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Thursday, 24 May, 2001, 08:30 GMT 09:30 UK
Adverts on the move
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Is it an advert or a love letter?
By BBC News Online technology correspondent Mark Ward

Sharpen your thumbs and prepare to spend a lot more time managing the mailbox on your mobile phone.

It would be very easy to get a bad reputation quickly and harder to repair it later

Graham Hardy ,Wireless Advertising Association
This will be the year that UK users start to get bombarded with SMS text adverts.

Some advertisers are even willing to pay people to receive their promotional ditties.

This week wireless advertisers have agreed a code of conduct for anyone creating such ads. The code should ensure phone users' privacy is respected and that no-one becomes the victim of spamming.

Ad extra

You can do a lot with a text message on a mobile phone. Ask someone to marry you, tell someone you are dumping them, attend a church service, order a fizzy drink, buy CDs or even pay for a car wash.

The popularity of SMS (Short Message Service) messaging has attracted the attention of big businesses, which are about to start using the medium to send you adverts.

In a bid to ensure that companies do not abuse the messages, the Wireless Advertising Association (WAA) this week unveiled a voluntary code of conduct that it wants any company considering using SMS ads to abide by.

Central to the code of conduct was the necessity to seek permission from phone owners to send them adverts before they were bombarded with messages, said Graham Hardy, board member of the WAA and marketing manager at technology company Fusion One.

Handling complaints

"The mobile phone is very much the most personal device that anyone uses," said Mr Hardy, adding that unwanted adverts could be a real affront to privacy.

"It would be very easy to get a bad reputation quickly and harder to repair it later," he said. "So, we want to make sure the standards and code of conduct are there from the start."

The standards drawn up by the WAA govern how long messages should be, how response rates should be measured, oblige companies sending adverts to make it obvious from whom they have come, and to make it easy to opt out of the service.

"This is going to be the year of the mobile phone advert," said Mr Hardy.

But, so far, the WAA is not prepared to handle complaints if unscrupulous companies start sending out unwanted messages, or spam, to phone owners.

A spokesman for the Advertising Standard Authority said it was the regulator for the content of adverts and if ads were misleading or offensive, it would take up a complaints by phone users if they were being bombarded with unwanted messages.

Early trials

Some advertisers have been sending adverts even before the standards were drawn up.

Some shoppers at the Lakeside shopping centre in Essex have signed up for the ZagMe service, which lets them know about special offers in the mall while they are visiting. The ZagMe service is now starting to expand to other malls and shopping centres.

Earlier this year, wireless ad firm The Mobile Channel signed up 1,000 people for a trial of its service. In return for taking part in the trial and receiving up to three adverts a day, the participants could ask for a donation to be made to a charity, or get vouchers for money off their phone bill, or off goods made by the advertisers.

Companies who sent adverts by SMS included Carslberg, Cadbury's, Interflora, Tango, Thomas Cook and Nationwide.

Those signing up surrendered personal information and were sent ads only in categories they chose or from companies they liked. The adverts sent ranged from reminders to buy particular goods or witty messages that mentioned particular products.

Analysis of the trial showed that 74% of triallists read all the messages they were sent, and 63% replied to the message or did something as a result of it. This stands in stark contrast to direct mail campaigns where response rates of 3% or higher are considered a big success.

Following the successful trial, The Mobile Channel is planning to launch its service in July and hopes to attract up to 250,000 customers by Christmas.

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