Apres Idol, La Deluge: Text Spam Goes Mainstream

The New York Times today reports of a mini-uproar over AT&T’s decision to send a (free) text message to a large number of its subscribers, promoting American Idol (of which it’s a prominent sponsor).  Welcome to the next advertising battleground:  mobile devices.

This is a hugely attractive field for advertisers, offering key advantages over desktop-centric ad models (and I include laptops in that desktop-centric universe for the most part).  First of all, AT&T targeted the large number of people who had previously texted an Idol vote (along with “heavy texters”), thus obviously reaching a highly qualified group of people based on previous behaviors.  While it wasn’t the case here, mobile advertising increasingly offers the potential to exploit awareness of the user’s location and, particularly on SmartPhones, context (e.g., knowledge of calendar and contacts).

This is going to be an intricate dance.  Users treat their mobile devices differently than other computing platforms, considering it more “intimate.”  Thus, intrusions via spam-like communications, even if they incur no cost (as was the case with the AT&T case), are viewed more seriously than spam populating your email inbox.  Thus, the burden to deliver value is much higher on the mobile platform lest you risk offending users, not benefitting them.  On the other hand, users are increasingly going to have to understand that their value to a large portion of their personal “value chain” is predicated on someone’s ability to monetize the relationship.  In AT&T’s case, if they can’t increase your propensity to text message, you’re less valuable to them than someone who they can reach, and that ultimately will reflect how much you’ll pay for services (and products) and even what range of offers will be presented to you.

Welcome to the “ubiquitous eBay” world, one where we will be buying and selling privacy and information explicitly and implicity.  This AT&T dust-up is little more than a harbinger of things to come.  No one likes intrusions.  The challenge going forward will be how advertisers and merchants figure out how to turn these new customer outreaches into true value propositions for the user.  All it requires is a whole new approach to advertising, one with benefits to all parties.