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Unwanted 'American Idol' Text Message Backfires on AT&T


You gotta be kidding.

This week AT&T Wireless sent a text message to a "significant number" of its 75 million customers, promoting the Tuesday premier of American Idol, a popular show where Americans compete for pop stardom.

The wordy SMS read:

AT&T Free Msg: Get ready for American Idol! AI 8 starts this Tues (1/13) at 8pm on FOX. Check out AT&T's official AI web site from you [sic] PC - www.att.com/idol for the latest info on our $1MM sweepstakes, test your AI IQ by playing the trivia game, and much more. Reply stop to end mktg msgs.

The whimsical move follows myriad reports that mobile users will tolerate ads in exchange for a lower phone bill — an incentive AT&T hadn't considered.

Backlash was copiously recorded on microblogging site Twitter, where users logged in to complain about the American Idol plug almost immediately after receiving it.

"AT&T just sent me a text message advertisement about 'American Idol.' Evil," wrote user @jzb. "The economic downturn definitely means a spam upswing."

Another user, @jonsteinberg, wrote, "Really AT&T? I'm paying U over $100 a month & U still think its cool 2 send me text messages advertising American Idol?"

In the company's defense, spokesman Mark Siegel for AT&T wireless argued, "It makes perfect sense to use texting to tell people about a show built on texting."

AT&T sponsors American Idol, so customers can vote for their favorite singers via text message while the show is on air. With that in mind, viewer participation brings AT&T more revenue, The New York Times pointed out.

Siegel also said the message only went out to "heavy texters," or users that voted for Idol singers in the past.

No metrics were provided for what constituted "heavy texters." But at least one recipient, Evan Lowenstein, argued Siegel's defense was a "downright lie."

"On AT&T I have a 250 txt/mo plan and to date have maybe sent a total of 50 text messages over the course of the 4 or 5 months," Lowenstein stated, suggesting that by any metric he could hardly be considered a "heavy texter."

Siegel also said that because the message was free and gave people an opportunity to opt out of future promo texts, the message could not be constituted as spam.

But many recipients — whose opinion is the difference between a campaign's success or failure — differed with Siegel on the definition of "spam" as well.

In a letter to the editor, Associate Professor and AT&T customer Tom Fauls of Boston University wrote, "Unsolicited text messages broadcast in this way are ILLEGAL under the CAN-SPAM law. The only technicality AT&T can cite is that they have — by definition — a prior business relationship with their subscribers.

"But they are clearly in violation of the spirit of the law because my business relationship with them has never had anything to do with Idol, which I loathe." (Fauls was among the recipients of the American Idol text blast.)

"So was AT&T's American Idol text message spam or not?" mused Twitter user @AdamHoldenBache

Hardly an idle notion. An email marketing survey released in March 2008 found users increasingly define spam as any unwanted message — whether or not they opted to receive them.

Per the survey, 56% of participants consider messages from trusted vendors to be spam if the message is "just not interesting to me." 50% said the same about "too frequent emails from companies I know" — and 31% defined spam as "emails that were once useful but aren't relevant anymore."

Philosophical differences between AT&T and its clients over "spam" weren't the only things working against the effort. According to Fauls, "One of the biggest risks AT&T took was in jeopardizing its relationship with Apple. In my mind there's a strong link between by iPhone and AT&T because it is an exclusive partnership.

"I thought less of my iPhone when I received this spam. And I definitely think much less now of the carrier I was forced to adopt."

During his election campaign, President Elect Barack Obama texted mobile users with the identity of his running-mate, Joe Biden. Despite its imperfections (many waited up to 12 hours to receive a text after the media broke the news), the campaign was lauded as a means to both capture the loyalty of tech-savvy users and gather thousands of phone numbers at the same time.

The campaign bore one major difference to AT&T's American Idol flub: users volunteered their mobile numbers to the Obama campaign in order to receive the text.

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