Monday, November 13, 2006

Moving Targets

The other day, my mobile phone beeped to tell me I had a text message. This usually means someone I know is trying to reach me, so I grabbed it and looked to find... a message from Cingular (my provider) telling me about international calling rates.

Typical irritation marketing, with an extra annoyance factor: I've carefully opted out of all such advertising messages. It seems that every company periodically decides to ignore its customers stated preferences and do this. (It's been happening repeatedly with AT&T, our local phone company in Texas; no matter how many times you tell them you don't want email, they just keep sending it. My only conclusion: their marketers are idiots.)

I was going to write about here, but then I thought, Wait, this all seems strangely familiar. And so here is a post from two years ago. The more things change, the more they stay the same...


The language of marketing is filled with some unfortunate metaphors. We've all talked about out targets - you know, that audience that we're trying to reach. When we hit our target we expect them to respond in certain ways. There are whole disciplines of marketing that are concerned with getting those targets to react to our marketing in predictable ways (that result in revenue).

It's easy to forget that those targets are people just like us. This week I had one of those helpful reminders of what it is like to be on the other end of marketing - to be the target.

A few months ago my mobile phone started buzzing at me. I had a new text message. I have several friends with whom I exchange regularly text messages. We have conversations that are a bit like IM, but spread over hours and days. I looked at the message.

This message was not from a friend; it was from AT&T Wireless, my mobile carrier, and it was informing me of some contest I could participate in that involved a pop group of interest to no one over the age of 30. At the end of the message were instructions on how to opt-out of text messaging marketing.

I went to the URL specified in the message and followed the instructions to opt out. End of story, right? Wrong. A few weeks later I got another message, this time about an extra-fee service I could use. Once again, I opted out.

A few weeks later, guess what? Yet another advertising message from AT&T Wireless.

These things are annoying to begin with. For a marketer, they are doubly annoying; not only are you getting pestered by spam text messages on your mobile phone, but you are being reminded that some marketer out there is doing something really wrong, and making it harder for the rest of us. This time, I called the AT&T Wireless customer service line and asked for help.

After about half an hour on the phone, a representative assured me that the problem was solved, and I would not be getting more of the text message spam.

This week, it happened again; I received a message telling me about a service to help identify song titles using my mobile phone (at a dollar a pop).

What's happening here? Someone in the marketing group at AT&T Wireless decided that the text messaging capabilities of their customers' mobile phones were an ideal ad delivery channel. This was their first error. It's not surprising to find this kind of thinking from a telecommunications company; this is an industry whose reputation for treating customers poorly is legendary (and well deserved). No one at AT&T Wireless seems to have stopped and thought, "Would I want my mobile phone interrupting me with advertising messages?" It's even more irritating than garden variety telemarketing, because with mobile phones, you're likely to get the message while driving, or while you're in a meeting (this was the case with one of the offending messages in my case), or at some other inconvenient time.

So AT&T Wireless went ahead. Someone apparently realized that if you're going to start a campaign to massively annoy your customers, you need to give them some way to get out of it, so they added opt-out instructions to the messages and set up a web page for opting out.

Unfortunately, that web page doesn't seem to connect to any system for then actually opting out of the messages. I visited the "customer support forum" on the AT&T Wireless web site, where customers can post messages to discussion boards about questions or problems. Sure enough, I'm not the only one who can't opt out and make the spam stop; this is not some isolated problem, but just dumb marketing combined with a broken system on the part of AT&T Wireless.

There is, though, one way to opt out of the messages, and that's to opt out of AT&T Wireless services altogether. I've talked to friends who use other mobile carriers and none of them are having this problem.

Now, I have been a happy AT&T Wireless customer. I like my phone. I am very happy with the coverage and reliability of their network. I am happy with my bill; the rates are not the cheapest out there, but they are quite reasonable. I spend nearly $100 a month with AT&T Wireless. Now, in a misguided attempt to get a few more dollars out of me, their marketers have succeeded in convincing me to switch carriers and lose my business altogether.
This is bad business in a market like wireless services, where penetration is high and carriers are fighting over pieces of a fairly mature market.

What marketers have to remember is that the "target" is actually a group of people. When you send marketing messages to that target, you're not feeding information into a black box and seeing what comes out the other end. You are making a permanent and possibly damaging impression on that target, and if you are not careful, that target will respond in unexpected and perhaps damaging ways. Such as deciding not to do business with you anymore.

When you're marketing to your own customers, you need to be even more careful.

Next time you are trying to predict how the target market will react to your program, stop and do a reality check. If you are using some new medium that may be seen as invasive or annoying, be very careful, and do a small text. Think about whether you'd want to be part of that particular target.

Or just ask. For example, AT&T Wireless could have offered me unlimited outgoing text messages (which costs them almost nothing) in exchange for opting in to receiving advertising messages at a reasonable frequency. I pay for my text messages, and probably would have said yes to that. (I don't pay much, but it's something; and when I received those ad messages, I would have thought, "Well, this is what I have to get to send all those free messages.")

Unfortunately, the marketers at AT&T Wireless didn't about people receiving advertising text messages; instead they thought about target markets and incremental revenue and treated their customers like passive recipients of advertising, rather than people with whom they had a business relationship.

I'm not sure what the text messages cost them to send, but in the case of this customer, the net revenue is negative $1200 per year. Anyone feel like calculating the ROI on that program?

1 comment:

Mary Schmidt said...


Here's another one for you. I recently re-upped with Verizon Wireless. For some reason they felt compelled to treat me as a new customer. So, I get a very long voice mail about setting up voice mail. The message was extremely garbled - and they wouldn't let me skip or delete it! So, I had to chew up valuable time listening to a message I didn't need and couldn't understand anyway. Sigh...

Oh, and when they dunned me for a late fee I was told it's my responsibillity to pay the bill whether I get one or not. After all, I can go online or use my phone to do so. Sigh II...But, yep, they're "always working for you."