Killer App of Wireless: Community

In the early days of the telephone, marketers thought they could entice consumers by turning the telephone into a broadcast medium. They set up public phones in small towns and broadcast news, sports, even sales announcements over their wires.

While novel at the time, these services quickly waned in popularity as the telephone was seen more as a social device. Conversation, gossip and mundane chatter became the killer apps of the day and helped spread the adoption of telephone service nationwide.

Today, as mobile telephone usage explodes and new mobile services become available to an increasing mass of consumers, marketers once again are looking for the killer app. And once again, many of them are barking up the wrong tree.

Is content king?

The mobile phone as it exists today is a terrible content device. Its screen is small, its keyboard awkward and its speed slow. But these facts have not stopped a raft of start-ups and international conglomerates alike from falling over themselves to provide wirelessly surfable versions of Web sites and to develop mobile content in wireless application protocol. They seem more concerned with what this new technology can do than with how people actually use it.

The early telephone pioneers were not the only group of eager marketers to jump blindly into a new technology with the notion that content would rule the day. Though the early Internet thrived on e-mail proliferation and newsgroup message boards, that did not stop everyone, from Time Warner to Microsoft, from developing elaborate content for the new medium — content that failed to attract users and ended up flushing millions of dollars down the drain.

Meanwhile, free e-mail services, instant messaging and homesteading sites such as GeoCities exploded on the scene because they harnessed the true power of a global network — the power to share ideas and communicate with other people better, faster, more easily and on a larger scale than ever before.

Talk soup.

It is important to keep in mind that most consumers use mobile phones for talking and little else. That is why they bought them.

It is no wonder, then, that the killer apps of the wireless space are the ones that take full advantage of how mobile phones are used and that revolve around communication and community, just as they did in the Internet space. Technology that allows for text messaging and wireless application protocol browsing is best put to use when it serves the purpose of community and allows its users to do what one does in a community: share, create, participate and communicate.

For consumer brands to reach out to their audiences, to grab their attention and influence their purchase behavior, they must build themselves into the fabric of lives that are becoming increasingly mobile. A phone that beeps with a coupon every time you pass a Starbucks is a nuisance; a wireless forum for planning coffee breaks with friends that is brought to you by Starbucks is not.

By the same token, a gift certificate that shows up in your e-mail box unannounced is never as welcome (or as successfully redeemed) as one that has been forwarded to you by a friend who knows your tastes better than you do. By providing a catalyst for communication, a brand provides motivation for action — and this is never truer than in the mobile space, where the only information that matters is information that you can act on right now.

Mobile communities.

What does a mobile community look like? An example: You leave your house on Friday night and get a text message on your phone telling you that a band you want to see is playing nearby. You get a message from a friend who also got the band alert, asking whether you plan to go. You do want to go and send a message to another group of friends asking whether any of them are interested.

On your way you receive a message that your mother has sent to the whole family asking if you would like to have dinner Sunday night. You quickly reply. Someone has sent a message to a group of pop culture enthusiasts asking what brand of retro ’80s sunglasses the group might recommend she purchase. Someone else beats you to the reply and lets the group know that a new store just opened on Canal Street with a slew of vintage shades.

This is not a vision of the future but a description of activity happening right now on mobile phones. And you don’t have to have some next-generation phone. A handful of companies are providing community services like the one described above.

Granted, it is still early in the game, and like many new communications technologies, it is young people (the coveted Gen Wireless demographic) who will flock first to such a service. But because it is early, there is much land to grab.

In the case above, the band alert could have come from Sony, Ticketmaster or Pepsi; the group your mother started for your family could have been sponsored by the Family Channel or McDonalds; the pop culture group could be a service of MTV, Old Navy or Maxim.

Consumer brands have the most to gain from becoming a part of these mobile communities and claming this valuable real estate. Now is the time to stake out your ground and be at the forefront of the wireless revolution.

• Greg Clayman is vice president of marketing and co-founder of Upoc Inc., New York. Reach him at [email protected]

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