A few weeks ago in my doctor’s office waiting room, five cellphones went off within seconds of each other with the same bleating – and immediately recognizable – alarm.

WAAH. WAAH. WAAH. WAAH. An Amber alert had been issued.

It’s the perfect example of what mobile marketers call a “service message.” Typically, it’s an alert, alarm, push notification or text message that’s triggered and delivered in real time to provide information about a service, an emergency or a piece of critical information.

Service messages are becoming more important and widely used in the mobile marketer’s tool kit, and they are expanding beyond their utility for crises, alerts and emergency situations. Their value lies in their ability to deliver real-time, in-this-moment information at just the right time on a mobile device.

Service Messages: Data-Driven and Ideally Timed

Ideally, services messages should be easy for many companies to execute – banks, travel companies, media companies and utilities, for example. They already have access to rich data about their customers. Built as they are on robust data, service messages deliver needed information while also maintaining and deepening relationships with customers.

The challenge lies in getting services message to customers in a timely manner. Nothing says “I don’t really know you” more than a time-sensitive brand message that arrives two hours (or two days) too late. These three guidelines ensure that service messages will hit their targets:

  • Know your customers: Data is the key to timeliness and real-time relevance. Use data to understand all of the various components of a message and its intended recipient: who gets it, where it’s delivered, when it’s delivered and what specific information it delivers.
  • Anticipate your customers’ needs: Depending on the vertical, some activities are predictable, recurring and should always be ready to be deployed at the ideal moment (a tornado warning, a potentially fraudulent credit card payment, a missing neighborhood child, a delayed flight, news of an international crisis, etc.). Put yourself in your customers’ shoes, and craft, segment and target messages that provide help before (or as soon as) it’s needed and relevant to the right audiences.
  • Deliver a personalized interaction in the perfect moment: Timing is everything on a smartphone, a delicate but necessary dance between data, message content and timing. All three have to mesh perfectly to deliver the right message to a waiting (or unsuspecting) customer at the ideal moment – when a fraudulent charge is detected, when their flight lands, when their favorite artist is coming to town, etc.

Here are just a few examples of service examples in key sectors.

Fintech/Banking: A text message that asks you to verify a recently transacted credit card charge is a perfect example of a service message from the financial services sector. Perhaps a bank will send a mobile alert if its online banking site is down or if a user’s account is overdrawn and needs to be replenished immediately. Javelin Strategy Research has highlighted the growing use of text and push notifications in the banking sector. By 2019, it predicts, 126 million U.S. banking customers (52%) will receive some combination of email, text or push alerts from financial institutions – with the caveat that such messages will be noticed and heeded “only if the content is relevant, digestible and actionable in a matter of seconds.”

Public utilities: An app from Colorado Springs Utilities not only alert customers about electrical outages, it also lets them report outages, check an outage map, or access the call center with one touch. (It’s a far better experience, I might add, than calling the utility company to report an outage, only to be told by the friendly-voice recording that you can also log into your computer and report outages on the website, which is impossible right now because – guess what? – your power is OUT). Another app, PowerAid, claims to “brutally wake you up” via an alarm when power unexpectedly goes out from a severe storm or transformer explosion. Utility-related messages provide real-time information that’s helpful, informative and up-to-the-minute.

Media/Publishing: Something newsworthy happens around the world – a political event, a World Series winner, the death of a famous rock star — and readers find out about it immediately from the news alert that pops up on their smartphones. Media and publishing companies rely on service messages to keep their readers informed in real time and to attract eyeballs to the mobile web or web. Being “in the know” can no longer wait for an evening newscast or a morning headline. Service messages play a critical role in today’s news and publishing operations.

Travel: If your flight is canceled on the day of travel, you’re far more likely to find out from an alert sent directly to your phone than by staring at a display screen in the terminal. Travel is an ideal sector for service messaging, because information is provided in real time, and the smartphone is sometimes a traveler’s SOLE method of staying in touch with the airline/travel company and the outside world. Likewise, many travel activities are shifting to the mobile environment – checking in, tracking baggage, and real-time communications about flight status, gate changes, weather and delays (which also present the ideal opportunity for a mobile voucher or discount from the mobile marketing team – perfectly timed!).

Executed well, service messages in the mobile environment do exactly what they promise: they send a message that does a valuable service for the consumer on the receiving end.

Read more: