Following The Mob Into The Shadows

Most tech demos leave me pretty cold (that's because I am a jaded bastard), but last week Omar Hamoui, founder and CEO of AdMob, helped me launch my own mobile ad campaign on his network--and it definitely got my attention.

AdMob professes to be the largest mobile ad network, serving 250 million page views a month. The next largest claim I have seen is from the higher profile Third Screen Media, which passed the 100 million mark a while ago. I cut my teeth on the early Web, when everyone's numbers were cooked harder than deep-fried turkey. Remember "hit counts"? I gave up believing in interactive media stats long ago, but, again, this is because I am a jaded bastard.

But what caught my attention about AdMob's numbers was where Hamoui claimed they originated, and the sheer velocity with which I saw impressions pile up on his back-end ad insertion system. AdMob inserts text ads (unlike the banners Third Screen and others serve) into a line of highly-trafficked but generally unrecognizable mobile WAP sites. Community sites like DayMob.com, download destination like Symbian Themes, and news sites like news4mobile.com are among the scores of mobile targets for these ads. Granted, AdMob gets a lot of international traffic, so some of these sites naturally would be new to me, but Hamoui insists that a great deal more WAP browsing is going on via handsets than we realize, and much of it flies beneath the radar.

Hamoui got a test ad up and running for me in a few minutes via the online ordering system. You just make an ad of up to 36 characters long and designate a landing page for the click-through. Targeting allows you to aim the ad at specific countries, phone models, platforms, and capabilities. This makes the system especially attractive to online content sales (one of AdMob's biggest client segments), because the ad itself helps filter in only handsets that can handle your ringtone, game or wallpaper. With ten dollars credited to my account, we got a low end 5 cents bid for placement across the network of community, portal, download, news sites, etc. AdMob has scores of mobile sites in its network parsed into about five topic buckets.

The fun thing was watching the page views and conversions pile up in real time. Once the ad for sharing mobile pictures hit the network, we amassed 2,246 impressions from mobile download sites and 100 clicks, 1,356 impressions and 44 clicks. Our best ROI came from the Mature category, where 13 impressions converted to 4 clicks. I am guessing these users expected pix of a certain sort and were highly motivated buyers. All of this occurred within a few minutes and produced 4,742 impressions, 200 clicks and a 4.2 percent CTR.

Ultimately, I don't know how good this network is, or how its collection of otherwise invisible destination sites could work for a broader swath of advertisers. Most of the current clients for the 8-month-old network are mobile content sites, so both the network and the ads are self-targeted into a kind of early adopter and mobile explorer demo.

What does impress me is the question of how much of the mobile economy is going under the radar--how much off-portal and direct-to-consumer activity occurs outside of the highly visible brands. How effectively have users leveraged this highly personal medium into creating a shadow network of virally fueled WAP hubs? Hamoui says that a viral community of mobilistas flocks to new-age mobile versions of the old GeoCities model, that let them build their own WAP presence.

You can see some of this hidden economy when you just Google a mobile content term like "ringtone." One of the text ads points to MobileSidewalk, a thriving ringtone site that connects to users almost exclusively through the search engines, well outside the more visible marketing channels. MobileSidewalk gather 75,000 to 150,000 new subscribers a month to its $9.99/mo content subscription service by targeting search and youth sites with its message. I had never heard of these guys until I called them off a press release. Apparently I am not only jaded and bastardly, but too damned old as well.

While MobileSidewalk does know its audience, most of the advertisers and content destination in the AdMob network do not. Hamoui tells me that advertisers are asking for greater targeting and knowledge of end-user demographics, but most of the content sites do not require registration and have no user profiles. On the surface, the hordes I saw teeming into the network would seem a perfect target. They are mobile (probably young) users who effectively viral market to one another. But how eager will deep-pocketed big brands be to enter into this world? How well can they know the sites, the sorts of content on which they will appear? Like social networking sites, or the old GeoCities, this underground WAP traffic presents marketers with an enormous flow of eyeballs but some risk as well.

The experience of seeing so much traffic build so fast across sites I never heard about before reminded me of the power of personal devices to create new economies. They enable users to engage with one another off the grid that major media monitor and control. They may also keep consumers one step ahead of marketers from now on.

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