The last time we wrote about SMS alerts (see Getting The Word Out Quickly In Emergency Situations), we focused on using this technology to help communicate critical information to a local audience. However, alerts can also be used for marketing purposes around the globe.

We\’re not talking mass notices that annoy would-be customers. Instead, said JupiterResearch analyst Neil Strother, SMS is becoming a crucial aspect of targeted marketing – getting your message out to those who want to hear it. \”While some marketers might think of these SMS alerts as too indirect from a sales standpoint, the softer benefits have value\”¦ [including] customer loyalty, retention, branding, and outreach of new services,\” Mr. Strother said in a research report.

According to JupiterResearch, U.S. businesses\’ adoption of SMS alerts grew over the past year from 8 percent to 10 percent. Consumers are most interested in service alerts and appointment reminders, which marketers could leverage with messages offering cheap auto loan rates or discounts on haircuts. Consumers also want messages related to safety and weather – of which marketers could take advantage with, say, sales ads for snow tires.

It makes sense to target consumers via their cell phones. Strategy Analytics reports that handsets will grow 11 percent to more than 1 billion units in 2007, thanks to \”convergence,\” or combining multiple features including Internet access onto one device. This trend is enabling travelers to leave their laptops behind and communicate exclusively via their wireless device of choice. The recent introduction of the iPhone and other sophisticated smart phones has helped drive this trend forward tremendously over the past few months.

This is especially true in developing nations. A Reuters report said handset growth on the African continent has grown to 200 million this year, up from 100 million two years ago. Farmers there can quickly get information on export prices, while others can transfer money, via SMS, from their banks to a shop where recipients can pick up the funds. Meanwhile, according to Gartner, in Asia/Pacific handsets grew 40 percent, to 90.4 million units, from the first quarter of 2006 to the same quarter in 2007.

Besides business uses, in emerging economies SMS could mean the difference between life and death. Last spring\’s Virginia Tech murders focused anew on SMS for emergencies, but after the Southeast Asia tsunami two years ago technology enthusiasts gathered around a project called the Open Tsunami Alert System – an inexpensive warning system designed to use free meteorological data and cellular networks. Since much of the population in emerging economies doesn\’t have PCs but do own mobile phones, a simple SMS alert sent to all handset owners in an endangered area could prevent mass death.

The live-saving implications of SMS are obvious, said Joseph Pelton, director of the Space & Advanced Communications Research Institute at George Washington University. \”SMS is a very promising disaster alert system,\” said Mr. Pelton, leader of Project Warn, a global initiative on creating natural disaster warning systems. He noted that Earthlink is implementing many WiFi alert systems across the United States, for which interested denizens can subscribe to receive blast warning messages.

To be sure, SMS can still irritate – or encourage malfeasance. Unwanted marketing messages can cost money for consumers who don\’t have data plans. Meanwhile, said computer programmer and systems architect Charles Martin, who started the OTAS project, \”It would be too easy for a malicious actor, from prankster to terrorist, to issue spurious alerts, with\”¦potentially horrible consequences – not least of them being a ‘boy who cried wolf\’ discounting a real warning.\”

Still, SMS is a proven business tool that pleases both marketers and customers. As Solange Konan, manager of a cocoa farmers\’ cooperative in Ivory Coast, told Reuters, \”A cell phone is a source of pride, a status symbol, for people who used to be completely marginalized.\” As adoption rates continue to rise globally, SMS will only grow as a powerful marketing tool for everyone ranging from small farmers like Mr. Konan to large corporations and governments.

Eydie Cubarrubia