Mobile Goes Grassroots

I get my share of social and digital media newsletters to keep pace with the rapid advances of online communication. Most of the discussion these days is about the move to mobile. This month, Forrester, the pre-eminent online research group, predicted mobile shopping, known as “m-commerce” will hit the $6 billion mark this year and grow to $31 million in five years. While the story gives retailers insights for directing their marketing efforts in the future, there is little to advise nonprofit and government communicators about strategic directions. However, the report does point to expanded use of smart phones. That alone is something all communications experts can use to get the best mix in future marketing communications campaigns. That has not always been the case for mobile.

Two years ago, mobile marketers had few case studies to promote for social marketing. Advertisers experimented with mobile for their clients who could afford it and whose target audiences—primarily working professionals at the upper-middle income strata–used smart phones more than free phones. But times are not just changing, they’re moving at warp speed when it comes to mobile. No longer do the major wireless giants, Sprint and Verizon, have a monopoly on the spectrum wavelengths on which ring tones and millions of conversations ride. Upstarts like Cricket and other low-cost carriers are leveling the monthly payment field to allow poorer people to afford smart phones and the access to instant information they provide.

That is music to my ears, given the needs of budget-conscious, but underserved audiences I have sought to influence in the sectors of health, education and welfare. When Cricket advertises a $50 monthly payment plan for Internet access, texts and more, the masses have arrived in smart phone heaven. Even middle-income professionals should pause to reconsider they’re carriers after racking up wireless phone charges that look like car notes. Low-cost wireless carriers clearly recognize that “underserved” does not mean under- motivated to participate in as much of the American-turned Global “Tech” Dream as they can muster. Evidence points to both the Pew Center for Media Research and Arbitron research about Hispanics and African-Americans, being early adopters of new technology and particularly heavy users of mobile. The latest data should clearly point social marketers to the need to get moving on the mobile informing tip when putting together plans for multi-cultural and underserved outreach.

So thumbs-up to Baltimore Harbor Hospital’s communications team for tapping upstart mobile advertising company Mobilozophy, a Tampa-based company with offices in Atlanta, Boulder, Colo., and Chicago, to help reach residents within their closest zipcodes by using mobile advertising. Using mobile banner ads, SMS (text responses) and “call now” options, Harbor Hospital and Mobilozophy were able to demonstrate to nearby potential customers they were just a phone call away in a medical emergency. In other words, the hospital was sending the message that it welcomes mobile phone users making a personal plea, such as “I’m sick and I’m calling ahead to the emergency room.” Whether you’ll ever need such a service or whether wait times at Harbor or any inner-city hospital will be favorable is another story. The point is Baltimore Harbor Hospital made its closest potential customers know they wanted to be engaged, that they cared about being engaged. That’s the stuff of powerful branding in a city where the poverty level is among the highest in the nation.

If Baltimore is doing it, why not other urban centers where grassroots marketers are looking to influence behaviors of smart phone users? Mobilozophy is trying to answer that question with out-of-the-box mobile ad strategy, customer support and pricing packages that meet target audiences and clients where they are. They are backed up by low-cost (with the exception of reported phantom cell phone fees the Federal Communications Commission is investigating) wireless companies (as in Boost Mobile, Virgin Mobile, Metro PCS) that are putting handheld computing on cell phones within reach of an important critical mass—the working poor.