What we can learn from mobile phone emergency alerts

By Rose de Fremery

In our interconnected world, mobile phone emergency alerts increasingly provide us with timely information about unexpected emergencies or natural disasters that may affect us. With instant access to such alerts, we can better ensure our own safety if the worst should happen.

As the practice of messaging a cell phone for emergency use becomes more commonplace, it presents some lessons businesses can learn from in their own SMS strategies. Here’s how organizations around the world are using mobile emergency alerts and what can be learned from these examples.

Success stories for mobile phone emergency alerts

Mobile alerts have not only worked, but have arguably saved lives. As Time reports, Japan’s Meteorological Agency used its J-Alert system to successfully transmit mobile warnings to residents just before the massive Tohoku Earthquake’s first jolt arrived in 2011, giving them a crucial early warning about a major disaster. With the 2020 Tokyo Olympics looming, government officials are looking to release similar alerts in more languages so international visitors can be apprised in case an emergency arises.

Join the Call for Code to help in disaster preparedness

As the Hawaiian volcano Kilauea continues to erupt, releasing streams of lava while belching significant quantities of ash and rock. Emergency alerts are proving useful here as well, with local residents opting into a text-based emergency alert system that gives them timely updates on evacuation updates and traffic advisories.

Schools and universities are also increasingly looking into issuing automated text alerts during emergencies, such as lockdown drills or active shooter situations. Virginia Tech, which experienced a mass shooting in 2007, requires students to opt in or out of their mobile emergency alerts before registering for classes each semester. According to Campus Safety Magazine, more than half of educational institutions surveyed are looking at implementing similar notification systems to improve campus safety.

The need for continued growth

But not every story of mobile phone emergency alerts is one of success. In early May, many Canadians in Quebec and Ontario received a unique test alert in both English and French from its Alert Ready system. Due to an unexpected glitch, not everyone got the message. As the CBC reports, Canadian authorities are still refining the system.

In a more infamous example, Hawaii found itself in the spotlight in January when its statewide emergency alert system accidentally sent out a dire warning of an imminent nuclear missile attack that later proved to be false. According to CNN, an internal review later revealed that the mishap took place during a routine drill when an employee inadvertently selected the wrong message template. That frightening blunder highlights the need for better processes surrounding the dissemination of emergency alerts.

What does it mean for business?

Of course, your business likely won’t be alerting your customers of earthquakes or floods. But mobile alerts can still be useful for marketing strategies, such as alerting shoppers of limited time sales or providing them with exclusive coupons.

If you’re piloting a system of mass alerts, you can take a page from the growing trend of mobile phone emergency alerts, incorporating best practices into your marketing strategies and learning from their failures. After all, given the intimate relationship many people have with their mobile devices, it’s important to ensure that business communications always arrive in the right way, at the right moment.

  • Get the word out about your service. Most emergency notification systems don’t give users a choice about opting in, leading to confusion and alarm when they receive notifications. It’s unlikely your customers would appreciate being similarly surprised by you. Instead, take the necessary steps to get the word out about your service well in advance and encourage public participation in it. When inviting your audience to opt into mobile marketing channels, explain how doing so will benefit them, how often they should expect to receive messages and how they will arrive.
  • Have a clear message. When an emergency hits and people are under stress, they need quick, concise alerts that deliver precisely the information they need in clear language. This is also true in a marketing context. Being conscientious of your audience’s time and attention in this way will ensure their continued engagement.
  • Send only relevant messages. Emergency planners fret that if the public receives too many messages about events not concerning them, they might tune out the ones they actually need. Businesses should also consider the relevance and frequency of the marketing messages they distribute to their audiences.
  • Reach your audience where they are. Some emergency planners are providing alerts via multiple channels, allowing their recipients to choose the method that is best for them — whether that’s a push notification, SMS message, email, or even an automated phone call. Similarly, your business may benefit from giving audience members the opportunity to select the messaging channel that works for them. This also increases the likelihood of your message successfully getting out in the event that one channel is down.
  • Watch out for glitches. As Gizmodo reports, an ominous-sounding emergency alert sent out in error recently sparked great confusion and alarm among Oregon residents, causing 911 lines to overflow with panicked calls. To avoid a similar error, it’s wise to have procedures and systems in place that reduce the likelihood of human or technological error triggering a false alarm.

In an increasingly mobile world, organizations of all kinds are tapping mobile communications to reach their audiences. As emergency communications become more refined, all businesses that wish to use mobile messaging to reach customers can take note of what works and what doesn’t. If organizations work diligently to improve their alert systems, mobile users will soon be readily equipped with precisely the information they need, just when they need it.

Join the Call for Code to help in disaster preparedness

Written By

Rose de Fremery


Rose de Fremery is a New York-based writer. She currently covers business IT topics such as technology innovation, mobile strategy, unified communications, CRM and marketing automation, IT management, and the virtual workforce for HP, Intel, Vonage, and IBM Mobile Business Insights.…

Other Articles by Rose de Fremery
See All Posts