Mobile Word-of-Month Marketing—Current State and Areas for Growth

With today’s media-rich environment consumers are being bombarded with countless messages and invitations to respond to marketing programs and their available attention span for this type of activity is becoming an exceedingly scarce resource. To this end, marketers are increasingly turning to peer-to-peer referrals to help promote their messages and programs, a practice often referred to as Viral Marketing (VM) or Word-of-Mouth Marketing (WOMM). Dietmar Wiedemann defines WOMM marketing as the “…oral, person-to-person communication between a receiver and a communicator which the receiver perceives as a noncommercial message, regarding a brand, product or service.” This definition can be extended when taking into account digital media in that the communication medium need not be “oral,” rather the communication may be initiated and occur through a variety of interrelated digital mediums, including the Internet, mobile internet, email, voice, text messaging, multi-media messaging, etc. What makes WOMM so effective is that the initiator of the referral is a trusted source and consequently the recipient of the referral will be more inclined to find the marketing program credible and respond to the marketer’s call-to-action. The leveraging of a trusted source to gain credibility is not the only benefit of WOMM. With WOMM marketers extend the reach of their program far beyond what they could do on their own; moreover, they gain this benefit at no additional cost since the cost of the referral is borne by the referral initiator and receiving party, not the marketer. WOMM marketing is a very common practice, and it has been formally researched within the marketing field since the early 1960s; however, the application of WOMM practices within the context of Mobile Marketing, Mobile World of Mouth Marketing (MWOMM), is still quite new.

A handful of press releases, articles and studies may be drawn upon to gain some insight in to the practice of MWOMM. First of all, it is important to note that many studies refer to the high consumer response rates to mobile marketing campaigns (9%, 15%, 20% and higher response rates are common) over that of traditional marketing initiatives (1%~3%). The higher response rates of mobile marketing makes the idea of MWOMM that much more attractive. A 2003 Enpocket announcement reported that 23% of consumers forward mobile marketing related text messages on to their friends and that 94% of text messages are read. While a Barwise & Strong (2002) study notes how “seventeen percent of triallists retained and forwarded one or more text adverts to a third party, an indication that text advertising can develop into viral marketing” (p20). Finally, a 2005 I-Play study found 30% of consumers said that their friend’s referral would encourage them to download a game. These are just a few of the readily available statistics in the market that support the idea of MWOMM.

So, it appears, based on the anecdotal evidence (ideally there would be more publicly accessible data to rely on) that the integration of MWOMM into one’s mobile marketing initiative is an effective marketing strategy. This then leads us to the question, how does one launch MWOMM? There are any number of successful MWOMM user flows and applications that can be leveraged to engage one’s audience. In fact, one is really only limited by one’s imagination, time availability, and budget. The challenge of MWOMM is not the development of the application or software to support the program, rather one will encounter more challenges when attempting to navigate the industry best practices, regulations, and the myriad of non-technical marketing program elements. Marketers must take special care to consider the following:

  • Rhetoric of their campaign, the messaging must be right to encourage consumers to refer to the program. Above and beyond using the right language that will capture the attention of one’s audience and to encourage the message to be referred, there are a number of regulations around promotional languages, like “Free.” Marketers must take care to use the right language, test it, and refine it during the course of the program.
  • Content of the campaign, studies have shown that informative and entertaining content is the most effective catalyst to encourage a consumer to refer to a program. It is important to note though if the program includes binary content (ringtones, wallpapers, logos, video, etc.) many additional complexities must be considered (for a few see below).
  • Incompatibility of mobile handsets and data plans, While many of the new mobile handsets sold in the market today support rich media, such as video, ringtones, and image, there are still many consumers that do not have a rich media phone, are unaware of how to use it if they do, or may not have an active data plan to download the content. Moreover, the initiator of a referral will not necessarily be aware of whether or not their friend can receive the content that is being sent. The marketer should consider the eventuality of such a situation and proactively manage the referrer’s and recipient’s expectations. For mass-market programs it is a good idea to stick with mass-market applicable mediums, text, and voice; that is unless the marketer can control for non-mass market variables.
  • Geographical limitations, not all programs will work across all carriers, states, and or countries, moreover individual states may have laws prohibiting certain types of programs.
  • Cost models, in many instances, especially in the United States, consumers pay for the receipt and sending of text messages and downloading of content, and some studies and consumer focus group panels (such as the latest Mobile Marketing Association (MMA) June 2007 Mobile Marketing Forum in New York) have shown this cost to be a barrier to consumer mobile marketing campaign participation.
  • Idiosyncrasies of individual mobile operator networks, there are still very few consistently agreed upon practices across all the mobile carriers, mass market applicable programs tend to be “safe”, e.g. text messaging and voice/IVR programs, but programs based on content downloads may pose a challenge. For instance, some carriers do not readily support “off-deck” content downloads, moreover, few carriers support the offering of “free” promotional content downloads. Finally, there are issues around messaging to carrier recycled phone numbers and the possible fines that may be levied if messages are sent to a recycled number (it is unclear if these fines may apply in the context of MWOMM).
  • Need for moderation for user-generated content programs, markers should consider the need for moderation with user-generated content programs since there are numerous industry best practices around what is deemed appropriate and inappropriate content. To circumvent this issue, marketers may consider having canned messages (i.e. messages that can not be changed by the consumer) for MWOMM programs.
  • Concerns for SPAM, many people are concerned that MWOMM may be construed as SPAM, i.e. an unsolicited message, and that the sponsor of the program may be liable for this SPAM. Most say that it is not, some say that it might be since it is often the case that referred messages are mediated through an application server rather than sent directly from one user to another. The jury is still out on this.
  • Clarity of industry guidelines and regulations. The MMA supports MWOMM marketing, in the MMA July 2007 release of the Consumer Best Practices Guidelines for Cross-carrier Mobile Content Programs (United States). Under the guidelines, MWOMM is permitted when the initial consumer (consumer A) initiates the sending of a message to another consumer’s (consumer B) mobile telephone. The guidelines stipulate, however, that MWOMM is not necessarily permitted in every state (it recommends to check applicable state laws), that MWOMM may not be forward through automatic means (e.g. pulling from a consumer’s contact list), that it is not permitted when messages are forwarded to mobile operators’ messaging service, when Consumer A is given an inducement/incentive to refer/forward the message to Consumer B (note: the FTC has also stated that incentives for MWOMM are not allowed), or when the origination is from a commercial source. Having generally accepted support from the MMA is helpful; however, there are elements of the guidelines that are unclear, e.g. how does one define “commercial source” in the prohibition, or what does it mean to forward a message on to a mobile operator’s messaging service? The MMA Consumer Best Practices Committee is looking into these questions and others and should be formally addressing them in the next release of the guidelines some time early next year.
  • Marketing to children, what about the marketing to children with MWOMM, should there be age verification and parental control system in place in order to ensure MWOMM is age appropriate, if so how will these systems be built out and funded? Again, a question not yet answered.
  • Privacy, Identity Management & Personalization, there has been some discussion in the industry around requiring the sender to first confirm their identity, and/or their mobile number, by first replying to a confirmation message from their mobile phone before the referring message is sent to the intended recipient. Moreover, this identity information may also be used to help personalize the service, both for the sender and receiving, to facilitate program acceptance (having minimal personalization is an MMA requirement). This practice would put a hurdle into the MWOMM process, which may reduce the effectiveness of the practice, but it may also provide better consumer production. Some marketers may choose to go to these lengths, others may not. There are few guidelines around these elements at this point.
  • Differences in mobile marketing mediums, how should all the above issues be considered in regards to the specific mobile marketing medium being used for a particular program, e.g. SMS, IVR, Mobile Web, MMS, Bluetooth, etc. What elements of the above discussion are applicable across the board, and which need to be dropped or tailored depending based on the channel being used?

So, where does all the above leave us? It appears as if it leaves us with more questions than answers, but this is often the case with new, innovative, entrepreneurial solutions and practices. With new innovations, like mobile marketing, regulations, guidelines, laws, and oversight often lag behind the capability of our technology. In order to ensure that MWOMM marketing reaches its potential, it is incumbent on all of the players within the industry to be aware of the current state of things and work towards helping find an equilibrium that works for the entire industry. For instance, it is important for everyone to lend their voice to the Mobile Marketing Association best practices development, to the CTIA, carriers, and other key constitutes that are responsible for documenting the rules and guidelines of our industry. It is clear that WOMM marketing is an incredibly valuable tool, and it is evident from the many live services that it is being used within a mobile context and more often than not with great restraint and the best interests of the consumer in mind. However, as noted, there is still much to learn and numerous conversations need to be had for us all to understand how to fully take advantage of MWOMM for the benefit of all.

For additional reading on this topic, see:

Barnes, S. J., & Scornavacca, E. (2004). Mobile marketing: The role of permission and acceptance. Int. J. Mobile Communication, 2(2).

Barwise, P. a. t. r. i. c. k., & Strong, C. (2002, Winter). Permission-Base Mobile Advertising. Journal of Interactive Marketing, 16(1).

Davis, T. Mobile Viral Marketing: An Event Waiting to Happen. Retrieved 9/22/07, from

Gibbs, C. (2006, 23/Jan.). Check this Out. RCR Wireless News, 25, 12.

Godin, S. (1999). Permission Marketing. Simon & Schuster.

I-play Outlines Collective Industry Action Required for Mobile Gaming Market. (2005, 1/Aug.). Retrieved 9/22/07, from

Enpocket. Long term Enpocket study shows mobile campaigns deliver more than twice the response of direct mail. (2003, 10/Feb). Retrieved 9/22/07, from

Pousttchi, K., & Wiedemann, D. G. (2006). A Contribution to Theory Building for Mobile Marketing: Categorizing Mobile Marketing Campaigns through Case Study Research. In Proceedings of the International Conference on Mobile Business. IEEE Computer Society.

Shin, A. (2006, 12/Dec.). FTC Moves to Unmask Word-of-Mouth Marketing. Retrieved 9/12/07, from

Vatanparast, R. Piercing the Fog of Mobile Advertising., Nokia Research Lab, Palo Alto, CA.

Wiedemann, D. G. (Date Unknown). Exploring the Concept of Mobile Viral Marketing through., Mobile Commerce Working Group, University of Augsburg.

Title Image by Coffee Bean from Pixabay