Cellphones Sound the Call

Remember the way phones used to ring? It's a sound you don't hear too often these days. Instead, anything from hip hop to crazy sound effects can alert you to a call.

That's a technology a small Boston company is using to send advertising for corporations and even a presidential candidate. WBUR's Business and Technology Reporter Curt Nickisch reports.


CURT NICKISCH: Say you're the head of the marketing campaign. Say you want to create buzz by letting customers download ring tones. And say the product you're promoting is actually a presidential candidate. Then one of your ring tones sounds like this:

SOUND OF OBAMA MUSIC RING TONE: Go go go Obama, Obama, oh!

NICKISCH: That's just one of the ring tones that you can download from the campaign website of Democrat Barack Obama. Soon after they went online, Jon Stewart's Daily Show on Comedy Central made fun of the marketing:

JON STEWART: Oh, yeah! I am sorry, but novelty cell phone ringtones are not going to get you elected president!

NICKISCH: But here's the interesting thing. Right after the show, hundreds of downloads started ticking away. The logistics of connecting campaign content with supporter cell phones was handled by the downtown Boston company mStyle. Its tech director is Nick Bogovich, and he says Obama has to be pleased with the more than six thousand downloads so far.

NICK BOGOVICH: In the end, he's trying to sell you a vote. He's hoping you'll download the ring tone and you'll talk about it with your friends. If he gets one vote out of all of those downloads, that's a victory!

NICKISCH: It's not political campaigns, but Fortune 500 companies that make up most of mStyle's business. The seven employees in Boston help corporations push ring tones on consumer cell phones, ranging from a pizza company's ding-dong to a song from an oil company TV spot:

SOUND OF BP MUSIC RINGTONE: Hi excuse me, this is your phone! Say hey! Make the day a little better. Say hey!

NICKISCH: But Bogovich says the marketing for Obama has been more successful so far than many of mStyle's corporate campaigns.

BOGOVICH: It's a different play. Politicians like Obama, Clinton, Romney, sort of have more attention than pizza companies right now.

NICKISCH: And that's the challenge facing pizza and all companies trying to market using the web today.

LARRY WEBER: We're seeing it all over the place: big companies making big mistakes when it comes to social media and social marketing.

That's Larry Weber. He started a global market firm and now runs a public relations agency based in Waltham. He just wrote a book called "Marketing to the Social Web." He says most companies today don't get it. They might be putting free ring tones on their websites — but in the end, Weber says, they're still hiring ad agencies to produce them.

WEBER: It's the buying of media mentality. People are not going to accept that! They'll take creativity; they'll take content. But it has to be on their terms as well as the company's terms. And that's an element of control that sometimes is difficult to give up.

NICKISCH: Weber says the Obama campaign did right. By letting supporters create the ring tones, it gave them a stake in the product.

WEBER: Branding, in this day and age, is all about the dialogue that you have with your customers. That's what the Obama campaign figured out — engage first, get money later.

NICKISCH: And Weber says that's what companies have to figure out now.

For WBUR, I'm Curt Nickisch.

This program aired on July 9, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.

Headshot of Curt Nickisch

Curt Nickisch Business & Technology Reporter
Curt Nickisch was formerly WBUR's business and technology reporter.



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