Sell Phones: What will make mobile advertising tick?

Sell Phones: What will make mobile advertising tick?

This column is going to appear in FierceMobileContent tomorrow.

Mobile Marketing and Advertising is the new “it” in the industry. All the recent industry shows have been buzzing with the potential of mobile advertising. Is mobile marketing going to be another over-hyped industry segment or will it actually help generate revenues, drive exits for VC investments, and most importantly, deliver value to the consumers? While the potential exists, there are several technical, business, and legal hurdles that need to be overcome before mobile advertising becomes a successful industry.

To get a grip on the potential market, we take a look at Japan as the harbinger of what’s to come in this space. According to Dentsu, mobile advertising revenues for 2006 will be approximately $373M or close to $3.8 per subscriber (for the year). By 2009, this number is likely to scale to over $6/sub/year. In 2006, US will do less than $1/sub (for the year) in mobile advertising revenues, bulk of which will be SMS marketing. Clearly, potential is big. It is apparent that due to the availability of context, immediacy, and personalization, mobile has significant advantages over the other channels as an advertising medium.

First, let’s discuss the technology piece. As we have seen in Japan and Korea, higher processing power handsets and 3G pipes play a significant role in the adoption of rich advertising content. In the US, by 2008, 3G penetration will reach over 25%. Adoption of Smartphones is also increasing. By next year, we will start seeing $100 smartphones. User interfaces are also getting better. UIOne, MYDAS, Flash, Screen 3, 1mm, and other proprietary solutions are extending the possibilities. In addition, search (including local) is going to be at the epicenter — whether advertising is based on declared intent from the user or passive impressions based on user’s context, history, and preferences.

For mobile advertising to be successful, one needs “reach”, “purity”, and “analytics”. Reach is how many “real” customers do you have? Purity is the “quality” of information on the customers. Name and address just don’t cut it. Analytics is matching users interests – implicit and explicit, context, preferences, network and handset conditions to ads and promotions in real-time. Not just bucketing a user in a group and giving them a number but understanding the user in every way possible and customizing every single interaction to the finest degree possible. Also, what is absolutely needed is an easily accessible control framework for “permission advertising” so that the user can selectively or globally switch-on or off the types of ads/promotions they would like to entertain and when.

It is clear that mobile advertising and marketing has big potential if industry strives to take into account the user considerations that matter the most. But, which players will dominate and control the ecosystem. Without a doubt, carriers have the purest profile information available, but can they execute their strategies? Well, they have approximately 2-3 year window. Once 3G and Smartphone penetration curves collide and pass 20-30%, if the carriers haven’t built a good mousetrap (value proposition) by then, all bets are off. Different dominant players will start to emerge, as it will get easier for Internet and traditional brands to build direct relationships with a good proportion of the subscriber base. Brands and service providers who are able to integrate user experience across channels will benefit the most.

Then, there is the whole world of off-net advertising and marketing, where carriers are going to play a lesser role. Here, creative technical and business solutions are needed for accurate targeting. Finally, ads and promotions should be “super-distribution-friendly” meaning — treat ads and promotions like content that can be passed around “easily.”

While the potential is immense, there are also significant risks and potential challenges before the industry evolves into a vibrant advertising medium. The prominent amongst them are privacy and data security. Once you start mining user data, significant profile information can be developed. Then how that information is used and by whom becomes an issue and a significant legal minefield. In addition, the security policies and procedures need to be in place to protect the data from theft or misuse if the industry doesn’t want regulators to get involved.

It is quite clear from the industry trends that mobile industry is moving from an emerging state to a more interactive and immersive applications environment. By 2011, global advertising industry will be close to $600B. Can mobile start to increase its revenue share from its current levels of less than 0.2% to 2-5% by then? Since this medium can provide context, immediacy, and personalization, the answer is yes. However, there are technical, business, and legal hurdles to be crossed before the industry becomes a thriving institution. Until then, stay tuned to our commentary on the shifts and turns in the ecosystem.

Note: An expanded version of this article will be published soon.

Acknowledgements: My thanks to Sunil Jain, Victor Melfi, Amar Patel, Anne Baker, Sarla Sharma, Shawn Conahan, and Subhadeep Chatterjee for their valuable assistance with this article.