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“Rogers Alerts” lets advertisers pay to know when people with a Rogers phone are near a store.Gloria Nieto/The Globe and Mail

Rogers Communications Inc. is launching a service that will help advertisers know where its wireless subscribers are, and speak to them more directly.

Rogers is the first major carrier in Canada to launch this type of marketing service. Called "Rogers Alerts," it lets advertisers pay to know when people with a Rogers phone are near a store, and to send them text messages with promotions to entice them to shop there. The mobile carrier will announce the new service on Wednesday.

It marks an important step for mobile marketing in Canada, as advertisers attempt to speak more effectively to people on the devices that are closest to them all day long – their phones.

The service does not mean instant access to Rogers' entire pool of 9.4 million wireless subscribers. Users have to opt in to receive the messages, which Rogers says will not exceed four per week.

Some national retailers have already signed up, including Sears Canada, Future Shop, Pizza Hut Canada, A&W and Second Cup. Rogers Wireless will also use the service in its own marketing, and more advertisers are in talks with the company to sign on.

"This is about increasing the relevance of marketing in a model where the consumer has opened up a door to greater intimacy – which is a one-on-one message," said Nyla Ahmad, vice president of local digital at Rogers. "… With an SMS [text message], you notice it more and your likelihood to read it is far greater."

So far, many marketers who have dipped their toes in the mobile space have done so via branded applications – which, once downloaded, can ask for permission to deliver promotional messages. But not surprisingly, aside from exemplary cases, it is often challenging to convince a significant number of people to bother downloading an app that is essentially a vehicle for advertising, and it is even more difficult to convince them to use it.

"With a geotargeted text message program, you have a much larger audience," said Asif Khan, founder and president of the Location Based Marketing Association in Toronto. "…The potential is large."

The technology Rogers is using was developed by California-based Placecast. Other companies, such as AT&T in the U.S. and Telefonica O2 in Europe, also use Placecast for mobile offers, and the company says that more than 250 brands have sent offers through its system. Those include both retailers, such as Starbucks Corp., as well as companies that own brands sold by retailers, such as S. C. Johnson & Son Inc. and L'Oréal SA. The program works by building "geofences" – basically virtual fences around a specific location, such as a storefront or a park near a store, for example. When a user passes through that airspace, the technology recognizes his or her phone, and can deliver a message.

In the pilot phase of its program, Rogers has already had a few thousand subscribers agree to receive those messages, Ms. Ahmad said.

"It allows us to be more nimble and let people know about products that are more relevant to them," said John Rocco, vice-president of marketing at Sears Canada. "… It could be a hot spell coming, and we have great air conditioners. Winter coats [when it gets cold]. … This technology allows us to be more real-time."

Rogers has already had to play "referee" with some advertisers, however. "One advertiser wanted to geofence their competitor, to send an offer before [a shopper] walked into that store, to walk back into their store," said Jack Tomik, chief sales officer for Rogers Media. "... We don't feel that's a proper use of that service."

A Léger Marketing study released this summer of 1,506 Canadians who own smartphones, commissioned by SAS Canada, found that 47 per cent of respondents would be more likely to visit a store again if offered personalized promotions on their smartphone. An even larger number said they would be open to receiving offers from nearby retailers while they were out shopping.

Most research on the subject suggests that people's willingness to receive those messages is directly proportional to how relevant the messages are. Rogers' service will let users specify the type of messages they want to receive, and will also track user behaviour over time to better target its offers. "This is not spam. This is not handing out handbills on the corner," Mr. Tomik said. "This is very direct."