Mobile Advertising: Will it be Relevant and Non-Obtrusive?

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It's increasingly clear that the big wireless carriers intend to get into the advertising business. On Jan. 2, AT&T announced that it would begin offering marketers the opportunity to advertise on cell phones within its vast (58.7 million member) Cingular wireless network. AT&T's announcement follows a similar announcement by rival Verizon that it too would begin experimenting with mobile ads; Sprint has been experimenting with such ads since October.

Despite these aggressive moves by the carriers, it's by no means clear how their subscribers will respond to advertising on their phones, especially in light of a Forrester Research study reporting that an overwhelming 79 percent of users polled find the concept of cell phone advertising annoying. To many, the prospect of advertising creeping into their screens seems almost insulting, given that subscribers are already paying big bills each month. Many are probably wondering how much extra they'll have to pay the carriers to keep ads away from their phones.

Mobile advertising can work, but only if it is conducted in a way that takes the best characteristics of search marketing: its high degree of relevance and non-obtrusiveness, and transfers these to the mobile browsing experience.

Assuring that mobile advertising is delivered in a way that is relevant is a big challenge. As several observers have noted, the mere fact that my phone is passing within 100 feet of a local car wash doesn't mean that I am at all interested in having my car washed. If, however, the system is smart enough to know that I have submitted a query within the last 24 hours relating to a car wash service, I would probably regard such a message as an opportunity, rather than an intrusion. Delivering relevance in the mobile context means tying together my search query behavior, location, and other profile data in a sophisticated way.

Minimizing obtrusiveness is equally important. Mobile carriers should allow their customers to "opt out" of advertising messages if they don't want to see them. The control to disable advertising shouldn't be a menu item buried five levels deep within an "Options" menu: it should be a front-and-center control that respects the right of subscribers to have full control over their devices. As an incentive for users to allow advertising to be displayed, mobile carriers should provide specific, tangible benefits to users, e.g. "view this ad and earn five free minutes of time." In effect, the system should let advertisers directly sponsor users' "talk time" in the same way that sponsors have traditionally underwritten free TV and radio programming.

Forecasters agree that the mobile advertising market represents a multibillion-dollar opportunity. But the best-laid plans of the carriers will fail if subscribers reject the way this advertising is delivered. If mobile carriers can resist the temptation to indiscriminately blast advertising clutter to their users' cell phones, 2007 just might be the year that we see a real mobile ad market emerge.

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