"Following Asia" As A Business Model
By Carlo Longino, Mon Apr 25 19:00:00 GMT 2005

The Wall Street Journal's cottoned on that people in Asia use their phones for more than just making calls, and now ad agencies are the latest companies to develop a mobile strategy around following Japan's lead.

Perhaps it's news to some WSJ readers that Asian youth "are hooked on their cellphones. But they hardly ever talk on them," but the paper is really looking at mobile phones as an advertising platform. Just as i-mode is cited as a role model for every Western mobile data, evidently now Asian ad agencies are sharing their experiences on advertising to mobile devices, and US marketers are eating it up.

While Asian marketers have a head start on their counterparts around the globe when it comes to mobile marketing, there's the perpetual "if it's Asian, it must be excellent" trap in to which the Western mobile industry falls. Yes, Korean and Japanese operators and content providers miss the target sometimes, with advertising being no exception. Indeed, the examples cited don't sound so hot: text messages from a feminine-hygiene product maker to Japanese women about their "happy cycle", and a campaign by a contact-lens maker to distribute handset accessories via its billboards near schools. The WSJ says the company's market share "jumped to 36% from 32%," implying some causality -- but do free phone tchotchkes really sell more contact lenses?

One US ad exec says the most valuable lesson he's learned from the Asian mobile market was from a Shanghai nightclub owner who sends out SMS ads to customers that sign up to let them know about specials and band schedules and so on: "send customers just the information they want -- and no more." But do these companies have any idea what people want on their mobile phones? There's a significant amount of trust required for a consumer to willingly open up their phone to advertising, and the decision is made with the expectation that they'll receive something of value in return. Are menstrual-cycle text messages the best the world has to offer? The Western ad industry -- with the hype it's attaching to mobile -- had better hope not.