May 23rd, 2008

Advertisers In Touch with Teens' Cellphones

By Alana Semuels
Los Angeles Times

As she readied for last night’s prom, Jamie McGraw asked her friends for advice about hairstyles, shoes and a dress.

She also turned to her cellphone for a little help.

McGraw receives daily text messages from Seventeen magazine about fashion, including tips about what to wear to the prom. She planned to take the magazine’s suggestion to wear a brightly colored outfit and be prepared for “dress malfunctions.” “When the texts recommend a certain look that sounds good, I will try it out, but it doesn’t always mean buying something,” the 17-year-old Laguna Niguel resident said.

Yakking teens and phones have been inseparable for decades. The difference today is that teens use their cellphones for a lot more than just talking. It has become a palm-size entertainment and information center increasingly consuming their time and attention. Advertisers are realizing that if they want to reach teens, they need their number—literally.

“They’re not watching TV, you’re not reaching them in other places,” said Andrew Miller, chief executive of Quattro Wireless, a mobile advertising network. “Mobile is where they congregate.”

This year, shy escorts can buy (for 99 cents) a preproduced video of a guy asking a girl to the prom ("We’d take amazing prom pictures together,” he says) and then send it via mobile phone to ask a girl out, thanks to Venice-based Mogreet Inc.His nervous date can visit Cosmo Girl’s mobile phone site and look at the prom section to find out how to say “No” to alcohol. And she can go to PromGirl.com to download a widget that lets her browse for prom dresses on her phone without burning up valuable Internet minutes.

It may all seem a little bothersome, but teens don’t mind receiving messages about products on their phones, says Nic Covey, director of insights at research firm Nielsen Mobile. Nielsen said teens were nearly twice more likely than adults to trust and respond to advertising and pitches on mobile phones.

“For them, responding to an ad that’s relevant by sending a text or following a link on their phone is a logical brand engagement,” Covey said. It’s so natural that the student council at Notre Dame high school in Sherman Oaks decided to invite teens to their graduation via a prerecorded video sent over a mobile phone.

Not all teens are so readily accessible, of course. Molly Nadeau, a senior at Fairfax High in Los Angeles, loves the trendy and inexpensive fashions of Forever 21 Inc., but that doesn’t mean she wants to be inundated with blurbs about its latest blouses or jewelry on her mobile phone.

“Once they have my number, I just think the ads would come 24/7,” she said. “I wouldn’t want that.” That wouldn’t make her father happy, Nadeau noted, since he pays the phone bill and her plan doesn’t allow for unlimited text messages.

Marketers claim they are sensitive to such resistance, saying that’s why they craft the ads more in terms of useful information teens would want to get on their phones.

Hearst Magazines, for instance, has developed nine different mobile sites across different magazines, including Seventeen and Cosmo Girl. Cosmo Girl’s site contains information on horoscopes, gossip, fashion, career advice and beauty tips, alongside promotions from retail giant J.C. Penney Co. and cosmetics maker Clinique Laboratories. Teens can also send a text message when they see a product they like in the magazine and sometimes receive a free sample.

“We decided we needed to follow [the reader] with our brands—wherever she is, we needed to be there with her as a source of entertainment,” said Sophia Stuart, director of mobile for Hearst Magazines Digital Media.

That means a prom section that gives girls advice on date etiquette and fun things to do aside from drinking and having sex. “We wanted to help her have a script and be there if she needs our help,” Stuart said.

Other brands are messaging their way into teens’ phones as well. Teens interested in Element Skateboards can sign up for text message alerts when there are skate events in their area, or when stores get new products. Those who want to be in the know about clothing retailer G by Guess can get text messages about sales and promotions.

“You have to take an active role in integrating a brand into consumers’ lifestyles by being in their pockets,” said Roman Tsunder, president of Access 360 Media Inc., which recently launched promotions for Guess Inc. and Element that encouraged teens to sign up to get text messages on their cellphones from the companies.

Teens don’t seem to mind the text messages they receive from the retailers. Tsunder said only 4% of people who sign up for the texts ask to stop getting them. And Miller said 2% to 4% of those who see or receive ads on mobile phones click on them to find out more information. On the Internet via computers, so-called click-through rates are generally closer to 0.01%.

Some teens do mind, however, if advertisers bug them too overtly, said Alyson Hyder, media director for California at Avenue A/Razorfish, a digital marketing firm.

“They will be quick to turn on the backlash,” Hyder said. That’s why “brands that target the teen audience are looking at more authentic ways to insert themselves into the conversation, as opposed to advertising.”

For a Nintendo Co. campaign, rather than send teens an ad about a new Nintendo game, mobile-phone marketing firm Hyperfactory published a brain teaser relating to it in game magazines. Users sent a text message to get the answer, and they received a message back with a link to sign up for alerts about the game and download free wallpaper and mobile games. The company declined to say how many consumers participated.

When Kiwibox.com, an online teen magazine, launches a service to send teens text messages with horoscopes and celebrity alerts this year, they’ll include a short advertisement at the end sponsored by different brands such as Sparq Inc., a company that designs workout training programs for aspiring athletes, and Paramount Pictures.

But it can be a thin line between the type of product pitches that teens will accept on their mobile phones and those they won’t.

Quentin Brown, an 18-year-old high school senior from Santa Monica, said he texted to vote during the National Basketball Assn.’s slam-dunk competition at this year’s All-Star game. In return, he received a flurry of text messages with offers to buy jerseys and other basketball-related stuff. He didn’t mind the texts for the jerseys, since he’s interested in them and always looking for deals. But he didn’t like getting ones about things he didn’t care about, such as asking him to join an NBA fantasy draft or go to NBA summer camp.

“They were kind of stalking me,” he said. “But then they stopped and I was glad.”

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