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One of my favorite things to do in presentations about mobile and the future of marketing is to replay the scene above from the movie Minority Report (play above), in which Tom Cruise walks through a subway station and is bombarded with personalized 3-D ad units that scan his pupils and attempt to entice him to buy one of many products. Director Steven Spielberg actually got help from the MIT Media Lab to come up with the advertising concepts used in the movie. The movie was set in 2054, but here, today, aggressive companies want to make it a reality now. They dream of a world where our mobile devices are alerted to coupons, deals, and promotions as we walk by store fronts. Last week AT&T showed off such a mobile couponing concept at its Tech Showcase. But here’s the reality for today and tomorrow: These ideas will fail completely.

At the link below you can see a very short video of the AT&T concept, which is consistent with an idea that dozens of futurists, entrepreneurs, and big marketers hope will come true one day:

Next time you hear someone claim that this is the future of advertising, kindly beg to differ. The big problem with this concept is that people don’t like to be interrupted by advertising! I know, I know; it’s hard for us lifelong marketers to deal with, but it is absolutely true. To put this in perspective, let’s imagine that you could give out your home phone number to any number of marketers, and when these marketers have a “great deal” for you, they could call your home phone and speak to you when you answer, or leave you a voice mail message. Sounds great, right? Not really. In fact, more than 76% of Americans have registered their home phone numbers on the National Do Not Call Registry, which shows two problems with this future scenario.

First, the telephone is a very personal tool that people are extremely protective of. We look at the phone as our window to the world, our way of communicating with the people who we want to talk to. We own our phones and our numbers; we even pay to keep these numbers by moving them from phone to phone and address to address. It is literally a lifeline in some cases. When Congress overwhelmingly passed the Do Not Call Registry legislation, they established the fact that a telephone line is something that the homeowner “owns,” rather than a public space such as the street in front of your house. And this and other laws have ingrained the “right to phone control” in people’s lives.

The second major issue is the fact that when we let marketers start sending “valuable” messages, it’s highly likely to be completely irrelevant and annoying. Let’s use email as the analogy in this case. Soon after marketers gained the ability to send email to customers and prospects, they discovered that they could reach many, many people at the push of a button and at near zero cost. When you have freedom to advertise at no cost, the result is unbridled junk. And despite great data about the value of personalization, most marketers are lazy and would rather just spam millions and hope that some small percentage opens the email and buys a product. And I’m talking about big, reputable marketers here, not just the common spammers.

Doubt me? Well, take a read of my post on how Banana Republic is sending me emails about women’s boots. In this Minority Report world, why would Banana Republic do anything differently? In this AT&T future, when I walk by its store in the mall they will send me the same irrelevant offers that they’re sending me now. And it will take only a handful of these lazy, valueless messages before I unsubscribe to this entire mobile marketing app or end my contract with whatever mobile service is pushing it on me. And even if they do something personalized (say for men’s shirts), the chances that I will be in the mood to stop in the store when I am going about my life and trying to get things done is extremely small. Sure, one walk by out of 100 might find me in the buying mood, but that means 99 messages will simply annoy me.

This brings me to some of the special reasons that mobile is the last place such a service could succeed. The mobile phone is even more personal and private, and people are scared to death that it will be taken over by marketers. A few data points from recent studies by ACNielsen:

  • Mobile marketing was judged to be the “least trusted” form of advertising by consumers in 47 countries.
  • Only 10% of people responded to ads in a test.
  • 67% of people found it unacceptable to have ads on their mobile device.

We consumers really shouldn’t worry about the interruptive mobile future, because it faces two giant barriers. First, the mobile-service providers know that it would be suicide to force such an advertising medium on their customers. Thankfully, we have several choices in which company we go with for service. If any one of them starts spamming, then the move to alternatives would be swift. And there’s just not a ton of money for the AT&Ts of the world to reap from advertising, either. They make $50 to $100 per month on service. But at even a CPM rate of $100 for this “high quality impression,” you would have to hit people with many, many ads for this to earn a few bucks per month.

The second barrier to this future is the highly likely legislation that governments would pass to prevent this from happening. The Do Not Call Registry was the biggest slam-dunk bill passed during George Bush’s eight years. Congress loves to pick on advertisers because their constituents are sick of 3,000 ad interruptions per day, and very few people are going to defend the rights of a group that is respected at about the level of used-car salesmen.

Finally, let’s remember the barrier to all of the greatest ideas in the present and future of marketing: It takes forever for businesses to try something new. People envision a service like this to be a boon to small businesses, but here’s the reality: Small businesses don’t have a lot of marketing dollars, and they are the last to try new marketing. I love how one sandwich place near our office started using Facebook to spread the news of its daily specials. But these are few and far between. Not to mention the fact that they have been using a very, very low-tech way to share offers and promotions with people as they walk by: the sign!

So as much as we marketing geeks think it would be cool to intercept potential customers as they stroll by our stores, this idea is DOA. I think the only possibility for it to work is for services that are completely opt-in. Foursquare is one company that hopes people who have time to kill and want to see some offers will open its app. This is going in the much more meaningful direction, as it means the consumer is choosing to engage. That said, this is an idea on the small side. A store might get one person a week who has the app, logs into the app, sees a special he likes, walks in, and decides to buy.

I’m an enormous believer in the potential for mobile to connect customers and marketers in meaningful ways. But let’s file the Minority Report future somewhere along flying cars and remember to put ourselves in the customers’ mindset first.

One Response to “AT&T Tries to Reach the “Minority Report” Mobile Future”

  1. Ryan Moede says:

    Nice post, Bob, and count me among those working to make sure this 3D spam never comes true! I do, however, see a lot of hope for services like Foursquare, and I’ve really enjoyed taking advantage of the timely and relevant offers from restaurants and bars when I’m out and about.

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