Wide Wireless World

For online marketers, wireless technology can enhance the selling process – and increase sales

First there was e-commerce. Now there’s m-commerce: mobile – or wireless – commerce. For example, an Amazon.com customer can now access the online bookseller by cell phone or Palm Pilot, sign on using her account ID, and search for products. Once she is ready to make a purchase, she just clicks a button. Her credit card is automatically billed, and the package is automatically sent to her shipping address.

Walk down any U.S. city street, and you can’t help but see passersby fiddling with cell phones and other wireless devices. While there are no hard figures citing exactly how many people in the U.S. use wireless technologies, a sure sign of its spread is that local governments throughout the country have started proposing legislation limiting the use of cell phones while driving. What’s more, at least 35% of household heads are “willing to entertain the concept of a wireless Web,” according to a recent report by Forrester Research, a Cambridge, MA-based Internet research firm. The study, “Latent Demand for a Wireless Web,” concludes that consumers want wireless, or mobile, commerce. They just don’t know it yet.

And that may be for the best. After all, most marketers don’t yet know how to use wireless communications as a marketing tool.

New medium, new messages Amazon.com rolled out its Amazon Anywhere program in February 2000 (three months after rival BarnesandNoble.com launched its On the Go wireless shopping program, in December 1999). But the pioneers of wireless content have largely been portals, such as Yahoo!, America Online, and Excite. And rather than shopping, the most common applications allow customers to check e-mail, stocks, and news.

In fact, the medium doesn’t lend itself to commerce in the same way that the World Wide Web does. For one thing, wireless bandwidth – the capacity of data that can be transmitted in a fixed amount of time – is rather small. The speed with which a handheld device receives data is comparable to that of a computer with an antiquated 14.4 modem. “Wireless will catch on as bandwidth and network reliability improve. Not until then will it become full-fledged,” says Dave Berndt, director of wireless mobile technologies for The Yankee Group, a Boston-based consultancy.

Then, too, the wireless devices themselves are pretty small. You simply cannot display a full Web page on a handheld PC, nor more than a few words at a time on a cell phone. Finally, people using wireless devices are often in transit. They don’t have the time or inclination to browse.

“You can’t just take a Website and throw it on a mobile device,” says Matt Mizenko, system architect in the Advanced Development Group at Fry Multimedia, a Chicago-based services provider. “It’s a new channel, and it should be treated differently.”

For marketers, that means using wireless to drive traffic to Websites, stores, and the like, and promoting the brand or making targeted offerings. In other words, m-commerce won’t replace online shopping so much as enhance it.

“Eventually, Websites that go wireless will offer shoppers a combination of services and shopping,” Mizenko says. Let’s say you’re a multichannel marketer of music CDs. Customer John Doe has bought Barbra Streisand CDs from you in the past. Now that a new Streisand CD is being released, you send Doe a message to his PDA letting him know that you have the disc in stock and that he can order it by pushing a button to respond. Doe, who receives the message while riding the train to work, pushes the button. Because he has already registered with your Website, you have his credit card information on file. You charge him for the purchase and ship the CD to his home address, which is also in your database. So Doe spends the rest of his train ride happily whistling the theme from Yentl.

Mizenko, in fact, is creating a blend of shopping and services for chocolatier Godiva; he is working to get its Website wireless-enabled for Valentine’s Day. Godiva’s wireless initiative will be centered around customers’ My Godiva profile information. “For example,” Mizenko says, “immediately upon my login, if the application sees that I have a birthday listed in my reminder list, it will tell me about the reminder, take me directly to Godiva’s `birthday’ product category, present me with gift suggestions, preset the ship-to address to that of the person listed in my address book, and bill my credit card.”

Such applications suggest that forward-thinking marketers won’t view m-commerce as e-commerce with limitations. Rather, they’ll look at wireless as its own unique medium, with its own unique benefits. As Berndt says, “The key thing to keep in mind is that there is a distinction between what you offer your customers via a wired connection and what you offer them via a wireless connection.”

And even if you can’t appreciate m-commerce’s potential quite yet, you should still consider how to make the medium work for you. While most online catalogers are approaching m-commerce gingerly, Patrick Callinan, an analyst with Forrester Research, doesn’t expect them to be too tentative. “The number-one fear [of marketers] is being left behind,” he says. “A lot of traditional retailers and catalogers didn’t jump on the Internet right away, and then they found upstarts easing into their turf.” They won’t want a repeat of that.

“It isn’t much of a bear to set up your wireless system,” says Matt Mizenko, system architect in the Advanced Development Group at services provider Fry Multimedia. One thing you need to do, though, is find out if your server-based Website platform can handle the initiative and make data accessible from a variety of sources, he says.

“In general, sites should not need to make any platform changes to leverage the wireless data world,” says Scott Gode, group product manager for Microsoft’s Mobility Group. “The burden is on the software and device manufacturers to make this as simple as possible for businesses.”

A number of platform providers, including Microsoft and Ecliptic Systems, can get a Website’s wireless initiatives up and running in as few as 60 days, Mizenko says. Fees can range up to $70,000.

As for customers, just as landline Internet access requires a PC, wireless Internet access requires a digital device – emphasis on digital. According to Forrester Research, 60% of U.S. cell phone users either have analog service or don’t know what type of service they have. What’s more, the study concludes that 30% of U.S. analog users are “not at all interested” in switching to digital service.

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