Column: The [Ad]vantage - Power to the People

The on-again, off-again romance with mobile marketing appears to be back on and in full bloom as buzz about the third screen reaches an all-time high. With the estimated market for content and services on mobile phones expected to reach $150 billion by 2011, advertisers are eyeing the mobile platform with renewed interest, and working feverishly to crack the code behind engaging mobile audiences. Consumers are further fueling marketers' interest by continuing the exodus from the living room, walking away from regularly scheduled programming and embracing their new role as consumers in control.

It's understandable that advertisers are interested in the mobile platform. Cell phones have become mandatory equipment for modern lifestyles. Never far from reach, and sometimes permanently attached (does anyone look good wearing those wireless headsets?), the mobile phone goes everywhere the user goes - more than any other connected device.

That kind of constant accessibility is what piques the interest of advertisers. Consumers, on the other hand, seem far less interested in the idea. And why should they be? Most ads that consumers see in the course of their day are irrelevant or without any real value. The challenge in engaging mobile audiences, where consumer control may be at its highest, is to create value in the offering, to be the bearer of something the user actually wants and needs. Chances are it's not going to be an ad.

Rather than thinking of the mobile phone as a third screen on which to display more ads, think of it as the new universal remote, used by consumers to control the world around them. By enabling the consumers to do more with their mobile phones, brands have the opportunity to create ongoing engagement and exposure.

Thanks to the Internet, the opportunities for mobile empowerment are quickly becoming endless. But don't be limited by what's possible today. Instead, consider what could be and work to build it by breaking down barriers and making the connections on the consumer's behalf.

Although mostly limited to SMS or basic browser functions, mobile empowerment is slowly finding its way into consumers' hands. From looking up movie listings, to checking bank balances, to voting on social issues through interactive billboards, brands like Fandango, JPMorgan Chase and BBC World News are leveraging common mobile phone functionality to provide new levels of empowerment. And these examples are just the beginning.

Imagine walking into your favorite electronics store to buy the hot new Xbox 360 game only to find that it's sold out. Rather than running around town or calling other stores, you simply send the product name and your zip code to a new type of inventory aggregator, and instantly get back a list of vendors in your area with the game in stock. The value to the consumer - and why they will engage with your brand as the enabler - is the immediacy and power of the solution.

Apple's iPhone, symbolic of a new generation of phones, will likely bring about radical changes in the industry that could catapult mobile empowerment into common practice. Features like the iPhone's connectivity to iTunes (providing new possibilities for expansion and integration of branded widgets and applications) or the Safari browser and support for true HTML formatting are great examples of barriers being removed.

Apple's presence in the industry means greater innovation and improved user experiences. As the next generation of phones rolls out, there's no doubt that connectivity and content-friendly design will be major factors.

Now imagine walking into a club with your future-generation, GPS-enabled iPhone. As you enter, the phone vibrates; you look at it and see a Google map with thumbnail pictures of your friends, each thumbnail indicating their location within a three-mile radius. Tapping a thumbnail brings up your friend's contact info and options to start an SMS-based chat session or place a call. Also on the map is a list of local bands and where they're playing (perhaps brought to you by Budweiser) - and all the time you were using the free wireless network that the club provides. Feeling empowered now?

Kirk Drummond is the vice president of creative and innovation for T3. (kirk.drummond@t-3.com)

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