The Wireless Tower of Babel

Pamela Parker

Updated · Aug 07, 2001

Do you use the “Wireless Web”? How about “Wireless Internet”? “Interactive Messaging”? “Ping Pong”? “Digital PocketNet”? The “Mobile Web”? “Mobile Messenger”? What about “text messaging”? Even the most seasoned wireless data user — not to mention the newcomer to the mobile world — probably couldn't tell you the differences between these terms.

Sometimes it seems like some wrathful god has waved his hands over the wireless industry, condemning each carrier to speak its own language — lest they get together and build a tower that reaches to heaven.

But if the wireless industry — and the wireless advertising industry by extension — is ever to reach the promised land of boundless revenues, it's time to abandon all of these incongruent tongues. If I, a close follower of the industry, can't make sense of the jargon the U.S. wireless carriers have concocted to describe their services, how can consumers ever hope to understand what they're getting for their extra $6.95 or $14.99 per month. And if they don't understand it, they're not going to use it, much less pay for it. People want technology to make their lives easier, not more difficult.

Although carriers may believe that these proprietary names — some of which are trademarked — help them differentiate themselves in a crowded competitive marketplace, I believe they're only hurting the growth of wireless data services by refusing to come together on standard names and definitions. Mobile phone service plans are complicated enough as they are, and adding to this convolution is not the right path. It's critical that carriers get their acts together in the marketing of data services, or the mass market that advertisers require may be very very slow in coming.

What's in a Name?
First, there is the issue of the names. Companies' ads and Web sites trumpet their new digital data offerings, without really explaining what they are. Take SMS, for example. Each of the carriers is beginning to offer two-way messaging, but the differences between the ways it's positioned are startling. Verizon calls it “Mobile Messenger,” VoiceStream dubs it “Ping Pong,” and AT&T goes for simplicity and calls it “text messaging,” and they're all just offering basic SMS — although each, of course, has its own confusing pricing options. Sprint PCS, rather than offering SMS, has a service that's more like mobile e-mail and allows subscribers to check their e-mail boxes through the phone's WAP browser.

In Europe, where SMS has become popular enough to be an integral part of people's everyday lives, it's just called “texting” and anyone can text anyone else. How much of the growth of the medium is due to the simplicity of the nomenclature is anybody's guess. Universal addressing — under which people could text one another regardless of carrier — is obviously also key.

The next marketing imperative is painting an accurate picture of what customers should expect. A study undertaken by the Context-Based Research Group last year found that advertising often misrepresents — either by exaggerating capabilities or underselling advantages — wireless data services.

“Our research revealed an assumption by marketers that potential users know what WAP means and what it can do. However, the reality is that consumer knowledge or interest in WAP apps is just beginning to spark,” the researchers wrote. “Marketers should do more to educate in their communications and give consumers concrete knowledge of what the wireless Web will be so their expectations will not be misplaced.”

Training the Troops
The first step in demystifying wireless data services for consumers is training the front lines — with customer service reps. When I was recently considering purchasing Kyocera's Smartphone (QCP6035), I phoned my wireless company to inquire about what data services would be available if I were to upgrade to the new phone. The customer service person proceeded to tell me that I wouldn't be able to check POP e-mail on the phone (not true), and that I would only be able to send e-mail using my phone company issued e-mail address (also not true).

Another call to customer service resulted in my being told that I couldn't have both “Mobile Web” and “Mobile Messaging” (SMS) at the same time. What they didn't tell me is that “Mobile Web” included “Mobile Messaging” so, by subscribing to one, I would get the other. A later e-mail to customer service prompted another (apparently) frustrated rep to simply send me the file they're given as a resource for answering questions. Once I saw it, I understood the frustration. All this to say that your typical customer service agent is woefully ignorant about this part of the company's offerings — at least at MY carrier. It's time to train your people, folks, and get your stories straight.

It's ironic that there should be so much mixed messaging in a business that's all about communications. But if wireless is ever going to grow into a potent marketing medium, it's critical that carriers begin boiling it down to basics and speaking the same language across the industry.

* Pamela Parker is managing editor of and Internet Advertising Report.

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