Carriers Head Back to School to Find New Customers

By Colin Gibbs

The days are getting shorter, the mercury is falling, and the kids are headed back to school. And network operators are pouring boatloads of money into marketing campaigns to turn those youngsters into high-end, ARPU-boosting customers.

AT&T (T) is investing in perhaps the most visible youth-targeted campaign this season with a video featuring Mary J. Blige using three of the carrier's messaging-focused phones. The pop diva morphs through a handful of wardrobe changes as she switches handsets from the Motorola (MOT) Karma to the LG Neon to the LG Xenon—phones "we anticipated would be very hot for back-to-school," according to an AT&T spokesman. The campaign launched late in July and integrates TV, radio, online, and print. And the effort goes beyond just handsets and messaging plans, touting Wi-Fi access as well as MEdiaMall apps created to improve spelling and expand vocabularies.

Of course, other carriers are fighting for that same highly coveted demographic. Sprint (S) offers a Web page telling students to "Get ready for new classes, gossip and BFFs" that plugs handsets that offer text-friendly QWERTY keyboards and close integration with social networking sites. Alltel is pushing the family-togetherness angle, offering three months of free service to newly activated lines on existing "My Circle" accounts (a $25 activation fee is required.) T-Mobile USA has launched a refreshingly plug-free campaign, offering discounts of 12% or more to college students with a valid ID, and is targeting environmentally minded users with a free app that delivers "green-oriented offers" from youth-focused partners such as Quiksilver and Volcom.

All those advertising dollars are trying to reach a demographic that believes mobile phones are the best products when it comes to impressing friends, according to new figures from CNW Marketing Research. The firm recently reported that nearly one-third of 16- to 29-year-olds think a phone is the most impressive thing they can buy, compared with 20% of those who cited a new car. And mobile social networking—which is driving much of the overall data consumption—remains the domain of young users, according to Frank N. Magid Associates, with 18- to 34-year-olds accounting for an astounding 80% of the space. Though as we already know, most of that activity is centered on Facebook and MySpace (NWS)—not Twitter, which attracts relatively few teens.

And if you find the thought of targeting teens with come-ons for mobile phones distasteful, well, get used to it. More than half of the 12-year-olds in the U.S. now own a mobile, the Pew Internet & American Life Project reported last week—up from just 18% in 2004.

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