Happy Birthday To… Us

David Murphy

Murphy's Law Nokia1 November 2005 may not be a date that holds much significance in many people’s lives, but for us, it was something of a Red Letter Day, the day that Mobile Marketing Magazine first opened its doors for business, with a mission to inform the world about this then-new and largely untried marketing channel.

It started as a Typepad blog, but I was determined that it wasn’t going to be the mobile marketing world according to me, but rather a place where we could aggregate news, views and opinions about the industry, for the benefit of everyone in it.

To my mind, it seemed obvious that if brands could get it right, get the consumer’s permission, this could be one of the most powerful, personal marketing channels ever. I think the companies who got into the mobile marketing game early – both on the brand and vendor side – shared this view, and 10 years on, the sophistication of the devices, the networks and the algorithms is finally making this vision a reality.

A lot has changed since then, of course. Back in 2005, Nokia and BlackBerry ruled the handset roost; the iPhone was but a rough sketch – if even that – in Sir Jony Ive’s notebook; programmatic and native were a long way from taking their bow on the nascent mobile advertising stage; and Twitter? Twitter didn’t even exist. #Really?

Twitter launched the following year, in fact, as did mobile ad networks AdMob and Millennial Media, followed by Mkhoj, which launched the following year, and subsequently rebranded as InMobi in 2011. So what landmarks stand out when you look back on 10 years of mobile marketing? Without rifling through the archive to remember all the things I’ve forgotten, here are a few.

SMS rules
In the early days, SMS was more or less all there was. A few years ahead of our launch, Russell Buckley and Helen Keegan launched their ZagMe proximity marketing platform at Bluewater shopping centre in Essex. Consumers opted in to the service, then when they were headed for Bluewater, they sent a text with a number to indicate how many hours they would be there, enabling retailers who were part of the scheme to send offers to their (mostly Nokia) phones via SMS during that period. With the benefit of hindsight, it might look somewhat crude on one level. On another, you could argue, it was mobile marketing distilled to its simplest form.

The company failed, as many startups do. It was ahead of its time, but it was also unlucky. A new funding round was on the verge of being agreed on the day of the 9/11 attacks in New York. The investors got cold feet. “They made the right decision for the wrong reasons,” Buckley told me many years later. Earlier this year, writing in his column in our print edition, he also said the experience had taught him that it was a mistake to pay consumers to receive advertising.

“ZagMe had a loyalty aspect to the service, where consumers would receive money for every advertising message they received,” he wrote. “While this clearly made sense to me at the time, it did help me formulate my thinking and I’ve become adamant that this is fundamentally the wrong approach. Many others have subsequently tried a variant of rewarding consumers, but none (to my knowledge) has ever really succeeded at any scale, so I remain very sceptical of the model.”

I would echo those thoughts wholeheartedly, and as the industry grapples with the ad-blocking issue, I’d recommend them to anyone who thinks that any sort of value exchange that involves paying people hard cash to look at ads is fatally flawed.

Boy bands and Orange Wednesdays
If you weren’t following mobile marketing back in the mid-noughties, you might be surprised to hear that boy bands played a significant role in its early days. I may have the names wrong, but I vividly recall the pages of Smash Hits featuring full-page ads for the likes of Boyzone and WestLife, inviting gullible teenagers to opt into their text clubs in order to receive regular updates on what the boys were up to, all for just 50p a pop.

On the subject of gullibility, no review of the early days of mobile would be complete without a passing reference to Jamba and Crazy Frog. But that’s as much as it deserves.

Better to focus on the good stuff, like Orange Wednesdays, created in 2003, back in Orange’s pioneering days, with much of the credit due to Flytxt, the original mobile marketing agency, still going today, but now primarily offering a mobile marketing automation platform for mobile operators, having sold its agency business to Buongiorno in 2007. Orange Wednesdays, meanwhile, having done so much to introduce the UK public to the idea of promotional text messaging, and been aped by other operators around the world, saw the curtain fall for the last time in 2014.

WAP is…gone
It’s tempting to jump from the world of SMS – still going strong today, though under threat from myriad OTT services – straight to the word of apps, but again, no review of the early history of mobile marketing would be complete without a mention of WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) and the phrase that still resonates with many companies for whom WAP was their first experience of mobile marketing: "WAP is crap".

WAP was the mobile internet before the world, and the handsets, and the networks, were ready for it. Just as many brands thought they were going to need a presence on Second Life (look it up, youngsters), so many brands thought they needed a WAP site. Those that built one found that actually, it was a bit of a waste of time – slow to load, unappealing to look at when it did, and guaranteed to frustrate, rather than delight, anyone with a phone and a data plan to access it. Arguably, it did more to hold back the channel’s development than anything else since those brands who tried it subsequently shied away, thinking that if this was mobile marketing, they’d give it a miss, thanks.

A more engaging, rich media-type option was the Java brochure - to all intents and purposes an app before apps existed – which the user downloaded to their phone in order to explore the delights of whatever it was being used to promote. The only problem is, I can only remember one company – Peugeot – that ever used them, though they did use them with alacrity for a couple of years whenever they had a new model to launch. Also, to their credit, they did the rounds of the conference halls, telling their peers and their competitors what they were doing, why, how, and how it was working for them.

Any industry in its nascent stages needs the trailblazers, not only to blaze the trail, but also, to share their successes and their failures, in order to help those following in their footsteps to avoid making the same ones and so advance the art. For that, belatedly, Peugeot and the double act of Kristian Cholmondeley and Jon Carney from the agency that did the work, Marvellous, we salute you.

And while we’re handing out the plaudits, let’s also spare a moment to applaud the UK’s smallest mobile operator 3. When you’re smaller, you have to try stuff. 3 still offers some of the best tariffs out there to my mind, but I single the company out not for this, but for its X-Series tariff, launched in 2006, the first all-you-can-eat data tariff, designed to encourage mobile users to go online on their mobile.

Enter the iPhone
If Java brochures didn’t catch on, mobile apps definitely did. But before Apple launched the App Store in 2008, of course, it launched the iPhone a year earlier. At this point, I’d like anyone relatively new to the world of mobile phones and mobile marketing to pause for thought for a moment. If your only experience of mobile handsets is a smartphone, it’s difficult to gauge the impact the iPhone had when it was unleashed on the world.

Before the iPhone, the world was largely full of ‘Mars Bar’ phones from Nokia and BlackBerrys. The BlackBerry was as close as it got so anything resembling a smartphone, alongside random offerings like the Nokia Communicator and the Motorola RAZR. When the iPhone came along, I would imagine the CEO of every other handset maker on the planet called a board meeting and said something to the effect of “WHY THE %&*! DIDN’T WE DO THIS?”

You have to remember, at the time, Apple was not in the handset business. It was in the PC and music player business. And out of nowhere, it produced a thing of beauty, that arguably did more than any one other thing to kickstart the mobile marketing industry. Now brands had a decent canvas on which to paint their marketing pictures, via apps and mobile advertising. The iPhone caused other handset makers to raise their game, and got us to the point we’re at today, where consumers are faced with a bewildering choice of handsets, which, combined with affordable data plans and increasingly ubiquitous wi-fi, offer them a beautifully rich window on the world, while at the same time enabling brands to reach them on the go in increasingly sophisticated ways.

And that, largely, has been the story ever since really. Apps and advertising. On the app front, brands have been, and still are, struggling with the issues of how to get their app discovered and downloaded in the first place, then how to make it engaging, interesting or useful enough to keep the user coming back to it, while at the same time integrating it with their website and back-end CRM systems in order to personalise the content and the messaging they deliver through it. This last point is a current hot topic.

On the advertising front, programmatic and native are the mots du jour, yet still the vanilla-flavoured banner persists, and in an industry where clickthrough rates of less than a fifth of one per cent are celebrated, I guess it always will. Remember direct mail, anyone?

Ad blocking
Until recently, this creativity issue was arguably the biggest one the mobile ad industry faced, and the solutions to address it, in the form of rich media and 3D ad units, are there for those advertisers willing to invest the money in them.

But now, ad blocking poses a much bigger threat, and it’s going to be fascinating to see how the industry responds. Ever since the advent of the PVR, consumers have been able to skip ads, but never before has it been so easy for them to block them altogether. In established media like TV and radio, the value exchange is so ingrained in the consciousness that it barely registers. The ads are just there, part of the deal. But in the online, and in particular mobile world, which is more susceptible than online to the quality of the connection, more and more people realise that there is a way to get rid of those annoying ads, and guess what, it also makes the page load much quicker.

I heard a few people at the recent IAB Engage conference suggesting that the answer is to make the ads more engaging, entertaining, less annoying. Personally, I think it’s too late for this. I think if digital advertising survives ad blocking, it will be because the publishers who provide the content we are all used to accessing for free in return for looking at/ignoring ads make it clear that if you’re going to block the ads, you’re not going to see the content any more.

But what do I know? What does anyone know in fact? Trying to predict the future of an industry where things that look surefire winners crash and burn and things that look to have no legs at all turn out to be world-beaters is a pointless task. Which is what makes it such a fantastic industry to cover.

However long you’ve been with us, thanks for sticking with us. Here’s to the next 10 years.