Stuff We Can’t Do Here Yet

By Mar 01, 2008

You can watch David Beckham score goals in Los Angeles, but if you want him on your mobile phone reminding you to “say goodbye,” you’ll have to go to Hong Kong International Airport.

You can drink tea to relax and soothe your mind, but to get a daily mobile alert and a brain-building puzzle over your handset, you’ll need to head to China with a camera phone.

And while you can watch “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” on the Fox Network here in the United States, in order to sic Terminators on your friends — and show them on their cell phones how close the assassins are to their real-time locations — you’ll have to get yourself to London.

Welcome to the world of advanced mobile marketing, otherwise known as Stuff We Can’t Do Here Yet. Many of the most innovative mobile-based promotional campaigns have been developed far from the U.S.

The reasons for this offshore creativity are well known. Blame telecom fragmentation (four major wireless carriers in Europe on one tech standard, for example, vs. a dozen over here and three competing platforms). The more than 200 handset types that U.S. carriers offer customers, each with different capabilities, stunt the potential for wide rollouts.

And you can even blame the fact that the mobile experience here is constantly compared with broadband Internet — usually to its disadvantage. In many parts of the world, a mobile device is the gateway to the Web.

These obstacles may disappear in time, as American telcos come to believe that the ad revenue that’s made Google an earnings star might start filling their coffers, too. With that day in mind, here’s a small portfolio of grandmaster mobile gambits that might soon turn up in your inbox.


Mobot specializes in applying visual search and recognition technology to mobile marketing campaigns, and has worked with U.S.-based brands such as Starbucks and the A&E Television Networks. For example, users could photograph any ad in the late 2006 print issues of Elle magazine and then send those photos in an e-mail to a Mobot address. The company used image-recognition software to detect the products in the photos and added those items to the user’s Web wish list.

The problem is that attaching photos and sending e-mail over a cell phone can be troublesome and prone to error. Mobot’s proprietary technology allows users to transmit photos to a short code via multimedia messaging service (MMS). Unfortunately, sending MMS content from one U.S. wireless provider to another is still a clunky patchwork of intercarrier agreements.

As a result, Mobot has deployed its most advanced technology in overseas markets that can more easily deliver large numbers of consumers who’re reachable by MMS.

The Lexington, MA-based company is currently running a promotion for the launch of the Australian version of the “Deal or No Deal” TV show that prompts cell-phone users to take a photo of an outdoor or bus ad for the show and send it by MMS to a simple short code. In return they get a video teaser and a message that directs them to a Web site offering a downloadable mobile version of the game.

“Our technology can give the significant traditional media ad campaign for the show a third dimension that really makes it interactive,” says Mobot CEO Russell Gocht.

Sending those photos via MMS and short code rather than as e-mail attachments is what makes such efforts a hit, Gocht points out. Mobile campaigns are meant to impress with a built-in fun factor, but there’s nothing fun or easy about typing in e-mail addresses. And mobile e-mail gets less-than-first-class routing through carrier gateways, meaning users can expect unacceptably long waits for a response.

Gocht says Mobot is testing short-code MMS capability with individual carriers in the United States and predicts that his company and other service providers will be able to offer virtually nationwide service in the first half of this year. That coast-to-coast coverage will be attractive to national brands and a relief to Gocht personally.

“Frankly, we’ve been hearing that this capability is two to three months off in the U.S. for the last two years,” he says.


Global mobile isn’t all beer and skittles overseas. Some markets present the same infrastructure and handset challenges that wireless campaigns face here, and campaigns designed for those markets must try to maximize their reach by including a wide range of phone and service capabilities.

Unilever brand Lipton wanted to roll out a new tea beverage last year in four Asian markets: China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan. And The Hyperfactory, a global digital agency that worked on the campaign with Tribal DDB, knew that while large numbers of customers in those markets had high-speed 3G mobile service, just as many had less advanced connections. The agency also was aware that devices in the markets were a mix of high-end smart phones and handsets without cameras.

Subsequently, two-dimensional icons were used on all the campaign creative for the Lipton Hirameki black-tea blend, from outdoor and transportation ads to print and packaging. Phones with cameras could shoot those icons and send them to a short code where they would be read using image recognition. A daily brain teaser tied to the product’s claim as an energy drink was then sent back to the user. Consumers could set a scheduled time for the puzzles to arrive over their phones.

“We were careful to make the tech as inclusive as it could be,” says Geoffrey Handley, Hyperfactory co-founder and business development officer for the Asia-Pacific region. “If your phone didn’t support photos, we provided an SMS channel to register and sent back a series of three quiz questions as a text message every day, quirky and related to the product. If you were in a market like Hong Kong that’s served by a 3G network, you got a little video or a downloadable game for your phone.”

That same tech inclusiveness played a much larger role in a 2006 effort The Hyperfactory helped engineer to plug Motorola’s RAZR mobile phones in the newly opened Hong Kong International Airport. Together with Ogilvy Hong Kong, the agency designed a campaign that used large digital billboards in the central terminal area.

When phone users entered the space, they received Bluetooth-transmitted messages from international soccer star Beckham and Chinese pop singer Jay Chou encouraging them to “say goodbye” to someone they were leaving behind in their travels. Users could then snap a picture or shoot a video of themselves, add a short text message, and send that content to the massive screens for all to see. The messages also were forwarded to the phones of their loved ones.

The campaign was even more successful than its creators had expected. Tens of thousands of messages were sent from the airport to more than 30 countries, and Motorola’s RAZR sales jumped 12% during the two months of the promotion.

“From a technology point of view, this was nothing special,” Handley says. “We used what was available and packaged it in a way that gave everyone a fulfilling experience, whatever the limitations of their handset or carrier, so that no one felt left out.”


If U.S. mobile marketing needs a holy grail, location-based services might fill the bill. The prospect of running ads and promotions that reflect where the recipient is at that moment is tantalizing. But while U.S. carriers can pinpoint customers to within approximately 50 to 500 feet, concerns about user privacy and permission have prevented them from making that data available to marketers. Lack of interoperability is another domestic barrier. Location information would have to be passed across networks, and that can’t be easily done in the United States today.

It’s another story in Britain, where creative agency 20:20 London has worked with mobile service provider Incentivated to publicize the United Kingdom debut last month of “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” on the Virgin 1 channel.

To build buzz around the show, the agency set up a Web site (www.terminate-a-mate.com) where users can enter a friend’s name and cell-phone number. That pal then receives a video message saying the Terminator robots have arrived and are hacking into the phone system to track him down. Sure enough, the message includes a garbled Web map snippet that shows his exact street location, the program’s logo and air date.

Permission to release the location is given by the friend who visits the site, in compliance with British regulations, according to Incentivated commercial director Robert Thurner. Neither agency retains the location or phone data.

“We’re relying on one individual to nominate another to get this message,” Thurner says. “We’re not simply sending out to large volumes from a blind list, and therefore we’re on the right side of the law regarding viral marketing.”

And the ability to personalize a mobile message — and what’s more personal than knowing where you’re standing at that precise moment? — is what gives the promotion its entertaining “wow” factor, according to 20:20 London CEO Peter Riley.

“Producing a mobile campaign that’s personalized and unique to each customer is an important driver of engagement,” he says. “Giving people an experience that others don’t get is the key to success here. Mobile and online marketing have given us the opportunity to do things that are very tailored, and thus have more impact.”