AdForce: We’re Wireless and You’re Not

AdForce Inc. is expected this week to give the market a better look at technology that can send advertisements to wireless devices, a frontier battleground the company considers pivotal in its fight to outpace rivals and would-be rivals in the ad serving arena.

Cupertino, CA-based AdForce will begin talking up “AdForce Everywhere,” a service that will place ads on any digital device from radios, televisions and cable to cellphones or personal computers, the company told iMarketing News.

Wireless devices are first on the agenda, and AdForce plans a series of pilot programs in that area in the first half of 2000. Partnerships are already in place with firms in phone manufacturing, the interactive agency space and other technology areas.

Executives hope their new capability will coax advertisers and their agencies to move their marketing dollars, both wireless and otherwise, to AdForce. And the company sees the technology as key to its business in Asia, where it’s betting on a wireless boom. The continent lacks the sort of massive land-based communications infrastructure that is strung and buried all over Europe and North America.

Most Internet marketers are familiar with companies such as Adsmart and 24/7 Media Inc. that sell banner ad space across online ad networks. Less well-known, however, are the ad serving firms – infrastructure companies such as AdForce whose technology actually places banners.

“We’re a pure technology company,” said Dee Cravens, vice president of worldwide marketing at AdForce. A unit of dot-com conglomerate CMGI Inc., AdForce serves ads for networks and sites both within and beyond the CMGI umbrella.

Dominance in Asia would help AdForce step up its threat to DoubleClick Inc., a New York ad server and network that AdForce regards as its main rival. AdForce already claims to have tacked on 677 new ad serving customers in the fourth quarter compared with DoubleClick’s own claim of 198 new ad serving clients in the same period.

But just who leads the ad serving space – or the ad network space, for that matter -is an increasingly murky issue. No two companies have the exact same business models, allowing firms ranging from DoubleClick and AdForce to the Microsoft Network’s LinkExchange unit and privately held Real Media Inc. to make conflicting leadership claims. The situation is made stickier by the fact that AdForce serves 24/7 Media’s banners even as 24/7 says it is developing technology to do the same thing on its own.

AdForce is helped by being part of (and working for) the huge CMGI group, said Dana Serman, vice president of equity research at investment banking firm Lazard Freres & Co.

“It’s sort of serving its sisters,” he said, adding, “The number of ads served and the quality of the publishers is probably more important than the [number of customers], and on that score DoubleClick would probably have the lead.”

AdForce expects its first wireless ads to target people based on the content they receive through those devices. But down the line AdForce wants to push advertising to consumers based, among other things, on where they are physically. Wireless operators can determine where individuals are when they use their cell phones.

“Right now, everyone targets geographically based on ZIP codes and area codes. We have the ability to target based on latitude and longitude,” said AdForce director of worldwide strategic marketing Tim DePriest. A film studio could, for example, play a movie trailer on a wireless device just as a person is driving past a billboard for the film.

Of course, some might suggest that consumers would get creeped out by advertising that springs up on geographical cue. But AdForce emphasized that it will target consumers who opt to receive ads. The company is optimistic about how the technology will be received.

“If they’re playing golf and they get a pitch for a buy-one-get-one-free lunch [nearby], they don’t view that as an ad. They view that as an information service,” DePriest said.

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