MobileSphere Exec Says Slydial “Combats Technology with Technology”

7/22/08Follow @wroush

After I published my piece this morning on Slydial—the new service that lets you leave voicemail messages for mobile phone users without making their phone ring—I had a chance to talk briefly with Gavin Macomber, executive vice president of marketing and business development at MobileSphere, the Boston-based startup behind the service. I’m pretty incredulous about MobileSphere’s marketing strategy around Slydial, and I was very interested to hear Macomber’s take.

Slydial (at 267-SLY-DIAL) strikes me as a potentially useful tool; it’s sort of like sending an audio e-mail, without having to sit down at a computer. But surprisingly, and a bit disturbingly, MobileSphere is pitching the product as a way to sidestep actual human-to-human communication. The company’s own publicity materials boast that by allowing you to leave a message without the risk of actually having to talk to someone, Slydial provides “the illusion of communication.”

So my basic question for Macomber was: why would a company in the mobile communications business want to help people avoid talking to each other? Here’s the interview.

Xconomy: So, if you’ve read my piece, you already know my take on Slydial.

Gavin Macomber: Yes, and some of the points you’re making there are exactly the direction we wanted to take this product. MobileSphere is a mobile communications technology company. We’ve been around since 2003, and we’ve launched eight products in the last five years, and many of them, as you alluded to, have to do with businesses and universities. They are fairly straight-laced and streamlined. When we launched our SMS service in 2006 we came up with a funnier name in Joopz. And when we started working on the Slydial concept over a year ago, we discussed it internally as our “VMS 2.0″ technology and we referred to it as “Direct to Voicemail” for a long time. But we decided that we needed a catchy, edgy name to really get it out there.

Our goal here with this product is a little bit of a different tactic than we’ve taken before. Most of our products before were very niche products; our goal here is to make it very mainstream. As you point out, there are a lot of business use cases for this type of solution, but it’s also for people out there who are using this in a social setting, whether it is dating, keeping in touch with friends or family, et cetera.

X: So, how seriously do you want people to take your marketing campaign? To what extent is it supposed to be tongue-in-cheek?

GM: To answer the question you posed in your piece—is this campaign serious or is it sassy?—the answer is it’s “seriously sassy,” to use your own words.

Let me give you two seconds on our philosophy here about mobile communications. One of the advantages of modern communications is that we can be reached at any time today, whether you are on a mobile phone, a laptop, or a Blackberry. But the disadvantage is that often you’re a slave to that device. In a way, we’re combating technology with technology. That’s the way I look at it.

Have you ever called somebody and wanted to talk, but they deliberately sent that call to voicemail? We’re doing the reverse of that. The carriers give you the ability to send any call to voicemail. What we’re doing is giving consumer the ability—just as they can choose when and where they can take a phone call—to decide when and where they want to talk to somebody or leave them a voice mail.

At the end of the day, its’ a fun product. I agree that it’s an edgy name. But it’s a catchy name. And I will tell you that we spent a lot of time with consumers before we launched this service. We had a four-month alpha period with 5,000 users, and my marketing manager will attest that the response to the overall service was exceptional, including the name. We especially asked ‘Do you like the name Slydial?” and over 80 percent said yes, they got it. So it’s a tactic that resonates with people.

I understand that some people may say, “Wait, I don’t want to be considered too sly.” But at the same time, you’ll note also in our press release that we have highlighted all of the other uses for this type of service—and there are lots of them. I use the service every day for business reasons. If I am working on a deal and I want to call somebody and share some information but not take the chance of interrupting them on a busy day, I will leave a voicemail.

X: But whether you’re trying to be edgy or not, I think the way you’ve chosen to spin the service can be seen as encouraging the general erosion of genuine human interaction in the age of high-tech communications.

GM: I agree, but as I was saying earlier, I think that mobile technology has made us all slaves to our devices. You’re on vacation and you have to respond to that e-mail because your Blackberry is chirping at you. Or you’re on your PC and you feel obligated to respond to a blog post at 2 in the morning. It’s the dissemination of information that I think has led to exactly what you’re talking about, and services like ours help people manage that very phenomenon. That’s the way I look at it. And we’re also saying, let’s add a bit of a sense of humor.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • Jonathan

    I really like this idea. I’ve needed a service like this in the past and I’m sure I’ll be using it from time to time.

    I can see the point Gavin is making. There are times when I need to tell someone something but they are the type of person that can’t talk for 20 seconds, so I have to schedule a block of time just to tell them one thing. So this could accomplish what I need and save both people involved some time. Its not that I’m trying to limit contact with them, it just might be an inconvenience at the time to talk with them.

    Great job on a good product that has many useful applications!

  • Kenn O’Connor

    Anything that offers more options on my tech devices gets two big thumbs up from me. I’m not going to complain over having some extra control over what I can do with my electronic voice. Oddball marketing or not, I see several uses for this service already; at work and at home.

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  • Sledge

    Corporate HR departments should love Slydial as a quicker way to “down-size” redundant employees without having to speak to them.

  • Greg Brown

    I just saw a plug for slydial on the Today Show. The “oddball marketing” concept they have seems to really be a catchy one. Anyone who says they have no use for it is lying. I’m drinking the slydial kool-aid!

  • Anonymous

    Ahhh, yeah…i might only use this going forward – I am constantly NOT answering my phone. I seriously need this service AND I seriously need more people in my life that I actually WANT to talk to.

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