SMS This Keyword To Get An Email Link To A Website? But Why?
By Mike Masnick, Thu Jun 09 22:00:00 GMT 2005

The next big trend in mobile applications may be connecting the analog and digital worlds -- but not all of the experiments make that much sense.


The magazine industry has always struggled somewhat with technology. It hasn't always been clear how they fit in with some of the changes in the technology world -- especially on the Internet. During the Internet bubble, one of the first attempts was the CueCat, which was tremendously hyped (and funded) by media types, but generally caused most people to wonder why they would ever use it. It was a little mouse shaped scanner that had to be connected to your computer. Certain magazines started placing special barcodes in magazine ads and people could scan the ads with their CueCat scanner, which would then point them to a webpage with more information. Beyond the question of how many people actually read their magazines right next to their computer, the much bigger issue was how many people really wanted to work that hard to get more advertising? Ads are generally the thing that people skip over in their magazines. CueCat pretty quickly went bust, though, not before using up millions of dollars.

Of course, the general idea of connecting the digital and analog worlds is a good one. There will be some useful applications that come out of the desire to get the best of both worlds. However, not all such applications will make much sense.

For another bad example, head back to the magazine industry. Two European companies (one technology company and one publisher) are trying to do their best to link mobile phones to magazines, but again the effort seems misguided. If anything, it seems a little too much like the CueCat in that it seems to ignore the way people actually view information. The service itself involves quite a few steps, many of which probably don't make much sense.

Here's how it works. Someone with a mobile phone "gets" a keyword of some sort. As the article notes, this can be from a billboard, the radio or from friends. They then take the keyword and send it to a specific SMS number. Apparently, the user has already set up an account, because the service recognizes the sender of the SMS and knows his or her email address. Then, the service sends a link to that email address (not back to the phone). The link is to a special online version of a magazine. The person who got the keyword then can retrieve the link the next time they're at a computer with email and web access.

It's hard to figure out which part is the least likely to make sense. First off, it's not at all clear why anyone would rush out to send a keyword off to get a link to a magazine. If someone wants to see a magazine, why wouldn't they just go look at the magazine? Second, is the delayed gratification issue. The people who send in the text messages doesn't actually get to see the magazine until the next time they're at a computer -- at which point they may not even remember why they sent the text message in the first place or what it was for. Finally, it's not clear what about the magazine is so compelling that the person would want to look at it at all.

If you're going to get people to respond to some sort of keyword on a billboard or in an advertisement, there needs to be either some sort of immediate gratification or a real, clearly stated value to the user in doing so. It needs to provide some sort of reward. Sending them a link to a free magazine hardly seems like a reward.

It seems like both the CueCat and this particular offering are the results of backtrack thinking, rather than looking at real needs. The backtrack thinking works where you start with an existing scenario and a scenario of what you want to happen, and come up with the in-between steps to get from one to the other. What's left out, however, is any reality check about whether any of those middle steps make sense. So, in this case, the magazine industry wants to be more closely tied to mobile usage. However, people realize that it's tough to read a magazine on a phone, so it needs to be on the web. From there, you try to figure out how to link the web-based magazine to the phone (SMS!) and the final step is coming up with a way to get the person to send the SMS (keywords!). But when looked at in a forward thinking manner, it seems like almost none of those steps make sense. People won't know what to do with the keywords, or if they do they won't understand the value of sending the SMS. If, after all that, they send the SMS, they won't understand why they're getting an email later at an email address with a link, and won't know why they're going to visit some random magazine.

Connecting the analog and the digital world is a huge opportunity, but that doesn't mean just any connection makes sense. The connections have to help the mobile user do something useful. This is a solution that is only designed to help the magazine industry. Of course, it won't help anyone if no one uses it.