Wednesday, April 2, 2008

A Social Network for Mobile

An AdAge story on Monday announced that CBS was partnering with social network Loopt on a location-based advertising program. According to AdAge, this is the way it would work:

First, a Loopt subscriber must turn on the phone's locator button, which broadcasts its location. (Even without a GPS, the location can be approximated based the phone's relationship to the cellphone tower receiving its signal.) Then when the subscriber checks the mobile-web version of CBS News, MarketWatch or Sportsline, the page will display a banner ad targeted based on the subscriber's location.

Ads are on our mobile phones, as you probably already have experienced. eMarketer (newsletter MARCH 7, 2008) quotes a Nielsen Mobile study released in March that found that 23% of mobile phone users had seen an ad in the last 30 days; the figure was 46% for users aged 13 – 17—no surprise there! What may be more surprising—and what we might take with a tiny grain of salt—is the fact that 32% of mobile data users said they were willing to accept ads if it lowered their bill and 13% were willing to accept ads just to improve content.

So if ads are at least marginally acceptable on mobile phones, are social networks going to be a way to deliver them? Both Newsday (US) and the New York Times (Paris bureau) have recently reported that there are many mobile social network providers. Some of them are the usual suspects—Facebook and MySpace and the ubiquitous Twitter. It’s interesting to look at the mobile page on MySpace, which until recently has had a closed platform, vs. Facebook where there are over 300 mobile apps from providers including Loopt.

Loopt is a good example of the functionality. They describe it as “Connect, Share, and Explore” and when you get further into the site they add “Control.” The functionality is pretty straightforward and they have a brief but informative tour. Friends on the network can connect with one another; through GPS technology you are notified when a friend is in the area. Do you want maps showing you what friends are in the same area? Do you want to know what they are doing at the moment? Do you want to send instant messages with your location automatically attached? Do you want to look into your friend’s journals (or more likely, do you want them looking into yours?) to find new places and events? If you’re in my generation, the answer to a lot of these questions may be a resounding “NO,” but as least you are glad to know that you can hide your location from everyone or your can select the friends you want to share with.

Do younger users want this functionality? You bet they do! I’ve had students proposing business concepts and developing cool marketing plans for network- and location-based mobile services for years. Their peers are engaged by the concepts.

As usual, the mobile applications are further advanced in Europe and the Pacific Rim than in the US. Marketers need to be constantly alert for what is going on there and learn from their leadership. It also seems clear that the market is seriously overcrowded with providers, so marketers will need to choose their opportunities and perhaps to hedge their bets. They also need to be on the lookout for unintended consequences. Trucks keep running into the low bridges on Storrow Drive in Boston because they are looking at GPS directions, not the signs that say very clearly, “No Trucks.”

But all of that begs the most important question of all when it comes to mobile. Is the issue getting customers to accept our ads on their mobile devices? Or is it finding out how to offer meaningful branded content on mobile devices? Is there a generic answer to that question, or does it depend on your target audience? Past data has shown younger people more willing to accept ads for freebies.

Only a lot of testing and experimentation will tell! Hopefully the results of the CBS test will be known and it will give us all some signposts in this important journey.
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