Telecoms Dialing Up Online Spend

telecom ads If Sprint seems to be all over the Web lately, it's because it is. With the extension of its "Now Network" campaign online, the wireless operator in recent weeks has splashed its brand all over popular sites Yahoo, AOL, YouTube and WSJ.com. The push comes in advance of the long-awaited launch of its Palm Pre smartphone.

That's on top of other online ad efforts that Sprint has been running for its "Simply Everything" unlimited calling and data plan, mobile broadband service, and other phones like its LG Rumor 2. "The audience we're looking for is spending more and more time on the Web so it's a very important part of many of our campaigns," explained Candice Wolken, Sprint's advertising manager.

That's a conviction that other carriers appear to share -- as online ad spending by the telecom industry has remained strong, even as the prolonged recession has battered other stalwart Internet ad sectors like financial services and automotive.

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Indeed, the downturn has fueled competition for unlimited, fixed-rate cell phone calling plans and boosted advertising as a result. At the same time, high-profile campaigns for competing smartphones like the forthcoming Pre, iPhone, BlackBerry Storm and Google Android-powered phones has also buoyed online spending in the category.

In the first quarter, online display ad spending by telecom companies increased 50% to $255 million from $170.5 million in the year-earlier period, according to Nielsen's AdRelevance service. Among the 13 major sectors Nielsen tracks, only the health industry grew more in the first quarter, jumping 57% to $105 million.

By contrast, automotive display ad dollars fell 26% to $100 million, while financial services dropped 12% to $366 million.

Data released earlier this month by comScore showed that telecom companies were among the top advertisers in March in display ad views, with AT&T, Verizon, Vonage and Sprint among the six highest-ranked marketers by that measure.

"Most of the increased competition in the marketplace is being driven by smartphones," said Jon Gibs, vice president of media analytics at Nielsen Online. That in turn drives ads for devices as well as the all-you-can-eat data plans that carriers want customers to upgrade to on smartphones.

With the rollout of its Now Network campaign online, Sprint hopes to convince tech-savvy consumers that its 3G network is ready to handle all the Twittering, searching and Web surfing they might want to do on the new Pre -- its own "iPhone killer."

"It's a great space for our brand and one where we can position ourselves as a tech leader and push the brand to people who are using their phones for much more than calling," said Wolken, of the Internet. She added that the Web also provides a canvas for pursuing more creative ad executions, such as the YouTube takeover in which users (who have filmed themselves holding up pre-assigned numbers) formed a real-time, human clock.

Sprint and other wireless operators are tight-lipped about how much they are spending online and even whether the proportion of their ad budgets going to the Web or emerging media is growing. But Wolken offered: "Over time, as a whole, online has become increasingly important in our marketing strategy."

Mitch Spolan, who heads North American field sales for Yahoo, said that view extends to telecom advertisers more broadly. "They leverage every aspect of what the Web can do and the shift from traditional dollars to the Web might be accelerated in the telcos," he said.

During the company's first-quarter conference call, Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz highlighted telecom as one of the stronger ad categories during the period in which display ad revenue for Yahoo fell 13%. In addition to Sprint's recent home page takeover, Spolan noted Verizon Wireless' sponsorship of Yahoo's popular "Primetime in No Time" program recapping the previous night's prime-time TV shows.

He said the company had also developed a "Premieres" program for Verizon, giving the company the opportunity to exclusively sponsor new videos, movie trailers or other content appearing on the site. Telecom advertisers "are always willing to test, which I think is a key," said Spolan.

On AOL, telecom companies have been active in running both direct response and brand campaigns, according to Scott Kelliher, telecom and technology category director at Platform-A, AOL's ad division. He noted that increased competition in the prepaid wireless market had spurred more aggressive marketing efforts.

To that end, Sprint's prepaid brand, Boost Mobile, in January introduced a $50 monthly unlimited voice and data plan. Virgin Mobile responded last month by cutting its unlimited calling plan from $80 to $50. Both are being pressured by low-cost plans from smaller regional carriers like MetroPCS and Leap Wireless.

"They're forcing the bigger players to make sure their messages are being heard loud and clear," said Kelliher. Boost's efforts paid off in the first quarter with a whopping net gain of 764,000 customers.

That helped offset Sprint's loss of 1.25 net million postpaid subscribers, continuing the hemorrhaging of contract customers from 2008. "We need to do better," acknowledged Sprint CEO Dan Hesse in the company's Q1 conference call.

That isn't stopping the wireless carrier from trying new digital marketing approaches. On Wednesday, it plans to unveil a specialized screensaver application that it promises will "encapsulate the depth, breadth and power of the Sprint Now Network."

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