x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

A message for SMS market men: Unsubscribe me!

If a Government Minister and member of the Royal Family can't stop the bombardment of spam text messages, what hope is there for the rest of us?

SMS marketing in the UAE is limited only by the advertisers' budgets and scruples.
SMS marketing in the UAE is limited only by the advertisers' budgets and scruples.

It is 2am. It is a week night. You are sound asleep until the chirp of your mobile phone message alert wakes you. For a moment you think it must be something important - why else would somebody contact you at this hour? You fumble for the phone which is next to your bed because it is also the alarm primed to wake you in six hours' time and you read, "Dominos Pizza the final countdown for 50% discount offer on second pizzas!"

It is amazing some phones survive the night without being hurled to the skirting board in sheer frustration. Whether it is the occasional puzzling text or a bombardment of unsolicited SMS messages spam texts are an infuriating part of mobile phone ownership in the UAE. Nobody is immune.

Last week the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, uploaded his own irritation onto Twitter when he started receiving a stream of unwanted texts enthusiastically welcoming him to a variety of services to which he was not subscribed.

"My apologies to Etisalat," he wrote, "but I will tweet every message or service that I get from them until they put an end to this inconvenience."

Seventeen hours later, with the spam still arriving, Sheikh Abdullah's own annoyance was echoed by that of his 190,000 followers. "Everyone suffers," tweeted Mariam Bint Mohammed.

Mobile phones are trusted and they are personal. Whatever message is sent will be delivered straight to the hand of the target audience - however broad that target is. Send enough messages and one or two are bound to hit home.

Without much in the way of spam filtering software available for mobile phones it is little wonder that Spam should have found its way onto them as well as into our email accounts. It isn't a new phenomenon but while data protection and privacy legislation has limited the problem in North America and Europe, it is still very much a growth market in the Middle and Far East, fed in part by the bloom of daily deal websites and cheap bulk SMS packages.

There is no unified data protection law in the UAE - last year Qatar became the first country in the Gulf region to draft such a policy. But though the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) last year called for a similar law to be set down in the UAE, none exists to date.

Manish Gupta is the technical manager of Express Digital System (EDS) and its subsidiary www.smsmarketinguae.com. Since the company's launch in 2005, Mr Gupta's Dubai based business has seen a 25 to 45 per cent year-on-year increase in the volume of SMS messages sent out.

According to Mr Gupta, "It is our most popular initiative with email marketing coming in second place."

Mr Gupta's company has designed its own software which acts as a sending platform to enable the distribution of text messages across the UAE. Customers with their own databases - such as a restaurant with 5,000 customers - can simply pay to access the software online. They are given a username and password, write their messages, hit send and the texts are automatically sent out.

Alternatively those with information to send but no database who want to reach a targeted audience can access EDS's database of clients. Mr Gupta explains, "Let's say there is a beauty salon in the marina who want to target ladies in the area. We can tell them we've got 15,000 ladies in and around the marina and we can target them."

The cost to the client is around 10 fils per message. Mr Gupta's clients pay anything from Dh5,000 to Dh100,000, with their budget, rather than any legal sanctions, the only limit to the number of messages they send.

Mr Gupta stresses that his company advises against bombarding any numbers with messages but there is nothing, legally or contractually, to prevent anyone from doing just that. As for the content of those databases, they are gleaned from a variety of sources and come with varying levels of detail ranging from gender and age group to interests.

They are collated by an in-house team who harvest them from local trade fairs, company databases, local events and online directories. The information will have been willingly shared by the person in question at some point but, in many cases, it will have been done so without any realisation that it would find its way into the hands of brands or individuals with whom the target audience member has never had any contact, nor expressed any desire for contact. Think about it. How many times have you given your mobile phone number when making a purchase, booking tickets to an event or joining some online service?

Mr Gupta points out that customers can unsubscribe at any stage by sending a four-digit code back to any of the messages they receive. He says that once you unsubscribe from one company on his books, you are actually unsubscribing from all the companies he sends messages on behalf of.

But not all messages come with the opt-out option and not all companies are scrupulous about ensuring that when they buy or sell databases they do so with the consent of the individuals on them.

According to one senior executive at a Dubai-based media agency, "I know that some of the companies we have used have been able to buy and sell databases from other companies without user permission." The executive, who asked not to be named, explained that SMS marketing was a tool he used in conjunction with email and web-banner campaigns but that it represented just 2 per cent of the agency's spend and was a notoriously difficult method to measure in terms of success.

"With email campaigns you get a click rate, with SMS you only get a delivery rate. We always run the two in tandem and hope to correlate them to get some sense of whether a message has been of interest but it's really only something we'd use for short promotional campaigns - clearance sales and so on. Events that you're trying to drive footfall for," the executive said.

"We always offer opt-out texts and we always use tailored databases with as much detail as possible. I'd say that's what differentiates between SMS branding and spam."

Over the years Etisalat and du have announced various anti-spam services. As the TRA's executive director, Fintan Healy, pointed out last week in response to Sheikh Abdullah's complaints, "Any customer who has signed with the telecom operator before December 30, 2009, has the option to opt out of such service.

"If you had the service before the policy was issued then you will receive the messages. However, if you joined an operator after the issuance, you would have had to apply for them before you can receive such messages."

But, as Sheikh Abdullah's experience and those of many will testify, they have yet to stem the flood of infuriating and irrelevant alerts. Two years ago the TRA issued a policy concerning spam in electronic communications and focusing on spam SMS for marketing purposes.

From July 2010, it was announced, both service providers - Etisalat and du - would be bound by these guidelines. Customers would not receive commercial SMS messages unless they had agreed to them and advertising SMS could only be sent between 7am and 9pm UAE time. But with no cap to the volume of texts sent from a single device a message may be sent within those hours but arrive well beyond them due to the sheer volume of text traffic. A truth to which anybody who has received notification about some beauty sale or car offer at 1am will testify.

Unfortunately for the time being the message is clear: if given the option to unsubscribe use it, don't trust that whoever you choose to share your personal information with will use it only once or wisely and, if you use your phone as your alarm, put it on silent.

* The National