Why You'll Hate Cell Phone Spam

By Mike Elgan | Posted April 14, 2008

Advertisers are all atwitter over the prospect of bombarding your cell phone with advertising.

If you’re already annoyed by mobile spam, as I am, you’ll be disappointed to learn that the industry has barely even begun to exploit this amazing source of eyeballs.

One estimate suggests that your average consumer is already exposed to about 3,000 ads per day (New York City residents see about 5,000 per day). The problem with this figure, according to the advertising industry, is that it's way too low. They intend to fix the problem by adding lots of ads to your cell phone.

Much of this advertising will be very sophisticated behinds the scenes. It will be targeted based on geography, for example. They’ll know where you are, who you are – and try to lure you into nearby stores and restaurants. They’ll send mobile e-mail, SMS messages, MMS messages and recorded voice messages. Those ads will link to Web sites, and back end servers will track your “responses,” feeding that data back to advertisers.

Cell phone spam is a “perfect storm” of annoying attributes. It audibly interrupts your life like telemarketing. It’s cheap to mass-produce like e-mail spam. And it holds you hostage like TV ads.

There will be more than 4 billion cell phones to target by the end of the year. Yet cell phone advertising represents just about 1 percent of the total money spent on advertising. eMarketer projects that the $421 million spent on cell phone ads in the United States in 2006 will grow to $4.7 billion by 2011 and exceed $6.5 billion in 2012.

Advertisers speak of an ominous sounding “paradigm shift” in mobile advertising, where more of the spam will be multimedia, targeted and tracked.

However, a consensus is forming based on studies conducted by a variety of potential players that cell phone users want advertising, and lots of it. But these are based on contingency questions, such as, “If you got very relevant advertising informing you about goods and services you would really want to use, would you like to receive it?” Then some percentage less than 50 percent respond with “yes.” But you know that once the floodgates open, and the spam comes rushing in, everyone will hate mobile advertising.

One use for ads will be subsidized services. We may very soon see major carriers offering free wireless service in exchange for ads. Those ads will pop up in the middle of YouTube videos, or play at the beginning of phone calls.

As with other kinds of advertising, there will always be a disconnect between people who want the ads and consumers the advertisers want. Anyone who doesn’t mind littering their cell phone experience with commercials in exchange for cheap or free connectivity probably don’t have a lot of money to spend, and is therefore not a great target for advertising.

Advertisers imagine that they can pull off Amazon.com-levels of relevancy in advertising, and make the ads go down like sugar water. Some marketers are talking about respecting the privacy of users and putting consumer in control of what they get and when. Do you find that reassuring? I don't. Even if some ads are desirable and useful, the irrelevant junk mail will come pouring in, too, and turn us against all spam. It’ll come not only from Madison avenue, but China, Eastern Europe, Russia – and often in languages spoken there, rather than English.

Like lambs to slaughter, the cell phone using community (i.e. everybody) has no idea what's coming.

So while marketers, advertisers and even carriers are plotting the destruction of the nearly ad-free cell phone nirvana we now take for granted, we should be working equally hard to figure out how to protect ourselves from the coming onslaught. Never give your cell phone number to anyone. Let your carrier know that you won’t tolerate cell phone advertising of any kind. And support any movement or legislation that seeks to block or criminalize mobile advertising.

Adapted from ITManagement.earthweb.com.

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