Merely Tolerable

Like all young Turks in nascent industries, we in the mobile world tend to be myopic and self-involved, always in need of remembering that the rest of the world is not hip deep in our own innovations. In the rush to mobilize marketing, and as we glory in the new realization that carriers and content providers now are agreed that the ad-supported wireless train has left the station, it is important to recall that the consumer really could care less about us.

In fact, the numbers still show that most wireless customers loathe the notion of exchanging personal for marketing information. JupiterResearch analyst Julie Ask told me recently that the last time her company asked consumers what would make them willing to give up their cell phone number to a marketer, 80 percent flatly replied "nothing," with younger adults showing a more promising negative response of 63 percent. "I would think there are reasons for carriers to be cautious," Ask says.

Indeed. Even some successful tests of mobile marketing send up a few yellow flags that warn both content providers and advertisers about exercising restraint on handhelds. The first high-profile ad-supported application launched several months ago from MSNBC.com, and a few early revealing results are in. Action Engine developed the downloadable app, which pulls headlines and alerts, video links and slide shows into SmartPhones. The program is free and fully ad-subsidized, and MSNBC.com distributes it off-portal. Banner ads and video pre-rolls underwrite the experience, and MSNBC handles ad sales. For this beta launch, and as is often the case with Microsoft's new ad platforms, MS itself bought up the inventory with a campaign for its Office suite.

Ann Baker, vice president of marketing, Action Engine, says the focus groups the company ran were just fine with the idea of trading sponsor messages for a free robust app, so long as the messaging is unobtrusive and doesn't overwhelm the experience. "There was a subset of people in the higher economic classes who believed they might pay to avoid ads," she says, but generally test groups were open to the model.

What is interesting is that despite a fear of intrusiveness, consumers responded more actively to the most time-consuming format, pre-roll video ads. Users preferred banner ads to video, but the post-campaign testing showed higher recall and information retention from the video ads. The beta testers also discovered very quickly that they couldn't get away with the inventory-stuffing techniques of online video streaming. "We had pre-roll clips show up every time you opened a video, and the feedback was that it is too much. MSNBC scaled back to once every four times," says Baker, and that seemed to work.

The sweet spot for length appeared to be about 10 to 15 seconds, according to Action Engine, but in this case the ads were Universal McCann's entertaining but re-purposed dinosaur head spots for Office. I suspect that the fun factor of these ads goosed user tolerance for length as well as the retention scores.

Personally, I find 15-second pre-rolls an upper limit even on Web streams. I would just as soon see mobile video spots adopt a short mid-roll format that gives us a taste of content first. Versaly Entertainment will be using this approach in its upcoming Fast Lane free video channel on Sprint.

Better still, I would love to see marketers and content providers rethink the model a bit more for mobile. I am a big fan of the 5-second post-roll audio spot at the end of every Onion Radio News podcast. Why not create a mobile video format that sandwiches the content between extremely short visual ad blasts? You could start an ad unit as a five-second pre-roll, and then have it end as a post-roll or mid-roll. Another Web trick that did not port well to handhelds is the mid-scroll banner. MSNBC.com started with banners at top, bottom and middle. "Those banners in the middle, people just hated," Baker says.

Here is a good indication of how even the simplest Web behavior, a scroll and an extra button push, can actually ruin a mobile experience and alienate the user. "They couldn't stand having to scroll past the banner, to the point that MSNBC.com removed it from the beta launch."

So MSNBC.com learned fast and early that restraint is the best policy, and apparently it is paying off. Baker reports that the company is pleased with the number of impressions served, even though SmartPhones represent a small slice of the addressable market (a Java version of the app is in the works). Click-through rates are "much higher than they are used to seeing on the Web," she says. This confirms reports from Third Screen Media that CTRs on mobile banners have been remarkably high and steady even over the past six to 12 months.

I am confident that less will be more on this platform, but that is an equation that needs proving both to publishers and advertisers. I think users remember intrusiveness, and the publisher is the one that pays for it. I know which sites torture me with lengthy and too-frequent pre-roll spots or home page takeovers, and this knowledge makes me think twice before clicking into their wares.

If we can extrapolate from the very early findings by Action Engine and MSNBC.com, that effect may get amplified on mobile. It is important to remember that carriers and publishers are the ones starting to embrace mobile marketing, not consumers. They merely tolerate us.

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