Wednesday, March 31, 2010

"This is twilio"

Text the word TWILIO to 617-744-9926 and you will receive a simple reply - “This is twilio”. At first glance this is a basic SMS auto-reply service, but underneath it may signal a major shift in SMS service provision in the USA.

People have been talking about twilio's new SMS service over the past month, so I decided I should check it out. Last week we started up a UA account and secured a local twilio number. Out of curiosity we performed a carrier lookup on the number and found that it is registered to, a VoIP service provider and national CLEC. Next we used twilio's API to connect the number to our mobile application platform and now we have a full suite of interactive SMS services running over a standard 10-digit phone number (aka long-code).

So why is this important or interesting? Because it gives people the ability to deploy a commercial SMS application or service without having to secure a short code! As I cited in an earlier post on vanity short codes, a dedicated short code costs $500-$1,000 per month just for the lease fee. Add on top of that the aggregator and service provider fees and the costs quickly mount. Not to mention that it takes 8-10 weeks to provision a new short code across the carrier networks.

Before using twilio for SMS services though, people should also take into account a couple of disadvantages compared to short code based services. First, the cost of messaging is most likely higher than when using a short code service (twilio currently charges 3cents per incoming/outgoing text-message). Second, the throughput is throttled to 1 message per second, where on a short code the throughput usually starts at around 5 messages p/s and goes up from there.

Shared short codes provide another alternative, but pricing for keyword routing is not exactly inexpensive, and there is always a possibility that the carriers will shut down a shared short code if one of the services is not in compliance (see recent case with Clickatel)

Will the carriers also try to disconnect twilio's SMS services? I am not an expert on the telecommunications regulations involved here, but I think it might land the carriers in hot water with the FCC if they tried.

-Steve Nye

Monday, March 29, 2010

Show Me the Data!

In the marketing world, good data is not easy to come by. Many marketers operate according to their guts. Those who are visually creative, or just plain gifted, can often get away with that. For the rest of us, the scramble for data is a never ending quest. We work with mobile and we see the positive effects that mobile marketing has on for our clients-- and we know our existing clients are happy because they are always coming back for more campaigns. But how do we convince those who have not yet dipped their toes in the ocean of mobile marketing that mobile produces results? Quantifying which ideas are working, and how much better they are than the last campaign, is often difficult. Last week I shared some macro-data about SMS usage among the general population. This week I’ll provide some thoughts and data on mobile marketing campaigns that have been chronicled in the past year or so.

First up is the Pizza Hut campaign which ran in Pittsburgh in April 2009. More than 12,000 texted in after a television spot prompted viewers to use text for a chance to win free pizza for a year. Here we see the importance of a traditional advertising call-to-action –mobile marketing is one part of the marketing mix. In this case the interactive portion is blended with the traditional marketing format (broadcast television) with great results. (For a variety of reasons, the most important of which is that we want to maintain our stellar record of carrier compliance, Unwired Appeal does not offer "Forward" campaigns to our clients.)

Next is the brick and mortar campaign run by “Faith” in the UK in February of 2010. The perhaps risky thing about this campaign is that double opt-in was NOT used – all of the messages that were sent out were sent using an opted-in mobile database. Though we don’t find out whether any customers complained about the service, we do find the a promising short-term metric: Revenues during the promotion period. Apparently revenues were up 47% during the Friends and Family promotion.

The last case study was for a car dealership in Jacksonville, FL. In this case, double opt-in *was* used. We find data gold in the double-opt in acceptance rates: Just under 10% of the text message recipients opted to continue receive additional alerts. Those 10% were the equivalent of lead gold for the dealer’s salespeople – here is the ultimate target demographic: People who asked, twice, to receive more information about new cars, and people who willingly gave their phone numbers in order to be contacted for more info.

The devil is often in the details in any marketing campaign, and mobile marketing is no exception. In these case studies, so generously provided by Mobile Marketer, we get a rare glimpse into tactics that the mobile marketers are using. Sharing data like this makes the industry, as a whole, stronger.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Vanity Short Codes - watch your CTA

As a follow up to last week’s introduction to common short codes (CSCs), this week we’re taking a look at vanity short codes.

When you lease a short code (either directly from the CSCA or through Unwired Appeal), you are asked whether you would like to choose a vanity short code number (kind of like a vanity license plate) or receive a random number. The CSCA charges $1,000 per month for a vanity short code lease and $500 per month for random short code lease. (Unwired Appeal charges the same rates).

The two main reasons to spend the extra money for a vanity short code are:

1) You need a specific number series (generally easy to remember like 212121, 90909, etc.), or

2) You need a phoneword – the alphanumeric equivalent of a specific number (e.g. 466453 spells 'GOOGLE' on the telephone keypad).

We often provide services for agencies that need specific phonewords for branding purposes. The short code number needs to be the alphanumeric equivalent of the campaign sponsor or needs to “spell” something associated with the campaign. For example, 46835 spells 'INTEL' on the cellphone keypad or 69348 spells 'MYFIT'.

While it is a great idea to use vanity short codes for branding purposes, people often make a mistake in their implementation. It is very tempting to kick-off a campaign with a call-to-action (CTA) that states something like “Text your weight loss goals to MYFIT!”. The problem with this is that people don't always understand that they need to send their message to 69348. Instead people try to send messages to the alpha translation, and this won't work. Phones like the iPhone compound the problem by defaulting to letters instead of numbers in the “To:” field when a user is drafting a new text-message.

When creating any call-to-action, make sure you list the actual short code number. Its fine to make the alpha translation part of the overall branding experience, just make sure that it is clear to your audience that they need to use the actual number when texting. Failure to do so could leave your campaign grounded.

Check out cool phonewords at CSCA.

Next up...the big debate on shared vs. dedicated short codes.

- Steve Nye

Friday, March 12, 2010

Mobility Marketing 101: What is a Short Code?

Let's say you are an advertising agency that has typically worked with clients in the offline, brick and mortar and fixed-line web world. You have great relationships at the Yellow Pages, you know how to get an ad on the side of a bus, you can do a web banner buy, and you've worked PR with newspapers for years.

One day, one of your clients asks you how to incorporate mobile phones in your advertising mix. In a panic, you Google "mobile phone marketing" and come up with a slew of options: Mobile web banners, mobile content delivery, mobile interactive, and short codes. Where to begin? In my opinion the quickest, easiest way to get started in mobile marketing is with what's called a "Short Code".

If you are a mobile phone owner, a short code is the 5 digit number which you enter in the "To" field when you send a text message as part of a marketing event or promotion.

How do you find out that the short code exists, and why would you send a text to a short code? Mobile phone owners (otherwise known as wireless subscribers) send messages to short codes for many differences reasons; to request information about a product through a URL, to sign up for alerts, to vote in a poll, or to receive some sort of content such as a ringtone or a coupon.

Companies, brands, non-profits, and other organizations let consumers know about the existence of the short code through what's called a "Call to Action". A call to action might be at the point of sale "Text 52121 for more information about our upcoming 75% event" or flashed on a TV screen "Text 'Chevon' to 52121 to vote for Chevon!"

So where does a text that is sent to a short code go? And what does Unwired Appeal have to do with any of this? Unwired Appeal is what the industry lovingly refers to as an "Application Service Provider". Application Service Providers lease the short codes from the carriers (T-Mobile, Sprint, Verizon, AWS et al), set up software to receive and process the text that is sent to us via the short code, and send some sort of relevant response or content back to the subscriber who sent the message. A picture of this process looks like this:

It's a fairly simple, yet effective, technology. That's probably why of the 2.6B USD spent on mobile marketing in 2009, over 2.3B was spent on text messaging. (JP Morgan)

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Behind the Curtain - who is running things?

I was reading Keith Kelsen's new book “Unleashing the Power of Digital Signage” and smiled when I found his discussion around a couple of interactive campaigns serviced by Unwired Appeal. I told this to a friend who in turn asked why UA wasn't mentioned as a service provider. I had to explain that UA operates somewhat like the Wizard in the "Wizard of Oz". Hidden away behind the curtain, pushing buttons and pulling levers, creating amazing sound and light shows for the audience.

The campaigns that Kelsen talks about are Verizon Wireless's “Droid Does Times Square” campaign and the BBC's “Develop a Point of View” SMS voting billboard. The truth is that there are often a number of agencies and service providers behind the scenes making these campaigns come to life. It got me thinking though, maybe I would go back to these campaigns and outline who put them together.

“Droid Does Times Square”
(YouTube video)
Running on the huge Reuters/Nasdaq signs in Times Square, this month-long campaign allowed Times Square visitors and internet viewers to control the signs with just their voice (promoting VZW's launch of the Droid and its voice-rec capabilities). Dial a toll-free number and in minutes you are telling the signs what to search for in the Times Square area with the results displayed on a 50' Google map. Pretty impressive. Oddly, there were only a few companies involved in this one:

  • Verizon Wireless: the brand
  • TimesSquare2 : Reuters/Nasdaq signs and creative
  • R/GA: digital sign technology
  • Unwired Appeal: front-end call-processing, SMS messaging
  • Akamai: live video streaming of Times Square

BBC “Develop a Point of View” SMS voting billboard
Check out Dan's post
for a full description of this one and how Glenn Beck helped get the word out. To the best of my recollection here are the companies that put this together:

  • BBC: the brand

  • BBDO: the agency
  • AtomicProps: sign installation, creative, project management, etc. - these guys really pulled the physical pieces together
  • Van Wagner: billboard real-estate, installation, and maintenance
  • Electric Display: digital counters installed in the billboard to tally vote counts
  • Unwired Appeal: SMS voting service, carrier connections, etc

Next....Intel's “Share Your Vision” campaign where there were more agencies and service providers than you could shake a stick at.

-Steve Nye

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Importance of Carrier Compliance

Last week Clickatell sent an urgent notification to their clients in the USA:

We are experiencing significant connectivity problems resulting in non-delivery of messages to U.S. destinations. We do not currently have an ETA for resolution. We will issue a more formal statement soon.”

It didn't take long for them to realize that the wireless carriers had decided to disconnect virtually all of their USA short codes, blocking all incoming and outgoing SMS traffic. Carriers routinely audit short codes to ensure that the services are carrier compliant, and a short code can potentially be disconnected if a compliance issue is not resolved in a timely fashion, but this is the first time that I have seen a leading SMS gateway provider have all of their USA short codes disconnected at once.

I have worked with Clickatell for several years and it is a top-notch company. They have a long history in the worldwide SMS business and have built one of best international SMS gateway services in the world. It is unfortunate that the individual wireless carriers would take such immediate and draconian actions, I can only assume that the infraction must have been pretty serious.

Typically a carrier will first issue an “audit violation” when they find an SMS service to be non-compliant. The application provider or short code lessee is then given a period of time to bring the service into compliance. In only a few extreme cases have I heard of immediate disconnections, and never an across the board disconnection of multiple short codes.

Clickatell states the problem arose from the abuse of the platform by “a handful of rogue customers making use of shared shortcodes”. Herein lies the risk of using shared short code services. When there are a large number clients running services on one short code without sufficient safeguards in place it is only a matter of time before something falls out of compliance and the carriers take notice.

Back in 2004 Unwired Appeal deployed a US-based shared short code service with attached self-provisioning platform. Clients could go online and set-up their own SMS alerts, voting events, text-to-win sweeps, and trivia games in just minutes. Back then there was little regulation as the carriers were still working on their standards and the Mobile Marketing Association had yet to open their USA office. But the environment rapidly became much more strict with new carrier requirements coming out every week. It was quickly apparent that it would be impossible to allow customers to deploy their own SMS service and keep them all compliant. So UA pulled the self-provisioning service from the market.

But there are quite a few providers out there offering fairly unrestricted use of shared short codes, often with attached self-provisioning services. Its hard to see how they can keep everything within compliance, but its pretty clear how serious the consequences can be when they don't.

- Steve Nye

Postnote: Things a looking up a bit as I had a note yesterday that Clickatell has managed to reconnect their clients' dedicated short codes to all major carriers except Sprint/Nextel. It seems that their shared codes remain on the sideline for the time being though.

(you can read the Clickatell FAQ here