from Steve Madden?s mobile site.

Next thing this consumer knows, it is time to get off and so the item that was about to be purchased is abandoned in-cart.

About an hour or later the consumer is on the bus and gets a message that reminds him that this item is still in the cart. ?Click on this link to complete the order.?

?For discoverability use SMS with embedded links as the mobile click to jump into an offer and special strategically,? said Gary Schwartz, president of Impact Mobile, New York. ?I like to think of SMS as your mobile Web mouse click.

?Put the call-to-action for this click on all you media and this will drive impulse traffic,? he said. ?Use SMS opt-in to drive targeted, timely deals back to the shopper. If your offer is compelling, you will drive impulse conversion.

?Use a solution provider or mobile platform that can track SMS to mobile Web seamlessly and report on this.?

SMS for alerts
A lot of retailers have special hours during the holidays, especially for Black Friday.

Sending an SMS message that lets opted-in loyal consumers know the new hours is a great way to get an individual who thought he or she did not have enough time to make it to a specific retailer?s location into that store.

Alerts are also a great way to let consumers know about sales and specials.

To get consumers to opt into a database for future marketing, experts have said that a text-to-win campaign may be a good incentive.

Asking consumers to text-in for, say, 50 percent off of their next purchase will definitely build a list of consumers that want to hear from that specific retailer.

Once that list is built, there are a number of great ways that brands can target these consumers during the holidays.

?During the holidays we all have a lot to remember ? parties, family gatherings, finishing up the year at work and travel,? Mr. Cotney said. ?Make holiday shopping easy with SMS. Your customers will thank you.?

SMS is connective tissue
SMS has fantastic reach, excellent measurability and ties all the mobile modalities ? mobile applications, Web and advertising ? together in the context of the broader overall marketing strategy, per Hipcricket?s Mr. Harber. 

Mobile, especially SMS, cannot be the sole focus of any marketing campaign, but it should be an important one, according to Air2Web?s Mr. Cotney.

When shopping during the holidays, consumers are looking for opportunities to make their lives easier as they deal with the crowds and traffic.

More traditional marketing strategies can still be effective. But there should always be a mobile option or call to action for those who prefer to use their mobile device to store deals.

And SMS offers an easy, less-expensive way to personalize the deals to consumers.

?One great example of SMS providing the glue to a mobile strategy is for a company to send an email to one of its customers mentioning an upcoming sale and providing a short code for that customer to subscribe to receive special deals,? Mr. Cotney said. ?Special deals can then be targeted to that consumer based on their profile.

?For a middle-aged man, perhaps a promotional offer can be sent for flat-screen TVs, while a woman in her early 30s could receive an offer for shoes,? he said. ?At the point of sale, the customer could be asked to do a quick mobile survey, providing even more information to personalize offers sent to that customer.?

Best practices
In creating the message, there are two important goals to keep in mind: be creative and be useful, per Hipcricket?s Mr. Harber.

In terms of opting in and out, following the Mobile Marketing Association guidelines is important in order to improve the consumers? experience and to demonstrate good stewardship of that ongoing-permission based relationship. 

For creative, remember that the campaign needs to catch the mobile subscriber?s attention.

Given the character length limitations of SMS, marketers need to distill their messages down to their absolute essentials.

The key here is to be creative and simple, but above all, bring something that represents value.

?In terms of utility, remember this: the holidays are perhaps the most stressful time of the year,? Mr. Harber said. ?People don?t want something clever or quirky on Black Friday or Cyber Monday.

?They want to know how they can get their shopping done quickly and cost-effectively,? he said. ?Help them do that and they will be loyal fans for life.?

Final take
Giselle Tsirulnik is senior editor of Mobile Marketer