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Commentary: Are Wireless Marketers Pushing Into the Abyss?

A few years ago, the industry and Wall Street were convinced push technology was The Next Big Thing. IPOs were floated and virtually every big name in computing got into the act before push went bust.

Now, wireless marketers are convinced they are laying the golden egg. Mobile e-commerce and wireless marketing and advertising are white hot, much as push once was.

It would be silly to think wireless marketing will go the same way as push. Mobile Net access is a very different -- and, over the long term, much more compelling -- than push.

However, m-commerce vendors and wireless marketers still are figuring out how to make money from this new medium. And those folks are ignoring the lessons of push, a mistake that is potentially harmful to the entire industry.

Consumers Aren't Convinced

That point was brought home by a fascinating study by The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) that found many consumers who try m-commerce quickly give up on it. The study noted two problems: The wireless user experience stinks and wireless operators have created false expectations about the mobile Internet experience.

The same day that study appeared, Ericsson released a study claiming that consumers prefer wireless advertising to radio and television advertising. Hopefully, e-business vendors take the BCG study seriously and take the Ericsson study with a grain of salt.

As a former marketer, I am suspicious of industry-sponsored studies that heighten the awareness of participants before the study begins. In the Ericsson study, people knew they were being studied and, therefore, became early adopters. Similarly, in a just-started study conducted by SkyGo in Boulder, Colorado, 1,000 participants are being given wireless phones.

Positive results are much easier to come by if you heighten participant awareness and give away something of value beforehand. Push vendors used this same ploy in touting their wares, which drew media and investor interest but which did nothing to change long-term consumer behavior.

I have no doubt that m-commerce eventually will become large. However, while the Ericsson and SkyGo studies may accurately describe behavior of consumers who already have bought into m-commerce and wireless marketing, they ignore the problems pinpointed by the more unbiased BCG study. As push vendors learned, you must overcome the barriers to widespread adoption before behavioral studies are truly useful.

Opt-In Isn't Enough

Wireless marketers wisely have adopted an "opt-in" approach for location-based marketing that pushes messages only to those who agree to receive them. After all, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that floods of unsolicited advertising and offers will tick off users who aren't receptive to them.

Again, however, there are some important lessons to learn from push, which also used the opt-in model. As was the case then, wireless marketers now are using an opt-in push model.

Eventually, push consumers found the information intrusive, even after they opted in. If pushed content such as news and other personalized information was intrusive on desktop who opted to receive it, how intrusive will pushed opt-in ads be over time on teensy phone screens?

Two Possible Solutions

The only way we'll know how well wireless marketing works is to actually try it on everyday consumers. Here are two suggestions based on the failures of push technology that may foster acceptance.

First, give users the option of pulling the information. That is, don't deliver the offers and advertising to phone or handheld screens automatically. Instead, let them press a button to get it only when they want it.

With this approach, if a consumer is going to lunch and wants Italian food, he or she could quickly press a button on their phone to learn which Italian restaurants in the area have lunch specials. This approach is entirely non-intrusive and is