Mobile changes everything

by Shannon Paul on March 21, 2009

I participated in a panel discussion last week at SXSW Interactive that addressed some of the shortcomings of activity in social networks. One of those shortcomings we discussed was the inability of social network activity to translate into real world action.

For instance, simply because someone adds a cause to his or her Facebook page does not necessarily mean this person is donating and/or volunteering time to this particular cause. I think one of the ways this kind of real-world inertia can be overcome is through mobile technology.

Real responses in real time
The immediate nature of SMS communication, aka text messaging, combined with geotagging and the ease of response create an ideal scenario to encourage real-world action. Marketers may be the first to tap into this technology, but the applications are endless.

Consider this: a Little Caesars* franchisee’s sweepstakes campaign saw a 62 percent opt-in rate. SIXTY-TWO PERCENT! Ask anyone who does email marketing when the last time they saw that kind of opt-in rate for any particular outreach campaign. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking email, but I can’t help but get excited over the inherent potential of mobile to provide real value for companies and consumers in real time.

*Disclosure: My employer is owned by the same parent company that owns Little Caesars pizza.

Bridging the digital divide
Let’s face it, crowdsourcing can only go so far when such a small percentage of the crowd is even online. Now, if the online crowd is your crowd, good for you. However, most of the world (and a solid percentage of the U.S. population) still has no Internet access, but when they finally do, for the majority it will probably be via mobile technology.

While in Austin for SXSW, I took a walk over to BarCamp Austin to take in a presentation by Erik Hersman about the ingenuity of Africans, and that got me thinking about this issue on a much larger scale. The mobile web has the potential to bridge the digital divide at a much more rapid rate than grandiose plans for infrastructure and connectivity in outlying areas.

For many Africans, keeping phones charged poses a bigger challenge than simply obtaining a phone. The above picture is from the Afrigadget blog where Erik is a contributor (fascinating stuff over there by the way). This shows the set up of a typical village mobile phone kiosk. Why would anyone want to wait for infrastructure in order to access information and tools for communication?

Add to this experience an article in Technology Review magazine I read on my flight home from Austin about innovation in mobile technology. In this article, Kent Lupberger of the World Bank’s Global Information and Communication Techologies department cites the mobile phone as the “most revolutionary device in the last decade for the emerging world”.

According to the article, even China now has more than 50 percent penetration in terms of mobile use.

In addition to providing things like opt-in opportunities for marketers, this also means that the potential exists for providing aid in more meaningful ways, creating a feedback loop for even the most remote populations, providing life-saving or life-empowering information related to education, health care, safety, etc.

¿No habla ingles?
Language still presents a major hurdle for many communicators as our world gets smaller. According to this same article in Technology Review, a translation system developed by Moka, an e-learning company in Florida,  offers users in China the ability to have texts automatically translated from Chinese to English and vice versa.

The company promises to unroll a similar service in the United States for English and Spanish speakers.

Other cool mobile stuff
Another cool find at SXSW was Contxt (even Scoble wrote about it). Contxt is a free service that enables users with the ability to create SMS business cards that can be sent to a mobile phone. Give it a try: to receive my contact information, simply text shannonpaul to 50500 or go here to create your own.

Now you
What kind of potential do you see for mobile technology in helping us transcend some of the barriers to action and communication? Do you think we’ll be able to keep the dialogue going without resorting to spam?

I tried to focus on the benefits of mobile technology. Did I miss anything? What are some of the pitfalls we’ll likely face as we travel down this path as communicators, consumers, citizens? I hope you found this information helpful or at least thought provoking and I’ll look forward to your feedback.

Photo by juicyrai
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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

March 21, 2009 Damien Basile 1

Brilliant discourse. One drawback that wasn’t mentioned was price barrier to entry. Let’s say the mobile phone units are donated for arguments sake (realistically some will be but not all or possibly not most). There will be some sort of monthly fee that is above basic cellular service. Times that by 12. That’s the full cost of a cellular internet service.

The appearance of netbooks, the existence of skype et al, and companies offering monthly access to the internet is ushering in internet usage and portability to so many more people than cellphones. One company that is beginning to answer this dilemma is One Laptop per Child The inexpensive cellphones are woefully inadequate to prove useful in using the internet. The ones that come close to providing more than just email tantamount to a threaded text message are really expensive especially for those who can afford it (see iphones).

The true barrier, however, is setting up widespread free/inexpensive cellular/wifi networks. Regardless of the machine being used, if you don’t have a proper network set up to access the worldwide network then all of this is moot. The same thing goes for an electrical network with ample charge points.
In order for internet access for all to become a reality there needs to be a confluence of all of these factors- electricity, device, price, and access along with network.

Once these barriers have been surmounted all that is left is the language barrier. There are companies that are making an effort to translate from one language to another on various services but the language barrier will only be brought down this service is not thought about. For a true seamless global internet network to exist an automatic translation service needs to be integrated into every form of communications platform- text, talk, social media, web pages, email etc.

As technology becomes more sophisticated things get less expensive quicker and quicker. The great thing about all of this is that many different people are coming at the problem of worldwide connectivity from many different angles. With time the answer to this will be solved naturally by crowdsourcing the problem.


March 22, 2009 Shannon Paul 2

Damien -
There’s a lot of great things to consider here. My thoughts are that we definitely need to take a closer look at the solutions people are coming up with on their own. There’s always been a tendency in the West to try to solve others’ problems — especially in places like Africa — without first looking at the brilliance of their homemade solutions.

Mobile technology has a strong foothold there without anyone consciously perpetuating the technology or services. This adaptation of technology happened organically. Also, I don’t think there are the same kinds of monthly services in these locations. I know there are charges associated with connectivity, but I believe they work differently. Erik Hersman could probably tell us a bit more about this.

Providing children with laptops is definitely a great cause, but if electricity provides a greater challenge than connectivity, this doesn’t necessarily solve the connectivity problem or take into consideration the level of technology already integrated into these peoples’ lives.


March 21, 2009 Penina 3

One thing that really jumps out at me is a personal connection with the idea that “Why would anyone want to wait for infrastructure…?”

I think a lot of SOLUTIONS are already happening while so many “wait for infrastructure,” and to my delight, you show that communications — effective communications — are part of that movement.

Another way of looking at it, though — what makes this all work — is that it is now so easy for more people than ever to band together and build their own grass-roots infrastructures. (Was it ever not easy? Hm…) I’m thinking mom n’ pop alternative fuel stations in the heartland as well as that awesome village mobile phone kiosk.

We are more limited in developed countries, were regulating bodies are torn between protecting us regular folks and bigger business interests. Another limiter: We’ve been able to lean hard on centralized power generation, ISPs and corner gas stations. We’ve forgotten our resilient, resourceful, human roots.

So, yes, the possibilities, as you say, are wide open. I predict more spam :-) but I also look forward to the translated/translatable wisdom from far and near corners that will inspire me.


March 22, 2009 Shannon Paul 4

Penina -
Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts! Alas, you’re probably right about the spam, but I’m hopeful that it won’t be as bad as so many other communication platforms since the technology has existed for this sort of thing for awhile now — it seems more are trying to be careful with the development in this area although I could be wrong.

The regulating bodies can be a definite inhibitor to innovation, but so can weather conditions. I think regulation is just another environmental factor. ;)


March 22, 2009 Matt Leonard 5

Hey Shannon,

Very interesting post. A couple of things I see in mobile (SMS) that could be better used:

1. Short Code branding: I see someone like your employer having an opportunity to brand their short code (both WINGS and RWINGS) are currently available for lease ( is the registrar). Especially as MMS becomes more prevalent, the opportunity to stream multi-media will be great for such a product. I think SMS will remain a very easy way to navigate (ie – your business card example). Text highlight to WINGS, for example, could return either a link to click or MMS push going forward. You’d also have opt-ins and marketing notifications sent from a branded code vs a generic shared short code. The NYJETS do this well, actually.
The same premise holds true for a company like HILTON which has an easy branding opportunity and can easily engage in a text your zip to HILTON for the nearest locations. And advanced system could respond with availability queries. If nothing else, I think smart companies should own their brands as a placeholder until mobile really shakes itself out. The downfall, of course, is the $1000 per month fee for a vanity short code. I do think that is hindering growth as shared short code apps only have so much brandability.

2. Most people still don’t realize that they can text Google for free (46645 or 466453). The same type of apps are easily done via private label and offer companies an opportunity to engage their consumers in a way relevant to them.

3. You make a great point with your 62% opt-in example. Mobile marketing is still a novelty and carries a curiosity factor beyond just product interest. Smart marketers can leverage this.

4. Being a Flyers fan, I’m still agitated about the other night. That’s all I’ve got for now :-).


March 22, 2009 Daria Steigman 6

Hi Shannon,

Thanks for raising some great issues. The concept of “mobile changes everything” is really key when looking at how people communicate.

I spent several years in West Africa growing up, and often we didn’t have a functioning phone (or we had the only phone that worked in our neighborhood). Since there was often no one to call, we made plans the old-fashioned way When we were in Lagos, my dad, brother, and I would bike around town on Saturday afternoons, popping in to see friends and have a soda, and invite them to our home for a movie on Sunday night. And if one of us was away for a while, we would number our (snail mail) letters so we’d have a useful chronology of events if a later missive arrived before an earlier one. For example, my parents once opened a letter from me that started “I’m out of the infirmary now” before the one that explained I’d been sick.

Maybe partly because of my background, I’m constantly amazed and excited about the ways that mobile is opening up communications to and creating new connectivities for people in far-flung places. Your graphic from Erik Hersman’s presentation really resonated with me, and has gotten me thinking about what untapped technologies might be out there to solve some of the issues he raises.

Now I’m going to check out Erik Hersman’s presentation.



March 26, 2009 Shauna Nicholson 7

I honestly think mobile technologies are just beginning. There is no use being tethered to the computer when you have alternatives.

As with many things, adoption relies heavily on a user-friendly interface. User experience clearly makes or breaks any technology, as evidenced with Apple vs. Microsoft.

Great post as usual, Shannon. I’m excited to see what’s next.


March 26, 2009 Jacob 8

Wow, I would really love it if my messages were all translated into English. That would really help my communications. What else would be nice would be if all outgoing messages were automatically translated as well, even if the recipient doens’t have the program to translate them.


April 4, 2009 Lisha Sterling 9

Something a friend of mine pointed out to me about two years ago is that migrant foreign workers here in Israel often use their phones in the way that we use our computers. They were early adopters of the mobile Web here, when even the geeks among native Israelis weren’t paying attention to that part of their phones. For people who can’t afford a laptop computer, and don’t want to lug a desktop with them from job location to job location every few months or so, the mobile phone has been a great boon.

This, of course, leads to the interesting dynamic that if you are looking for a pay-as-you go plan for 3G cell phone services in Israel, you better go study up on your Tagalog or Thai, because you aren’t going to find marketing info about that stuff in Hebrew. (‘Cuz, if you speak Hebrew, you’ll just get phone on a contract.)


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