June 28, 2005
How To

Seven Text-Messaging Campaign Tips from American Idol Producers

SUMMARY: At long last text messaging campaigns are taking off in the US, due in no small part to American Idol's expanding three-year campaign. (40 million messages sent in the last season alone.) We contacted the producers for behind-the-scenes info on what makes mobile marketing work. Includes copywriting tips and samples (harder than you think). Plus, surprising advice about the Internet/mobile phone interaction.
As of March 2005, 65% of the US population had a mobile phone, vs 63% surfing the Internet from home, according to research from Enpocket Mobile Media Monitor US.

Roughly 40% of the 180,464,003 American mobile phone users use their phones to send and receive short text messages (aka SMS). As you might expect, younger users (18-34) are the most likely to use SMS.

So far American Idol has run the most popular SMS marketing campaign to these users -- with 40 million messages sent for the last season alone.

"Our show is successful because we invite participation, and that's what text messaging is about," says Jason Turner, Director of Interactive for FremantleMedia, which owns and produces the award-winning show for the FOX Broadcasting Company.

Here are Turner's seven tips for turning an SMS campaign into a success:

Tip #1. Create ongoing interaction (not just one-shot voting)

Over the seasons, as more consumers began to text message their votes, American Idol's campaign evolved. At first Turner simply tried to maximize the amount of text votes the show received. Next he tested ways to involve users as much as possible in order to allow them to feel a part of the program.

For example, sometimes after voting, users received a thank-you message from the host of the show:

"Cingular free msg: Ryan Seacrest here! Thanks for voting last night. U voted for: [name] [name] See the results tonight on FOX 8PM/7C."

These days, the campaign offers a wide variety of wireless, Idol-related activities to get fans more deeply involved, including: --Mobile fan club --Reminders to vote --Trivia games --Behind-the-scenes photos --Multi-player games --Contestant bios --Messages when a contestant was voted off --Polling activities -- Sweepstakes to win a trip to the finals, free ringtones, and cash.

Tip #2. Let the user be in control (no spam)

Mobile marketing has such broad capabilities that it would be easy to become overly aggressive. Marketers need to find a balance between maximizing the capabilities without stepping over the line into spam.

The user has to be in control. Make it clear when someone signs up for something, what they're going to get and how they're going to get out of it. So, as with email, allow the user to choose what types of messages they want to receive.

This meant the Idol team never assumed that because someone voted, their phone was now fair game for endless text offers. Instead, when anyone placed an Idol vote through text messaging, they received a reply that invited them to participate in other activities. In order to do so, the user had to reply to the message and could then opt in to the other programs.

Creative examples:

--"Vote received! Join the Idol Fan Club for weekly pictures, a FREE RINGTONE and exclusive msgs. Reply FAN. Std msg rates apply."

--"Vote received! Vote as many times as U like B4 voting closes. Play American Idol trivia now! Reply PLAY. 15 questions per week. Std msg rates apply."

--"Your vote was received! Vote as many times as U like B4 voting closes. Get Idol ring tones from $0.99 - Reply RING. Std msg rates apply."

The team also made opting out of any programs super-easy. If anyone sent Idol a message with the word "stop" or "end," they were taken off the list and not sent any future correspondence.

Turner explains, "We're very careful not to involve ourselves in a spam kind of relationship." Users were drawn in by the sense of invitation, urgency, community, and information. "Then we'd give them the next level of our brand interaction."

Tip #3. Cross-promote everywhere

The act of including a mobile element in a marketing campaign does *not* mean that people will get involved. In fact, the "if-you-build-it-they-will-come" mentality is one of the biggest mobile marketing misconceptions. (Remember when you thought building a site would guarantee traffic? Well, neither will offering an SMS campaign.)

Promote the services in TV, radio, print, and online.

However, the Internet is probably the least effective way to promote a mobile campaign. Turns out when you're online with a fast connection, that's when you're least likely to pick up the phone.

Tip #4. Coordinate, coordinate, coordinate

To plan and implement a campaign of this magnitude, with multiple players, daily communication (often multiple times in a day) is a must, says Turner, and having a process in place is extremely important.

Representatives from all companies including the mobile ad agency, FremantleMedia, Fox, and Cingular (Fremantle's wireless partner) had phone conferences several times a week throughout the campaign. "We'd discuss voting, the fan club, the songs going up on the Web deck, every application."

Every Tuesday when the show aired, the SMS War Room came alive. It was heavily monitored by technicians with take-out Chinese.

Tip #5. Measure it

If you thought the Internet was trackable, text messaging put it to shame. SMS is the ultimate medium because every message is trackable, each one is tied to an individual's phone number.

The Idol team has a database of every vote for every year.

Naturally this means you'll need to revisit (and probably strengthen) your corporate privacy policy. Depending on which vendors you work with, you also need to ask, "Who owns the data?"

Last but not least, with that volume of data, you'll need to decide what are truly useful reports and measurements. What can you use to improve your campaign, and what's just an interesting factoid.

Tip #6. You can't turn on a dime

Another misconception with mobile marketing is that you can turn these things on tomorrow. To get a short code to be able to text across different carriers -- that alone can take a month or two.

The most effective campaigns are those that are planned in advance. The lead time for Idol, for example, was five to six months.

Tip #7. If you can't say it in 160 characters, it's not worth saying

Text-messaging uses the art of the haiku, says Levin, and as the practice matures, it's important to understand the audience you're targeting.

For example, when reaching out to the late teens or early twenties demographic, using shorthand such as "gr8" (great) works. But for a wider audience, that will turn people off, Levin says.

Examples of Idol shorthand:

--"Welcome! Every text U send is a chance 2 win $50k! NO PURCH REQD. Odds dep on # entries. Ends 5/31. Rules @ cingular.com/rules. American Idol on FOX."

--"Cingular free msg: Play American Idol trivia & get 50 bonus sweepstakes entries when U join! Reply PLAY now! 15 fun questions each week. Std msg rates apply."

Useful links related to this article

Mobile Marketing Association -- includes links to research and best practices on mobile and SMS marketing for US and globally: http://www.mmaglobal.com

Mobliss, Inc., the mobile marketing specialist agency the Idol team works with to pull these campaigns off: http://www.mobliss.com/

American Idol: http://idolonfox.com/

Note: American Idol's SMS campaigns won the 2004 Ad:Tech awards for best wireless campaign. For more info: http://www.ad-tech.com

Improve Your Marketing

Join our thousands of weekly case study readers.

Enter your email below to receive MarketingSherpa news, updates, and promotions:

Note: Already a subscriber? Want to add a subscription?
Click Here to Manage Subscriptions