Commentary

Going Mobile

In some recent Digital Outsider columns, I think we established that "digital" isn't a medium -- but instead, a format that enables programming and advertising content to be rendered in malleable ways that make various media platforms -- especially out-of-home ones -- much more dynamic than they could possibly be via static, analog formats.

But there's another important implication in that shift. It also blurs the lines between, and the very definitions of, a medium, from both a consumer and an industrial point-of-view. This has been quite evident in the rapidly evolving digital out-of-home media industry, where semantic debates abound inside just about every organization on exactly what constitutes a digital out-of-home medium. Is it digital billboards? Well, sure. Is it place-based video networks? Most definitely. Is it online? Well, I wrote about that in my last column, and I certainly think it can, and increasingly will be. Is it experiential media? Yep, we've written about that, too. Is it mobile media? Of course it can be, and that's what I'd like to address today.

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Mobility obviously has many connotations, and let's just assume that any out-of-home medium effectively reaches a mobile consumer in some way. And consumer lifestyles are actually growing more mobile, suggesting that out-of-home is becoming a more vital way of delivering content to them. I was struck by this a couple of years ago, when WPP Chairman-CEO Martin Sorrell cited research indicating that the time that the average consumer spends outside his home or workplace has risen from about 8% in the 1960s to about 18%.

That means we spend nearly one-fifth of our lives going to and from places where we cannot be reached via certain conventional media. Obviously, this increased mobility plays right into the hands of certain traditional media. Radio, of course. And depending on our mode of transport, printed matter like magazines and books, or dare I say, a Kindle.

But the really big shift taking place in our world and industry, of course, is mobile phone and wireless Web technologies that create the ability to deliver digital content dynamically to anyone holding a portable handset or device connected to either a mobile communications or wireless Web platform. The emergence of the iPhone, new generations of BlackBerries, and supercharged 3G infrastructure is accelerating this, and yet neither Madison Avenue nor the media content industry has really figured out how to crack this one -- yet. According to the highly respected estimates compiled by Magna's Brian Wieser, mobile advertising figures still track to only a couple of hundred million dollars.

I could go on, of course, but this is not Steve Smith's Mobile Insider. It's the Digital Outsider. So let me focus a few thoughts on how all this new mobile technology is impacting the out-of-home media, and specifically, how it is turning it into an interactive medium.

Perhaps one of the best early examples I've seen of this interaction between a digital screen and a mobile technology was MINI USA agency Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners' campaign a few years ago that leveraged the RFID chips embedded inside every MINI Cooper automobile. RFID, or radio frequency identification tags, are tiny chips that emit a radio frequency that can interact with another device -- called a "reader" -- stationed nearby. Butler Shine's innovation was to imbed readers in digital billboards located along highways so that anytime a MINI passed by, the sign would greet the driver with a personalized message, like, "Happy Birthday Bill." That was brilliant, and I'm surprised we haven't seen more examples of RFID integrations with digital out-of-home screens.

In another interesting integration of mobile technology and digital out-of-home screens, Sprint agency Goodby, Silverstein + Partners is turning the stadium signage in the Sprint Center in Kansas City into a giant, personalized interactive device. Emphasis is on the personalization. How? The Goodby team is tapping a new technology developed by MegaPhone that turns anyone's cell phone into a remote control capable of interacting with and manipulating what's on public screens.

"We are pretty excited about this, and the range of applications people are creating for mobile devices seemingly all the time now," gushes Joshua Spanier, the innovative media chief at Goodby. "As ever, it still feels 'very early days' in this area, but we are happy to experiment and learn."

The MegaPhone application is still in development, so Spanier wouldn't spill the beans on exactly how the application would be exploited, but he promises it will be "very cool and engaging," and that if the experiment works out, Goodby plans to roll it out into other public places.

If you're working on or are aware of other innovative or imaginative uses of technology integrating mobile and digital out-of-home screens, please let me know. I'd like to write about them in future columns. As always, my email is joe@mediapost.com.

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