Category Archives: Mobile Marketing

Of operant conditioning, text messaging and college admissions letters

In a few days I’ll be giving a speech to a group of university and college recruiters. The talk is about new technologies and how they might shape academic marketing and recruitment in the future. I’m fairly sure how I’ll lead off. Not surprisingly, I’ll touch on reaching students through their cell phones. But it got me thinking: What practical advice can I provide recruiters about using mobile marketing?

That was yesterday. It was the same day I received a cheering email from my friend Mike. His daughter has been going to a West Coast college that is extraordinary in the way it teaches. But after a year of this non-traditional teaching approach, she has decided it’s not for her. Instead, she applied to a university in Massachusetts. She was on pins and needles, as were her parents. Until yesterday, when the acceptance letter arrived.

Now, my friend’s daughter didn’t have a second choice. She was willing to take a year off and try again at the same university if she didn’t get accepted. She’s unusual in that regard. Most students apply to several, to see which of them accepts them. To my knowledge, each acceptance (or rejection) arrives by the U.S. Postal Service. I wonder why. And I wonder if a more immediate notification might give the college that uses it an edge over the others competing to be the one they choose to attend.

I’m thinking it might. I’ve been reading lately about why email is so addictive. According to this excellent post, the culprit is operant conditioning.

This phenomenon is the mechanism by which behavior is influenced through outcome. It’s the explanation for “once burned, twice shy,” as the saying goes. And on the other end of the spectrum, it’s why we respond to a teacher’s compliments with harder studying, and to a casino’s winning hand with another gamble.

These last two examples are appropriate because in both, the reward does not come every time. Both teachers and casinos know the same key to success. It’s a secret confirmed by scientists through careful testing.

Namely: That the best way to reinforce behavior is to reward that behavior, but not every time. Instead, you reinforce randomly.

This is why email gets us hooked. We don’t receive emails that reward us every time we check the Inbox. But it’s enough to cause us to check again and again — more frequently than we probably should.

Going to your physicial mailbox was at one time the best example of this virtuous cycle of looking, discovering, and looking again. But the pace of our world has accelerated, especially for those in the school-aged generation, and a U.S. Postal mailbox has lost much of its power. Now we’re a society hooked on email, and computer-based instant messaging, and mobile text messaging — listed in order of addiction intensity. Text messages are immediate, intimate, and the most effective mechanism for keeping a person yearning for the next positive reinforcement.

I suspect some schools already offer applicants the chance to opt into receiving initial news of their acceptance (or rejection) by email. (Official word would still arrive in print, however.)

But I wonder: Why not cut to the chase and use the medium that truly gets students where they live? Why not use their cell phone?

Would receiving word of your acceptance be more of a thrill if it arrived by SMS (i.e., text) message? And if so, would this allow for a more social celebration with peers? And would this high-fiving lead to more students choosing the “text messaging” school over the others?

I know, there are many factors in a choice of college: financial aid, reputation, convenience, friends. But could this message, received  through a student’s most powerful “operant conditioner,” tip the balance when all else is equal?

Please let me know. My talk is on May 23. I’d love to step in front of the group armed with your perspectives.

What I learned from my Twitter experiment

Two weeks ago, at the end of my latest post exclusively about Twitter, I announced that I would let you know the outcome of a little two-week test. In it, I temporarily opened my “Tweets” to the world, so to speak. My posts became part of the Public Timeline of Twitter posts. In that time I’ve continued to enjoy what I like about Twitter: Being able to keep in touch with friends who are on it. But I have to say the foray into the public conversation didn’t amount to much more than that.

I didn’t know what to expect, but here were a couple things that I considered possibilities:

  1. Some people might pick up on references to my more provocative blog entries (such as this one, about mobile communication and the Virginia Tech shootings) and respond directly through Twitter
  2. Others would actually click through to those entries, using URLs that I inserted in the Tweets, and possibly even comment on the blog entry

Someday this might happen for someone. Neither did for me. I suspect that my Tweets were too diffused among the millions of others. Without a way for users to filter by preferences or topics, my Twitter posts became a few needles in an ever-growing haystack. Without context, these “microblog posts” zoomed past and faded without incident.

Well, almost. The day after I began the experience, I received the following:

  • My one and only visit to this blog that I can directly trace as a click-through from the Twitter public timeline (sheesh!)
  • A single message from an “admirer” of my golden (albeit truncated) prose: A spammer trying to get me to visit his site where he was selling something (Does my prose look like I need Viagra?)

It’s not that I was expecting the sort of bank run that got when its users started posting an illegal DVD unlock code. But I was hoping for something of interest.

Especially, I was wondering if I could expand my online social network, as I have recently with activities in LinkedIn. I’ll be writing more about LinkedIn in a future post. As for Twitter, starting today I’ll be henceforth mum on the topic.

If you want to reach out to me in a public network, you’ll just have to join my growing — and quite interesting — LinkedIn connections list. Here is my Profile:

Postscript: I just went on the Public Timeline and was astonished to see a friend’s Tweet: Way to go, Jazyfko! I hope your cold is getting better.

Update on May 26, 2007: One of the more promising applications of Twitter so far is the recently launched Truemors, the latest start-up by Guy Kowasaki.


Mix bad movies and funny commentaries to create the first truly profitable podcasts

It’s been almost a year since I marveled over the ingenuity of director Kevin Smith. As part of the theatrical release of his movie Clerks II, Smith released a free director’s commentary on iTunes, in Podcast form.* Back then I called it a smart way to get his core audience back in the theaters. I considered it one of the most innovative ways yet to monetize the podcast. Television comedian Mike Nelson has taken a more direct approach. He has created what I can only describe as the first ever movie/podcast mash-up. And it promises to make him and his partners rich.

The mash-up, which was first coined to describe what DJs create when they mix extremely divergent musical tracks, has moved to the “Web 2.0 blending” of different programs, such as Google Maps and Craigslist in this real estate mash-up. Now, with RiffTrax, Mike Nelson and his fellow satirists are creating podcasts that you can buy and blend in your living room, with the DVD they are lambasting.

Think of a RiffTrax podcast as a commentary track, as you’d find on a DVD, featuring the director and a few actors, and maybe the script writer. Now imagine the film they’re talking over (as in a voice-over) is worthy of ridicule, and all parties are very witty and have been injected with sodium pentathol to loosen their tongues.

Okay, that’s not very helpful analogy. Actually, what could help me explain this idea is if you, like me, were a fan of the long-running, now-defunct Mystery Science Theater 3000 television show. That’s because most of the RiffTrax cast members are from that show.

A low-budget, low-margin production, Mystery Science Theater 3000 (lovingly known as MST3K to fans) never made Nelson or his cohorts much money. RiffTrax is also low-budget, but selling for $.99 to $3.99 each, these podcasts will become very profitable very quickly. I also admire the fact that the venture side-steps any copyright problems, because of its do-it-yourself nature. You must download them to your MP3-player, and play them on a stereo, simultaneous to viewing the movie. You make the mash-up, not them. Brilliant.

I was incorrect a year ago when I predicted that Kevin Smith would sell a lot more popcorn by driving his audiences back to the theaters, earbuds firmly in place, to listen to his commentary as they watch the film for a second time. So you’d think I would be a little less free with my wild predictions. But hey, I know MST3K fans. Heck, I am one.

Fans like me will try this, and some will get hooked. Just as happened with the series, RiffTrax will inspire parties, formed around televisions in dorm rooms and family rooms across America. Word will spread, and this Long Tail sensation will become a mainstay for those with a wide streak of geek and a taste for droll humor — mostly G-rated at that.

RiffTrax will deliver the Holy Grail: A truly profitable podcast. It will also spur spin-offs, to appeal to other niches, such as satires to popular television series, now on DVD. But that’s well down the road. As for the short term, I can only say with certainty that my first RiffTrax party will take place within weeks.

* A half-century before the inventiveness of Kevin Smith, William Castle found similar ways to add new dimensions to the film-going experience, in the cheapie thrillers he cranked out. For instance, for The Tingler, Castle placed electric buzzers under theater seats, and zapped people’s butts during scenes where the audience was supposed to jump in horror. I’m sure it produced screams, but directors of the time, like Alfred Hitchcock, were using less convoluted techniques.

Could their cell phones have saved the Virginia Tech students?

In a few weeks I’ll be giving a speech to a group of university and college marketing professionals. The topic: Our changing communication landscape. I plan to focus on that word — communication — instead of marketing. Modern marketing is increasingly about simple, authentic communication. Especially when your audience is part of the Facebook and AIM generation. What follows is the introduction I am considering for my talk.

Just as ClickZ Experts columnist Sean Carton did in his blog entry on this topic, let me begin with a disclaimer. No blame for the Virginia Tech tragedy should be laid at the feet of the school’s administration. None. It is clear they did everything by the book, following the existing protocols pretty much to the letter.

Events played a horrific trick on these school and law enforcement officials. Once they realized that the shooter in the first pair of murders was on a rampage, the challenge of alerting students was daunting. Alerts were sent by email. Most went unread when they could have done the most good — immediately upon sending.

Cell phone SMS — also known as text messages — would have better matched the message with the audience.

Choosing the right medium for your message is really Communications 101. But habitual thinking can blind us to the newest, best ways to communicate. Then something terrible comes along to wake us up.

I’m using the example of Virginia Tech to remind us all that we need to forge new habits if we want to succeed, whether our job is to keep students safe, or attract them to our schools in the first place.

In a recent blog entry about Twitter, which is a way to push messages en mass to friends’ cell phones, I had mentioned that some of the last messages passed between loved ones during the fires of 9/11 were via SMS. Even when the electricity and land lines were down and cell phone circuits were jammed by too much traffic, the thin pipeline of SMS over cell phones and PDAs remained clear. Messages continued to pass in and out of the Twin Towers, in 160-character packets, presumably until the heat and smoke was too great.

I suggested in that post that had Twitter existed then, its SMS abilities might have passed emergency information to a critical mass of people on the imperiled floors, informing them that help was not on the way and the stairways were the last, best chance at survival.

Similarly, text messages to the students at Virginia Tech could have instantly carried enough information to enough students to help them avoid or escape harm’s way.

No company can say they are fortunate because of a terrible event, but the publicity from the shootings has boosted exposure for Rave Guardian, a technology by Rave Wireless that allows students to opt in for the sort of vigilant tab-keeping that was once the exclusive domain of worried parents.

Rave Guardian allows students to set a timer — for perhaps 30 minutes — when they leave their friends’ dorm rooms to go back to their own. If they return safely they can simply turn off the alarm.

“If something did happen, it would transmit their location every three minutes, including their profile, to campus safety,” reports Rodger Desai, president and CEO of the company.

This is just one application. Rave, like many others, has recognized that although the web and email have their uses, modern students use their computers less often than their cell phones. They are field-testing a set of channels that students can set up to receive everything from bus schedules to campus news. A freshman at one of the pilot schools, Montclair State University, said that he gets a ton of value out of his cell phone by using these channels, including the following:

  • Checking out the menu of his dorm’s dining hall
  • Monitoring a continually updated map showing the progress of shuttle buses in their routes through campus

“It’s pretty useful, and it’s going to get better and better,” this student reports.

I agree. Now information coming to cell phones is but a trickle. But there will eventually be a potential torrent — one that is thankful regulated by a faucet we control at an individual level. This will happen. And in this country at least, it will happen first on our high school and college campuses.

So let’s all of us vow now, as the parents, grandparents and stewards of the kids who will be blazing this trail, to do our best to at least watch where they are going. Lord knows we may not understand it all, but we could understand enough to help them become educated, productive citizens. We may even have a hand at saving someone’s life.

Twitter sends flotsam and jetsam our way. Marketers: Take notice!

It’s been called a micro-blogging platform, an electronic water cooler and a wonderful way to keep tabs on friends and family. It’s Twitter, and all I wanted to know is: Is this something marketers should be tracking? Here’s my answer.


You should track Twitter. But do it on your own terms. Or simply keep tabs on someone who is on the Twitter network. This concept will definitely morph, but it is not going away.

As promised in the footnote to my dismissive blog entry about this technology, I will recount my 14 days in Twitterland. For those who need a grounding in what Twitter is, I suggest you click on the link above. It loads in a new browser window, so you won’t lose your place. Are you back? Okay, let’s do this thing.

The first thing I discovered was that the people who would never, ever get a blog, or comment on other people’s blogs, have willingly signed up for Twitter. They have eagerly posted their 140 characters of news, weather and sports. I joke, but these posts do often resemble what contemporary television news has devolved into: The most superficial look at important headlines, plus trivia and human interest. And in saying that, I do not mean to disparage, because, like local news, this is very addictive.

Especially when you’re a friend or relative of the fellow “newscasters.”

When you’re part of this micro-blogosphere, all other activity you’re engaged in at that moment comes to a brief halt while you check your computer screen, IM window, or cell phone text messages to learn such tidbits as: “Man, that soup was hot. It scalded my mouth!” I’m making this one up, but it’s the type of flotsam and jetsam that comes drifting your way when you dip your oar in the vast Twitter Ocean.

Below is a sample I grabbed just now from the Twitter Public Timeline, a real-time stock ticker of global “Tweets” from those willing to share their tidbits with the world.

A sample from the Twitter public timeline

Again, I must assure you that I am not dismissing this type of information exchange. Just as the real definition of flotsam and jetsam is “potentially valuable goods jettisoned from a ship,” there are many gems that are shared with the friends, family and co-workers that one lets into one’s network. These gems slide into view suddenly and quietly, along with the detritus. It’s all disposable, but at the same time riveting.

In my 14 days on a small Twitter network (less than 10 participants), I’ve learned things. Oh, yes. I’ve learned quite a bit.

I’ve been sent links to interesting sites and videos. I’ve gotten to know more about distant friends’ lives. I’ve even discovered that I’ve missed an important appointment. And none of this was in my email box, which is crammed enough as it is. This is good on a micro level. And this is potentially important on a macro level.

I suspect that when the next Twin Towers catastrophe occurs, those on a Twitter network will get important and potentially life-saving alerts (“A plane just hit the second tower!”). Remember: On 9/11/01, when the voice lines of cell phones were jammed and inaccessible, and the electricity was off, the last goodbyes were sent to loved ones via cell phone SMS text messages. Grimly, this form of communication was still available, for brief, real-time expressions of fear, resignation and undying love.

If my suggestion of Twitter having that kind of utility shocks you, I must say it shocked me too. But it is also something that follows a clear path. Anthropologist Danah Boyd stated recently that initial web sites — we’ll call them Web 1.0 — were about ideas. With web sites and simple emails, people who didn’t know each other before became acquainted around shared interests and passions. Web 2.0 is all about people. Since the web has become ubiquitous (at least with the majority of the young, and 100% of the world’s information workers), you could keep connected with nearly everyone you know, and even have them broker introductions to those you don’t know (the magic of MySpace and Facebook “friends” and LinkedIn “connections”).

So what is the coming Web 3.0 about? Place.

Or, more importantly, place and time. Who is where I am right now? Other systems like Dodgeball hinted at this promise of a real-world / virtual network. Twitter expands on that promise. It is about place in a big way.

If you want to spend some mindless computer time, check out this Google mash-up of the Twitter public timeline. That will remind you of how quickly this world is shrinking … and help to demonstrate the global, and univeral, appeal of Twitter.

Finally, I offer this challenge. I want to see if Twitter can help me get acquainted with some interesting, like-minded marketing types. So I’m going to do a little experiment: I’m posting my Twitter posts to the world for the next week, and see who might want to add me to their Twitter Friends list. Specifically, I want to know how many people I could get to know. Can I connect with individuals whose flotsam and jetsam would make for an interesting and instructive complement to the Tweets I’m receiving now? And can some real business conversations come of it?

I’ll let you know.

ShopText promises to make print ads more useful for impulse purchases

The promise is scintillating: You’re paging through a magazine or newspaper, or you encounter an out-of-home ad (even, perhaps, a digital billboard), and you decide you simply must have that product. You type a six-digit short code into your cell phone, send the number a text message with a keyword, and after a verifying second text is received and replied to, your product has been ordered.

The consumer wins by getting the product, and the marketer wins by fulfilling what may have been a passing whim. It’s the QVC network without ever going near a television or talking to an operator.

That is the promise of ShopText, as described in a recent New York Times article.

This technology’s potential audience is substantial. Everyone is aware of how ubiquitous the cell phone has become in our society. But what may be surprising to many is the fact that two out of every five users has sent a text message from their phone. According to recent M:Metrics statistics, 39.2% of cell phone owners send a text message at least once a month.

Now imagine that you are paging through a newspaper and you see something about the latest Harry Potter book — the one that is being pre-sold now, and will be delivered in the early summer. And then let’s just say that you’re a huge fan of the series, and want to see if Harry dies in this concluding volume. And finally, let’s say for the sake of example that once you’ve pre-registered with the ShopText site, all you need to do is send out a text message, directed to the short code “467467” (think of short codes as cell-phone-specific mini phone numbers). The actual text message would be easy to type because it contains only one word — “Potter.” Done! That’s all you need to do to lock in your pre-release book and have it mailed to you when the official release date arrives.

As you may have already surmised, this is no idle example. It’s exactly what I did, about four hours ago. The purchase took less than a minute. Time will tell if I become a satisfied customer, and even a repeat user. But since I really did want to lock in a copy for this new book, but kept forgetting to do so, this service fulfilled a real need that I had.

What are the implications if this mobile purchasing system fulfills lots of other people’s needs, and truly catches on?

Well, imagine trade shows where you can have samples and brochures sent back to your home or office (on the vendor’s dime of course). Or you could “buy” free or nearly free samples that you read about in display ads. These samples could be of just about anything — from cosmetics to pet supplies.

I find this incredibly exciting.

Watch this space to find out how this new consumer experience turns out for me. In return, I promise you I will be as objective as possible. Oh, and I won’t blab about Harry’s fate, if my copy arrives before you have a chance to read it yourself.

I am boldly going on record now, though, to make two predictions about future purchases:

  1. If this quick, convenient way to purchase on impulse lives up to its promise, I definitely will be buying lots of other things this way 
  2. Regardless of the above, Harry will be buying the farm

You read it here first.

Twitter’s sudden celebrity will soon become a fight for relevance

Twitter is a way to broadcast via your cell phone or computer. What do you broadcast? Whatever is immediate and local. You disclose your thoughts, observations and whereabouts — and anything else you can fit within a 140-character limit text message. Here’s an unofficial Twitter wiki. Its Press and Media section has links to some of the latest buzz on this social media app.

Twitter appeared quickly and will, in my opinion, flame out just as fast. Once it has died back down to a glowing ember, I suspect it will reside where it seems most suited: with younger students and others with plenty of time, a big friends list, and a high opinion of their own text-messaged voices.

Because your cell phone can get deluged with “Tweets” (one attendee of the SXSW conference in Austin reported receiving 3,000 of them during her time there), it appears that most people finally turn the mobile feature off. Who of us, after all, has an unlimited text message plan and a high tolerance for deleting messages as fast as they arrive?

But turning off the ability to receive these messages on my cell phone takes away one of Twitter’s major appeals: The ability to “microblog” from anywhere, and read other people’s insights dashed off from whatever house party or night club you weren’t able to get to.

I’m always looking at these phenomena for how they might bubble up into the generations of working stiffs who are hoping technology can aid their productivity — or ease their workday the way a smoke break used to when more people smoked.

This technology has me curious, but unless there is some improved way to filter the spamming effect I don’t see Twitter as surviving the battle for mainstream relevance.

April 17, 2007 — An update:This weekend I succumbed. I needed to experience Twitter for myself, especially since I was reading intriguing comments on other people’s blogs, including this one. Keeping the mobile component turned off, I created this account: (yes, I dropped my name’s trailing “e” — it’s a silly Monty Python joke).


I’ll do a new entry soon with my thoughts.

You to your cell phone: I’m feeling lucky

If you want to watch your friends hyperventilate, just suggest that someday soon marketers will be monitoring their behavior on their cell phones, both in terms of buttons pressed on the device, and places the device is carried. Be kind, though. Resist the temptation, and don’t add that it may already be happening. Right now.

And so you don’t freak out right along with your friends, let me reassure you of two things:

  1. I am not doing this monitoring. No way. Honest.
  2. Those who are don’t care about you. They use totally anonymous data.

They have no interest in what you’ve been up to — if it doesn’t involve legal commerce. Ultimately, all they want to do is make your cell phone more valuable in your pursuit of the next purchase.

Mediapost recently interviewed GoTo CEO Lee Hancock about the future of behavioral targeting in the mobile phone space.

He talks about a world where your cell phone serves up relevant ads and opportunities the same way that (for example) Gmail, the email account from Google, serves us ads based on keywords embedded in our messages. In both cases, an automated process eavesdrops on you to a certain extent, but only in the service of customizing the user experience. It’s a good thing. And, I’m sure, this cell phone behavioral profiling will be something consumers can opt out of once it is refined and deployed for real.

How would this particular type of monitoring improve a cell phone experience? Here is Mr. Hancock’s example:

One way [that] interest, behavior and location [data] could work seamlessly together is: Say someone has downloaded Madonna song ringtones and goes to the movie menu frequently. An entertainment company promoting a new Madonna movie can target based on that content and behavior, but also focus on the specific movie theater near where that user is. Then a Starbucks nearby having a special Frappuccino offer can target their promotion or a Barnes and Noble nearby the theater can promote a new Madonna coffee-table book. Very powerful stuff, but obviously something that needs to be done responsibly.

My take on this is that it shows promise, but I wonder how these messages will be presented to the user. We know that cell-based ads are not drawing strong responses when they are embedded in a phone’s web browser. And I, for one, would not want an SMS (text message) ad showing up on my cell phone every time I pass a Starbucks or music store. No, I need to initiate the suggestion process and be ready to consider the opportunities it presents.

A Modest Proposal

What if my cell phone had a single, additional button. When pressed, it “rewards” me. The reward it sends my way would be customized, as Hancock describes, based both on my behavior and where I am physically.

Please bear with me a moment. I’m going to make another Google comparison to illustrate my point.

When that search engine was new, it usually delivered more relevant and correct search results than competing search engines, including the goliath Yahoo! directory.

Google was boastful. The search page ballyhooed this advantage by providing two “Search” buttons. These buttons remain to this day. One delivers the top ten results, as most other search engines do. The other button is called, “I’m Feeling Lucky.” It takes you to the top result. Period. If you’re disappointed, you always have the “Back” button. But more often than not — especially back then, when the web was a smaller and simpler place — you got what you wanted.

That Google button is not something I use, but I’m sure for many it is like the food lever in Skinner’s classic box we learned about is Psych 101. That lever delivered a pellet of food each time it was pressed. It trained lab mice to associate a reward with this action.

Now imagine I’m the mouse — er — consumer. I’m in a mall, let’s say, and I’ve got a few minutes to kill before my wife returns from a shopping sortie. And I figure: What the heck. I press the button on my phone … the “I’m Feeling Lucky” button. And I receive via SMS a list of offers that I am likely to welcome. I may even act on one or two of them.

Will this be a game-changing feature on my phone? No.

But like Dr. Skinner and those lab mice, the behavioral targeting geniuses will have caused me to associate the gathering of this type of data with a positive outcome: The delivery of customized goodies that I truly welcome.

The “Lucky” button will connect me in a far richer way with my surroundings. I’ll receive merchants’ offers, yes, but also, possibly, news about nearby friends who have also opted into the system, or even tips on events in the neighborhood that may have passed my notice.

I like it. The button feels right to me.

How about to you?

Would you press such a button? Are you feeling lucky?

Mobile phones just want to be free

Your cell phone is capable of doing far more than you realize. Okay, not your phone specifically, but your model of phone could have been manufactured to perform some pretty useful tricks. These include preserving your contacts list on your computer, allowing you to more easily share photos and other media, and even tell you what talking on the device is costing you that month, in real time. What’s stopping this progress is not in dispute: Phone companies are scrambling to find ways to charge for these services.

It’s a story that sounds familiar. Two weeks ago I was fascinated to read all of the takes from readers on my music industry post. Its premise was that CD sales are falling because of a changing business model, and this changed way of doing business might be better served by removing digital rights management (DRM) protections. It’s an appealing idea if you’re Apple CEO Steve Jobs, who recently posted an essay, called Thoughts on Music, proposing this change. And it’s a terrifying idea if you’re a typical music label executive.

Similarly, if you’re Columbia law professor Tim Wu, you call the removal of cool features from a cell phone “feature crippling.” He presented a paper to the Federal Trade Commission last month, where he makes a compelling argument for using legislation to free the phone manufacturers to innovate. Currently, the features they build into cell phones sold domestically are dictated (he would say stymied) by the big wireless carriers: Verizon, AT&T / Cingular, Sprint Nextel and T-Mobil.

Mr. Wu makes his case on his blog, and in an interview on this week’s On The Media podcast. He calls the atmosphere “restrictive” of any significant application innovation, and quotes one mobile application developer who characterizes the atmosphere these restrictions have created as, “a tarpit of misery, pain and destruction.” Working every day with bright, imaginative application developers and designers, I can understand this developer’s frustration. Your cell phone really does want to be free.

The crux is how are these innovations to be paid for? Each new feature requires additional support, and that support has to be offset by increased revenue. And although new features offer an opportunity for greater profits, how do you get consumers to pay for them as a service? This argument was made in the On The Media piece by Chris Guttman McCabe, the VP of regulatory affairs for CTIA, The Wireless Association. He ultimately says regulation should not be imposed because competition and the free market is working in this industry, albeit slowly. Even Mr. Wu admits that although each of the big wireless carriers are restrictive, the degree to which they restrict this innovation varies greatly from one to the other.

It’s a tough quandary. I got extremely excited about the Microsoft Zune when I thought it could allow for the free exchange of music files and podcasts. Then I learned that DRM deals restricted sharing to “three plays or three days,” whichever comes first. After that the file you’ve exchanged goes away, even if it’s an MP3 produced by a struggling garage band that posts the very same MP3, for all the world to trade, online. Similarly, the new Apple cell phone, due for release this summer, is designed to work for only one carrier, AT&T / Cingular. That’s a big limitation.

Meanwhile, as the free market sorts this out, I’m using hacks to play music on my cell phone, and I’m using shareware and an expensive connection cord to sync my contacts list with my computer — even though both use Bluetooth. And if you want to see the photos I took last night? I only hope you use Verizon. Otherwise I can’t text them to your phone. Not at any cost.

Voice recognition arrives one solution at a time

The Smart ShopperVoice recognition seems to be a theme in my life lately. I just finished setting up Naturally Speaking on my wife’s computer, so she can save wear-and-tear on her joints by dictating instead of typing. Then I read a piece by David Pogue of the NY Times, about another terrific productivity tool: Voice mail services that take your calls and convert them into email text, for you to review, sort and save. Finally, I read about the device pictured here, which allows you to rattle off the groceries you need and have it assemble your marching orders as a finished list.

Someone has already commented on the engadget blog entry where I learned about this device that it will fail. The reason: You can buy a lot of groceries for its purchase price.

As a marketer, I would disagree for two reasons:

  1. The long tail — We’ve observed that nearly everyone listens to music, yet relatively few listen to any particular artist. Some really obscure artists have made successful careers for themselves, thanks to lowered distribution costs.* Because of this same long tail phenomenon, a $150 device will be bought by enough people to be a success, especially because the concept behind it is sticky.**
  2. It helps ease a reviled chore — In my entire life I’ve only known one person who actually enjoys buying groceries. Just one. Everyone else just wants the stuff to magically arrive in their kitchen. Although it doesn’t go that far, this Top 10 New Product winner (at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas) does help family members collaborate on a job almost nobody enjoys.

I predict it will do quite well. I’m also confident that this is the beginning of a trend in technology. There will be more voice recognition tools, helping us get more work done. And more often than you might imagine, they will be combined with the cell phone. Sooner rather than later.

In November I was speculating that some day in the distant future, mobile voice recognition would help automate the construction trade. This past week has made me think this future is closer than anyone might imagine.

*Watch for a post from me later this week on the future of the music industry, as music labels become nothing more than the distribution arm that a recording artist needs to survive.

**Watch for another post this week on the art of making a product or concept sticky. It’s a review of a great book that expounds on the last third of Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point.

As long as you’re stuck in traffic, can we talk?

Actor, comic and screenwriter Steve Martin wrote the character of God — or at least an omniscient sage — into his 1991 romantic comedy L.A. Story. This is car-centric Los Angeles he’s talking about, so the voice of God wasn’t in the form of a burning bush or an intervening angel, but was the flashing lettering of a freeway sign. Instead of the sign reporting the typical warnings of delays, it gave the lead character personal advice and admonishments. Our star eventually heeds these digital messages, and his own personal heavy traffic magically lifts for a happy Hollywood ending.

Digital BillboardI was reminded of this when I pulled to a stop at a notoriously busy intersection near my home. There, in the muted half-daylight of dusk, was a glowing billboard so rich in color and crisp in detail that it almost seemed to open my door and climb in beside me. I was riveted.

This was a new digital billboard by Lamar Advertising. Both Lamar and competitor Clear Channel Outdoor have posted these LCD boards in my city, along with many others. Over coffee this past Sunday, a friend of mine mentioned the sighting of one of them. They are noteworthy enough that their arrival gets people talking.

It also got me thinking.

LCD billboards grab attention by their picture quality and brightness, and also by the fact that they can rotate ads as frequently as every six seconds. These boards have helped fuel incredible growth in this ad category, called out-of-home advertising. The category is second only to Internet ads in terms of its growth. These boards have also fueled traffic safety concerns, as reported in this recent New York Times article:

“There’s a perception in the advertising industry that you have to up the ante,” said David Zald, assistant professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University. “We see so much information coming at us that for it to actually leap out and capture our attention, one has to go at a more salient level than you used to.”

But, he added, “there’s a trade-off between the advertiser’s need to grab our attention and the actual safety implications of that attention capture.”

It’s a real concern, especially when the signs are new to a particular roadside. But the danger caused by their novelty will fade. Perhaps their introduction can even be made less jarring by slowing the rotation time — less to gawk at, and thus, more time to think about driving.

What really got me thinking was how a formerly analog medium can work harder when it goes digital. I’d like you to consider for a moment a digital billboard that’s smart enough to anticipate traffic speeds and potential dangers. There are a couple of methods being tested now using things like anonymized cell phone signals to better understand in real time the traffic speeds and conditions of pinpointed stretches of road. Using this sort of information, the signs could respond. When traffic speeds up, rotation could be throttled back.

Now take that traffic-sensitive capability a step farther. Remember, these digital billboards have essentially taken a two-dimensional ad medium and added the third dimension of time. Driven by a computer, anything can be served up on a board, and changed at any time (sometimes the computers fail, with comical results).

What if, when traffic slowed to a crawl, a message was flashed that drivers could respond to immediately, with their cell phones. When you’re bumper-to-bumper, it’s easier to manage a phone conversation and still remain safe. This slowly passing line of drivers would be flashed direct response offers that they have the capability — and free time — to respond to immediately.

Anything that eases their frustration with the wait would drive interest and action. As a public service, and as an added incentive to make the call, the end of the recorded message that consumers would hear would be specific information about the cause of the slow-down — an accident, stalled car or construction — along with verbal instructions on what might be done to ease the slowdown.

Is this smart? Dumb? I’d like to know. What do you think? One thing I’m quite sure of. This idea absolutely cries out to be tested.