Are you ready for the mobile extranet?

Mobile marketing not a question of whether but when and how

Your organization's marketing operations soon may be transformed. With access to more than 2 billion people worldwide, mobile phones increasingly feature color screens and GPS navigation, and mobile TV is just around the corner. The advertising, transaction-handling and customer service possibilities are endless.

There are just two problems: Mobile phone users don't want to be inundated with commercials, and merchants are struggling to figure out how best to exploit the mobile marketing channel's unique capabilities .

The fledgling mobile marketing industry is worried about a backlash if mobile users get swamped with advertisements. The Mobile Marketing Association has developed a code of conduct to head off the threat. The code says that mobile users must opt in to receive marketing messages, opt-in users should retain some control over when and how they are contacted, it should be easy for users to opt out, and vendors should exercise restraint to avoid mobile marketing abuses.

The MMA's code of conduct is only a suggestion, however. Given that much mobile content will be advertising-supported, opportunities for abuse abound. That's why some industry participants are pointing to an alternative solution: Let mobile users access advertising-free content by paying an additional fee. I suggest a very different approach: Instead of asking how best to regulate and package mobile advertising, the industry should be asking how merchants best can use the mobile channel to attract and retain customers.

The problem is that mobile phones and traditional advertisements don't mix well. Canned sales pitches don't play well on tiny screens, and users on the go won't have the patience to watch them. And canned sales pitches don't take advantage of the mobile channel's capabilities, such as targeting users based on their location and activity.

Imagine using the mobile channel to establish ongoing conversations with customers. Such conversations could be used to identify customers' needs and desires, inform them about products that interest them, help them shop for such products, and ensure they remain satisfied customers.

Users could check product availability, get directions and make reservations with mobile phones. Wireless phones could serve as mobile shopping carts. Merchants could stream product videos to customers out shopping for those products. Loyalty programs could interface with mobile handsets, letting customers check point balances and redeem points on the spot.

Should your enterprise use the mobile marketing channel? For most merchants, it's not a question of whether but when and how. Companies in the media, entertainment and travel industries need to start using this channel now. Merchants in other industries can wait a bit longer -- but not much -- for the technologies and applications to mature. The mobile marketing channel will be difficult to master, but it will be even harder to dislodge competitors with a significant head start. The mobile extranet is upon us.