I'm famous and you can text me at 213-375-26...

You may have seen text message calls to action where a celebrity prompts you to text them at a 10 digit number, labeled as their direct cell. Ashton Kutcher might be the most notable such call to action (I think he did it with two different companies), but I’ve seen a few people do this including Gary Vaynerchuk.

How does this all work?

The only thing I’m sure of, is that Ashton Kutcher does not want to actually be friends with me. So I did a little research to figure out what’s actually going on here. The celebrity take, and the vendors powering it, seems to be a new approach that might be impossible to pull off. Here’s what happening.

First, let’s break down the traditional approach to SMS marketing and the platforms that power it. The simplest analogy is that text message marketing is similar to email marketing. SMS platforms are comparable to Mailchimp. Companies and non-profits build an opt-in list of subscribers that can be sent text messages in the future. Most of these platforms include a CRM component. So a phone number is required, and there can be any number of additional fields attached to the subscribers profile. For instance the profile can include the subscribers name, email, zip code and gender.

The platforms allow an organization to send messages to subscribers. These messages might be full list broadcasts, segmented sends or even 1 to 1 messages. The CRM aspect is important for list segmentation and message personalization.

The only thing to add to this traditional model is that the really good platforms have figured out how to elegantly process response messaging. IMHO, that’s when messaging gets interesting and separates itself from email.

Back to celebrity texting. Superphone seems to be the company that invented the idea of directly texting a celebrity. Their story is great, dare I say inspiring. Superphone was started by a musician named Ryan Leslie. Not only did he launch the business, but he taught himself to code and built the MVP. The idea behind Superphone is to connect fans and artists directly, without social media, which can be a double edge sword for artists trying to reach their fans. Social media companies regularly change the rules and the algorithms, or simply go out of fashion. No one has a valuable MySpace page anymore.

This makes sense.

There’s another company called Community, which seems to be a newer, similar version of Superphone. In fact, some of the celebrities that were using Superphone a few years ago are now using Community. The Community website is very sparse, so it looks like they are just getting the product and website together.

Being a sales guy, the way that I understand a business is to understand their pitch. I’d imagine the pitch to celebrities is:

  • You have all these followers, but Intagram, Twitter and even Facebook are between you and your fans.

  • These social networks could turn you off any day for any reason, especially in the cancel-culture era.

  • The social media company is making most of the money in this relationship. If you connected directly it would cut them out.

  • Social media sites have lifecycles. Someday Instagram won’t be cool, and you’ll need to rebuild your list of fans on the next new site.

  • Today, you can own the relationship with your fans over SMS — if you use our company.

This all makes sense, but on a deeper level, what’s really happening here is that the celebri-texters are trying to turn a media platform into a communications channel. You can read more here, but the main difference is that media is ad-supported and communications is action-supported. As I see it, here are the problems, these celebrity SMS platforms need to figure out.

  • Media created celebrities and they are intertwined in ways that very few understand. How does a celebrity behave on a communication channel, rather than a media channel?

  • SMS is a text interface. Celebrities (and people that build websites about messaging campaigns) are beautiful people. Can celebrities work on a channel that isn’t very visual?

  • Two-way communication is expected, while media is expected to be one-way. Furthermore, the celebrity text CTA’s imply real connections and response. That isn’t going to happen, so is it worth it for the user to add a media stream to their communication channel interface?

  • Most importantly for the business, who is going to pay? The feedback I got early on is that a celebrity will expect you to pay them to use your product. Will a celebrity really invest in a million text messages with the hope that a return-on-relationship is coming in the future? That takes vision, when the alternative is just cashing a check for holding the right handbag on Insta.

If it sounds like I’m worried about this model, I am. But I would really like to see it work. Here is what’s promising about celebri-texting:

  • Celebrity text calls to action are really strong. The idea of texting in because a celebrity says so has worked for the last 10+ years. Subscriber list size and growth rate are the most important aspects to a messaging campaigns. There will be opportunity to test and figure out what works.

  • New business models will arise. Businesses sell things, so their SMS campaigns can be boring - just product announcements and coupons. Celebrities will want different responses and engagements. We could see some really interesting campaigns if people get adventurous. So far the messages I’ve gotten ask me to like something on Instagram or go to another social platform, which is not that interesting.

  • Celebrity texting can create buzz around the entire space. Famous people drove social media adoption. If celebrities are running interesting SMS campaigns, it can bring a lot of interest to the space.

Overall, it’s great to see this approach launch in the messaging space. I’m going to continue to pay attention and I hope that someone nails it. If anyone reading this has another take on the space, please send me a message about it.

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