Marketers Targeting Mobile Buyers

Plain-text promotional messages are transmitted to opt-in recipients

With the wireless Web still more myth than reality, online marketers arent waiting for everyone to have a WAP phone—or for wireless device manufacturers to settle on another standard—to reach the mobile audience.

Last week, New York startup PlanetHopper Inc. launched its Digital Deals service, which sends plain-text marketing messages, coupon codes and special offers from entertainment venues to users who opt in to the service.

Any digital wireless phone or Palm OS device loaded with PlanetHoppers free software can receive the messages.

The company already has 25,000 subscribers to the service and more than 200 partners that use the service for marketing mostly bars, restaurants, clubs, theaters and sports teams. While the service remains concentrated in New York, it has some users in Cleveland and will expand to central Florida next month when it begins delivering wireless promotions for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

"When you call someone whos on a wireless phone, the first question you ask them is, Where are you? The second question you ask is, What do you want to do? We answer that question," said Rachel Barenbaum, founder and president of PlanetHopper.

Barenbaum said PlanetHopper will embrace wireless Web advertising as the technology becomes available. But for now, its sticking with a simple format that users of almost any digital phone or handheld can access.

"Its simple text messages. People get it; its for [the wireless devices] people are using now," Barenbaum said.

PlanetHoppers advertisers pay from $35 to $50 a month up to "tens of thousands" a month, depending on the scope of the campaign theyre running with the service, Barenbaum said. PlanetHopper hopes to take the service nationwide and expand from entertainment into retail, she said.

One of PlanetHoppers partners is New York-based Hangover Media Inc., which publishes Sheckys Bar, Club and Lounge Guide, a review of bars in New York and Los Angeles, for the Web site and print directory. The guide will soon expand to Chicago and Boston.

Sheckys guide can be downloaded to digital wireless devices along with special offers, such as for food and drink, delivered by PlanetHopper.

"We give them a vehicle to place their deals," said Chris Hoffman, president and founder of Hangover Media, which gets a cut of the deals it helps PlanetHopper deliver. "It seems to be going over pretty well with our readers."

Opt-in plain-text promotions are in use elsewhere in the wireless world. The Palisades Center Mall, in West Nyack, N.Y., introduced its Go Power Shopping program in November, using technology from GeePS Inc., in Cranbury, N.J.

While seeks to develop location-based wireless commerce services, using Global Positioning System satellite technology, the Go Power Shopping program is a better example of technology that works today.

The malls more than 20 million annual visitors can register on Palisades Centers Web site ( or through kiosks in the center and indicate the stores and categories from which they want to receive promotional messages. The messages appear on the media the consumer chooses—WAP (Wireless Application Protocol), SMS (Short Message Service), voice or e-mail. The mall promises that customers will receive only the messages they ask for and that their data wont be sold to third parties.

For the past holiday shopping season, about 10,500 shoppers signed up for the wireless promotions, requesting offers from more than 200 of the malls stores, though only 50 of the stores participated, according to Palisades Center General Manager John Mott.

Mott said the stores ran the same promotions they ran through other media such as direct mail and print advertising, so its hard to tell how effective the wireless promotions were.

"Its still an evolving process," said Mott. "The retailers need to view this as a separate medium and treat it with the same discipline as other media.

"It costs them 5 to 10 cents a message to reach customers who have opted in, whove said they want to hear from them, as opposed to 34 cents a customer to send a direct-mail item. The retailers, from the top down, need to come to grips with the fact that this is an opportunity to do local marketing."

Online businesses are taking advantage of wireless opt-in marketing as well. Alerts Inc.s, which sends its subscribers notifications of content changes at Web sites, such as news updates or product price changes, extended its service to wireless devices late last year, again using simple plain-text messages that users of SMS- enabled wireless devices can choose to receive.

Air2Web Inc., of Atlanta, provides the service. also offers messages in WAP and WML (Wireless Markup Language) formats but is getting few takers for those services.

"Were pretty agnostic about it," said Michael Jones, president and CEO of Alerts. "Well give people whatever they want to sign up for, but, right now, just about everythings SMS. We offer WML and WAP, too, but theyre just proof of concept more than anything else."

With little demand for WAP- and WML-based services—not to mention slow wireless network speeds, in the United States, anyway—plain text, as in the early days of the wired Web, rules the day.