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RU READY FOR THIS NEW AD ERA?

Cell phone promotions and alerts begin gaining U.S. momentum. Don't worry: It's fairly spam-proof.

Visitors to V's Martini Bar in Clearwater have their fingers on the pulse of 21st century marketing - coming soon to a cell phone near you, if you haven't seen it.

"It works great," said Vincenzo Longo, the bar's owner, who for a year has been using text-message marketing to tell his clients what's new at the V. "Nobody complains, and it's cost effective."

Longo sends short messages to the cell phones of about 450 of his customers once or twice a week, telling them about drink specials or upcoming events. Sometimes they get a coupon for a free drink. At 8 cents per message, it doesn't take too many customers buying that second drink for Longo to get his money back.

While European and Asian cell phone users have let advertisers send information to their mobile phones for years, the practice is only now catching on in the United States. Many heard their phones chime with offers during Sunday's Super Bowl and the dam is about to burst on what some research says will be a multibillion-dollar channel in the next few years.

Sending text messages to hundreds of people at a time is more than thumbs can bear, so companies like Tampa's Agile Communications provide Web interfaces to simplify the process. They maintain databases of customers who have given permission so as not to run afoul of the law or good customer service by cell spamming the unsuspecting.

Longo uses Agile, which serves text messages to patrons of the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, Florida Aquarium and Museum of Science and Industry, said chief operating officer Rick Bowen. He said text is being applied in many novel ways, from emergency notifications to political organizing.

"It's almost impossible today to buy a cell phone package without unlimited text messaging," said Bowen, who cites research that 85-million messages are sent in the United States every day and that number is doubling annually.

Pizza and other fast-food chains are pushing hard on this form of mobile marketing. Domino's has 1-million cell phone numbers on its list, to which it sends promotions about once a month. Pizza Hut is gearing up, while Papa John's has an NFL playoff promotion that gears discounts to points scored, but only for those signed up to its text service.

"Imagine you're sitting there on Super Bowl Sunday and you get a text message with a pizza special," said Jenn Greacen, head of Red Frog Marketing of Largo, which is working with pizza places and other clients on rolling out text-based services.

Greacen said she has seen the service used by hotels to notify conventioners about a schedule change or a new event. She's talking to a home improvement client who wants to have billboards that include a code people can text for information and discounts. Cox Cable is experimenting in some markets with a similar service, only the codes are shown on TV ads.

Bella Brava in downtown St. Petersburg found its initial experiment in texting coupons drew few takers. "It was a little complicated for our customers (and) required them to do too much," owner Robert Sanderson said. But Sanderson changed tactics and uses texts to tell people about exclusive events. He sent out a message about a limited-space free wine tasting, and his phone started ringing.

Even with a cell phone owner's permission, text message marketing can be treacherous territory.

"If (customers) decide you're spamming them even once too often, they won't just get angry,'' said Andy Nulman, president of Airborne Mobile,a Montreal-based firm that markets text messages. "They will smash their cell phone into little pieces and you'll lose them as a customer forever."

So he limits alerts to only the most compelling offers and never sends more than one a month.

Text message marketing has been slow to catch on in this country in part because of the bad experiences people have had with e-mail, said Mark Wenzow-ski, president and CEO of new Tampa firm Cellghost Media. But unlike wide-open e-mail, text messaging has stricter controls to prevent abuse.

"It's actually a very passive form of marketing because you have to opt in and in some cases double-opt in," he said, referring to users asking to receive messages, not just having them come unsolicited.

The standards of wireless carriers and the Mobile Marketing Association make it easy to opt out when users change their minds. "It's a much more airtight system," Wenzowski said.

Some scams slip through. Though permission is required, some third-party companies sign up customers covertly and charge them monthly fees for things like daily text jokes. The wireless industry is clamping down on such deals and hoping to fend off federal regulation.

With the variety of text marketing applications growing, some describe it as the Wild West:

- One firm invites people to send a camera phone picture of print ads in exchange for a discount on merchandise mentioned in the ad.

- Dentists use text messages to remind their patients of appointments.

- Virgin Mobile USA offers its customers free cell phone minutes if they'll accept text message ads. Half a million people have accepted the offer.

- Wenzowski is giving service to his church for a monthly text prayer, and targeting real estate agents who want to text instant info on homes for sale as shoppers drive by.

- Agile made text messaging available to adventurer Roz Savage when she rowed across the Atlantic Ocean in 2006, Bowen said. People who wanted to follow her progress would get messages she sent via satellite phone from the middle of the sea to 19 countries.

"With text messages, you can't ignore them," Greacen said. "People are about to see a lot of it."

Times staff writer Mark Albright contributed to this report. Paul Swider can be reached at pswider@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2271.

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