My mother's birthday: A lesson in direct marketing

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For the past eight years I have unsuccessfully tried to convince my mother to buy a new cell phone. Don't go back and reread what you just read (yes, eight years). My mother's Nokia is of the Zack Morris variety; it lacks a flip screen, a keyboard, a color screen, and it does not allow for Internet access. But my mother, the loyal and proud woman that she is, refused to upgrade, even as phones became slimmer, slicker and smarter.

She brushes off the jokes (“Is that your house phone?”) and defends her Nokia as if it were my sibling. And why shouldn't she? Her Nokia produces crystal clear reception (“even on Subway platforms,” my mother has told detractors) and it's more durable than she and I ever realized a phone could be (its claim to fame is surviving unscathed a plummet onto a marble floor from five feet in the air.)

If it ain't broke…

So imagine my surprise when, on the week before her birthday, she accepted my request to buy her a new cell phone. She would finally part ways with her Nokia and take a step forward into the technological future.

Her requirements were simple: She wanted a light-weight, user-friendly phone with a large touch-screen. She sees no need to ever use her phone to go online, so she wanted to stay away from anything that requires a data plan. Done. Easy. No problem.

We went to her local Verizon Wireless store where she was dazzled by two phones that perfectly fit her requirements. (Full disclosure: Unfortunately I don't remember the names of the phones we browsed. I didn't realize this venture had a marketing element to it until a few days later.) She picked them both up, felt their light weight, and approved the fake display stickered onto the screen. The price was right too (mom worries about my budget): both were only $50 dollars after a mail-in rebate.

The day had finally come. My mother, after eight years of reading a blue and green screen, would finally have a sleek new phone.

Not so fast.

The Verizon Wireless clerk who had patiently helped us wade through what we thought were our options informed us (after a making a phone call) that the two phones my mother had selected were both discontinued. Could we get them online? No. At any other Verizon Wireless store? No. Why are they still on display? I don't know.

There were only two other touch-screen options, but one was too small and the other too ugly. The clerk attempted to show us the smart phones, of which there were many, but my mother informed him that she wouldn't be buying a data plan. He also steered us toward the flip phones, but flip phones are basically the undergraduate version of Zach Morris' high school phone. No thanks.

We both decided it made no sense to upgrade until she was ready to make the jump to a smart phone, which Verizon will apparently force her to do when (if) her Nokia ultimately short circuits. After all, if you had to choose between an iPhone and a flip phone from the George W. Bush era, even if you didn't plan on using it to browse the Internet, what would you choose?

This anecdote is a roundabout way to inform direct marketers that it's time to start investing in smart phone campaigns - it was really time a year ago but you can still catch up. According to a study from the Winterberry Group, mobile advertising spend increased 30.8% in 2010 and will climb to $1.2 billion in 2011. A lot of that spending is SMS but mobile apps and mobile Web are where the future of direct marketing is, according to this humble journalist. These figures will ascend dramatically in the next few years as consumers adopt, or are systematically forced to adopt, smart phones. (Look for my Q&A with Winterberry Group Managing Director Bruce Biegel in this week's upcoming Database/CRM Newsletter for a discussion of the future of direct marketing. Dude's a genius).

As for my mother: She's content with her Nokia. She's prepared to hang onto that clunker for the foreseeable future. And why shouldn't she be? They've been through a lot together and it hasn't ever let her down. (I liken it to direct mail).

Either way: Marketers, get ready to start spending on smart phones.

And Mom: Happy Birthday!

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