The dicey, dicey world of mobile advertising

I asked my 23-year old daughter this morning what she thought of the idea of advertising on her cell phone. “The devil,” she replied.

Media companies, take notice, for if you’re betting the ranch on big ad revenues via mobile, I think you’d better take a second look. That mobile phone is a very unique apparatus, one that’s highly, highly personal, and I think the serving of ads (the way Madison Avenue would like) would reveal the truth of Doc Searls wonderful statement, “There is no demand for unwanted messages.”

But some disagree. Alana Semuels wrote for the LA Times this week, “Ads on your cellphone? Get used to it,” but every time I read something like this, I’m immediately swept into the courtroom in an episode of Law & Order, where one of the attorneys jumps up and shouts, “Objection! Assumes facts not in evidence!”

Semuels article is based on new research by Nielsen revealed during a presentation at Billboard Mobile Entertainment Live in San Francisco on Tuesday. Here are the numbers: 9% of people agree with the statement that advertising on their cellphones is acceptable. Yup, 9%. 31% say it’s acceptable IF IT LOWERS THEIR WIRELESS BILL. Think that’s going to happen?

(Note to self, Senator Herb Kohl is asking carriers why text messaging rates have doubled in three years. Hmm)

Paul Kultgen, director of mobile advertising at Nielsen, is quoted in Ms. Semuels’ article:

“We’re at a tipping point,” he said. “The best days for mobile ads are in front of us.” Advertising has to be relevant, meaningful and creative, he said. If it gives people something of value, he said, they’re not opposed to it.

Objection! Assumes facts not in evidence!

Another study is also cited in the article. This one, by Local Mobile Search revealed that 43% of mobile users “were amenable” to ads, if they had some say in what those ads are.

“A lot of surveys have been done that show that people are just not really interested in mobile advertising,” said Greg Sterling, a senior analyst with Local Mobile Search. “But if you give people assurances that they have some measure of control, then they become much more interested.”

There’s lots of evidence that even web users like the idea of control over ads served — like the ability to pick your own advertiser — but the model hasn’t proven viable as a mass marketing breakthrough.

So these kinds of surveys seem more wishful thinking than anything to me, and I believe people will run from ads on their personal property like Tokyo residents ran from Godzilla.

Local television, however, has a big, big new revenue stream coming in Mobile DTV. If I ran a station, I’d let newspapers figure out monetizing text online and put my money on Mobile DTV.

(UPDATE: Ike rightly points out in the comments something I should have clarified. The mobile Web is a different animal with regards to ads, but that has a long way to go to achieve mass. Thanks, Ike. Now don’t blow my house down this weekend.)


  1. I thought that was the whole point of Google’s “Messiah phone.” Google gets a platform to serve ads, while offering VOIP-service with proprietary handsets on the cheap.

  2. Like any other medium, it’s a matter of respecting user preferences and delivering relevancy. Mobile ads on our iPhone edition have been a big hit with users and advertisers. I think that’s because they’re unobtrusive and relevant, at least in the sense of geo-location.

  3. Mike, Ike, I wasn’t thinking of the Mobile Web. Should have made that clearer. Thanks,

  4. Geo-tagged or personally relevant ads may pass muster with most users — but you touched on the real motivator — reduced rates. We suffer through ads on ‘free’ TV because we understand why we have to watch them. To suffer through ads on a platform that we invariably pay too much for — and get lousy service — may be pushing the envelope. Free phones and calling plans in exchange for insufferable ads? Maybe.
    But you’re right — highly unlikely from the major carriers — but Virgin or another start-up could make it work with enough of the right demo penetration. I could see a young demographic embracing this — or am I too old to make that judgement? Big media always seems to underestimate what users will put up with. Next they’ll charge text rates for ad delivery to me…without telling me. Watch your bill carefully!

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