Upwardly Mobile: Sprint PCS Tackles the Mobile Data Market
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Upwardly Mobile: Sprint PCS Tackles the Mobile Data Market

To convince journalists, analysts and investors of its bellwether position in the PDA market, Sprint PCS needed to establish itself as a successful player in the mobile data space in addition to a leading wireless carrier

Paul Holmes

The year 2000 was a banner year for Sprint PCS. The company’s record sales and growing reputation in the wireless market exceeded all goals and expectations, internally and externally. In the wake of such a successful year, 2001 posed a major challenge for the company: with wireless sales reaching a plateau, the only way for Sprint PCS to meet its goals for 2001 would be to build on convergence and make an evolutionary move into another profitable market: mobile data.
Forrester’s prediction — that by 2003 more than 60 percent of all mobile computing devices will be wirelessly enabled — proved that the PDA market was growing at a rapid pace. If Sprint PCS could successfully enter this market, the company would enjoy success equal to 2000 in 2001. With the launch of the Wireless Web, Sprint PCS had already built a solid foundation that would enable the company to make a smooth transition into the mobile data market. However, the execution of a campaign to communicate this message to journalists, analysts, investors and customers was critical.
With this in mind, Sprint PCS and Colorado-based Metzger Associates embarked on a communication campaign timed with the company’s launch into the burgeoning PDA market. The announcement of a “preferred partnership agreement” with Palm and the launch of the first color-screen Palm OS-based phone would serve as the backbone of the campaign. The results achieved were phenomenal: analysts applauded Sprint PCS for entering the quickly-growing mobile data market, investors held onto their stock in a tumultuous market and typically skeptical journalists praised Sprint PCS for successfully embracing the PDA market.
Sprint PCS was faced with two significant challenges. First, to convince journalists, analysts and investors of its bellwether position in the PDA market, Sprint PCS needed to establish itself as a successful player in the mobile data space in addition to a leading wireless carrier. Secondly, and perhaps even more challenging, Sprint PCS needed to establish the validity of a truly converged phone/PDA device. Key influencers in the industry such as The Wall Street Journal’s Walt Mossberg had openly scoffed at the idea of a combination phone/PDA. Sprint PCS needed to win over the respect of such pundits in order to gain acceptance for its expansion into the mobile data market.
The January partnership announcement between Sprint PCS and Palm would be crucial to the success of the campaign. Sprint PCS knew that this announcement needed to provide the kind of momentum that would pique the interest of analysts, journalists, investors and current customers, and, at the same time, would generate excitement about the future of Sprint PCS in the mobile data market.
Equally important to the initial announcement would be effectively positioning and branding the first Palm-phone device, the i300. Sprint PCS anticipated skepticism with regards to this device, as several journalists had already expressed doubts about devices that combined a phone with a PDA. Successful communication and a top-notch review program would be key to this element of the campaign.
Sprint PCS and Metzger identified national business and technology publications as target press for the campaign — readers of both types of publications fit the profile of the user Sprint PCS needed to influence. Industry analysts would also assist by providing third-party credibility for journalists by validating Sprint PCS’ expansion into the PDA market.
With these audiences in mind, the PR team developed key strategies and messages to address the significance of Sprint’s foray into the mobile data market and to explain how this strategic decision would positively impact the future of the company. Specific sets of key messages were also developed for each key announcement throughout the campaign.
Objectives were twofold: first, to receive positive coverage from major national business and technology media, influencing “techno-lover” readers to purchase connection kits and Sprint-branded PDA handsets; and second, to obtain favorable quotes from at least three key analysts, establishing Sprint PCS as the leading wireless carrier in the mobile data market.
The PR team wanted to begin the campaign with a bang by conducting an online press conference to announce Sprint PCS’ partnership with Palm—the first major step in proving Sprint PCS’s commitment to the mobile data market. Holding a virtual press conference would enable the communication of one consistent message—Sprint’s leadership in the mobile data market—while also providing the innovative, dramatic backdrop needed to generate excitement.
The next step was to educate analysts on Sprint PCS’ partnership with Palm and plans to roll out converged devices. These influencers would serve as valuable third-party references for Sprint PCS throughout the campaign. The team then set out to nurture relationships with key journalists such as Walt Mossberg of The Wall Street Journal and David Carnoy of CNET to ensure thorough understanding and positive coverage on Sprint PCS’ plans to branch out into the PDA market. Focusing on top-tier national business and technology publications, whose “techno-lover” readers would be key to reaching Sprint PCS’ sales and business goals for 2001.
Finally, it was important to emphasize whenever possible throughout the campaign the importance of Sprint PCS’ expansion into the mobile data market and the positive impact this decision would have on the company and its customers.
To kick off the campaign, Sprint PCS hosted an interactive Web conference with Palm on January 4. During the presentation to key journalists, analysts, investors and customers, Sprint PCS’ CEO referenced rock-solid statistics from Forrester and Dataquest on the growth of the PDA market, which demonstrated the intelligence of the company’s decision to expand into the mobile data market, then addressed how the announcement would positively impact the future of Sprint PCS.
Of the 400 invited to the online conference, 200 participated, nearly double the original goal of 30 percent participation. By briefing key telecom analysts the day prior to the announcement, Sprint PCS was able to provide journalists with third party references from credible sources who reinforced the intelligence of Sprint PCS’ move into the mobile data market. As a result of the Web conference, Sprint PCS generated positive coverage in top-tier business and technology publications including the Journal, USA Today and CNET.com, received 4,800 Web hits on the online archived conference and even enjoyed a stock price bump of nearly $4 (20 percent) at the close of the day.
In the months following the announcement, Sprint PCS held in-person briefings with top-tier media at key trade shows and while on press tour to continue the momentum begun in early January. These meetings, held with key business and technology publications such as Business 2.0, Time Digital, Money Magazine, eWeek, Network World and Industry Standard emphasized the key messages of the initial announcement with Palm, while alluding to even more news from Sprint PCS with regards to the PDA market in the months to come.
An exclusive cocktail party in New York City to launch the i300 PDA handset gave key journalists, analysts and customers a first glimpse of the hottest converged product on the market. This elite event, attended by 100 key influencers, generated excitement about the device and Sprint PCS’ commitment to the PDA market. During and after the event, Sprint PCS provided reviewers at target publications with demo units of the i300, pointing out the bleeding-edge features of the converged device.
The Web conference achieved the goal of communicating the message of Sprint PCS’ leadership in the PDA market perfectly, as reflected in The New York Times’ proclamation that Sprint PCS’ partnership with Palm “allows Sprint PCS to transition from a traditional mobile phone company into a provider of Internet access for all types of mobile devices”. Identical messages were conveyed in nearly 60 business and technology publications, from Mobile Computing & Communications to USA Today.
Telecom analysts from Gartner and Cahners In-Stat validated Sprint PCS’ expansion into the PDA market, citing that customers are looking for “a complete wireless solution, especially one that simplifies the convergence of mobile voice and data services” [Phillip Redman, Gartner] and that “by partnering with the PDA leader Sprint PCS is offering users a way to be even more productive no matter where they are” [Ken Hyers, Cahners In-Stat.]
Sprint PCS’ stock opened at $21.25 on the morning of the Palm announcement and closed at $24.00, indicating investor support for Sprint PCS’ expansion into the mobile data market. Although 2001 was a bumpy year for most tech stocks, Sprint PCS’ stock price remained relatively steady, demonstrating the confidence held by investors about the company’s future direction.
The i300 received rave reviews from journalists—Walt Mossberg deemed the i300 “the smallest, sleekest combo device to date;” Men’s Journal dubbed the device “the wireless Holy Grail;” and Popular Science named the i300 one of the “Best of What’s New” products for 2001. The New York Times’ pundit David Pogue even compares the i300 to a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup—a perfect combination of two great things! All in all, the i300 was featured in more than 200 broadcast, print and online publications. Not surprisingly, sales of the device skyrocketed — the handset was even sold out for a week!
Most importantly, PCS will exceed sales and business goals for 2001, cementing the ultimate goal of the campaign.
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