The Meaning in Being Mobile

When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. During the early years of the Web, the general manager at a major newsweekly always uttered this old adage to me as he struggled to bring his brand online. When most publishers looked at the Web in 1996 it looked like another publishing and distribution platform. Let's just hammer away with the content we already have and build this thing, they seemed to say in those first sad iterations of media Web sites. More than a decade later, most of these publishers (but not all, Lord help us) have learned their hard lessons. And now we have another great platform on which to repeat mistakes... mobile. For a lot of publishers, marketers and ad network technology providers, mobile looks like a miniature Web. Just port the same technologies, content strategies and marketing approaches here, and let's nail down this thing.

Not to diminish the role that Web learnings will play in the evolution of mobile platforms, there will in fact be a lot that is similar here. Smart phones in particular are helping to proliferate mobile media in large part because they do port familiar elements like Web sites and email to a handheld. The users themselves need some familiar pathways into new media as well. They all have their own hammers of consumption. But there are areas where there will have to be differences. Behavioral targeting is one of them. On all levels, mobile poses both unique challenges and opportunities to behavioral targeting.



On a technological basis, mobile platforms still need to figure out how to reliably identify and track a user on the mobile Web. "The method for getting that cookie onto browsers on the Web relies on client side ad delivery, so JavaScript or iframe or something along those lines," says Matt Tangler, director of product management at mobile ad network JumpTap. "That support doesn't exist in mobile outside of the new higher-end handsets." I spoke with Matt and with JumpTap CMO Paran Johar the other day about the state of BT on mobile. While there are companies claiming to ID users and track their behaviors across mobile sites and networks, their company, along with many others in the space, continues to look for a reliable solution.

But Tangler made an interesting point that I am not sure I have heard addressed much by traditional BT technology companies or by many in mobile. Mobile behaviors will be different from Web behaviors and the inferences we make from them about attitudes like buyer intent and levels of interest will have to be reconsidered. We have a hammer, but this isn't a nail. "Behavioral solutions that have worked on the Web aren't going to work in mobile without some modifications," he says. On mobile the length of sessions and the time between sessions is dramatically different. I have seen stats that show many mobile users hitting their data channel 20 times a day, even if for very brief grabs. As well, the intent of the sessions can be diverse and unlike those we see online. Are people really just killing time, in research mode, in buying mode? Those attitudes are not as easily gleaned in a single drive-by session or a single query that often is detached from many others throughout the day. "You have to account for that in your approach to behavioral," he says. "The same algorithms and the same models that applied and worked so well on the Web will not work on mobile."

To identify someone who is in-market for a car online there is usually a nice stream of Web activity, often occurring in clusters of similarly focused Web travels. On mobile, Tangler says, "people are looking for more immediate solutions. They are sitting at a bus stop and a G35 passes and they quickly check out the G35 on their handset. That in itself wouldn't necessarily tip off the system that the user is looking to buy a new car. But if you see those small diamonds in the rough over a condensed period of time then you can start to say that this user is interested in it. The vastness and the amount of data you have means something different on mobile because that user is more spur-of-the-moment and looking for more immediate results. It's really about the volume and the frequency of data. You have to adjust for that."

Obviously, behavioral targeting on mobile is going to raise an even thornier privacy question than it does online. The highly personal nature of the device is likely to amplify concerns in people's minds, and its location-awareness adds yet another layer of data that companies, carriers and marketers can know about us. Tengler believes that consumer assurance over mobile privacy will rely on responsible uses of data, transparency over how and why data is collected, and user control over their profiles. He thinks that Google's recent efforts towards "Ad Preference" controls for consumers is where the industry is headed. We will leave that for another column, but I suspect these pillars of privacy may not be enough. I am more inclined to believe that the inevitable big fight over privacy and digital data is most likely to occur on mobile. The stakes for consumers and for carriers are that much higher here, and the technologies allow for a level of invasiveness unimaginable online.

In fact, one of those technologies, location-awareness, is one of the most promising areas for evolving behavioral targeting and profiling. Of course, marketers salivate over the prospect of knowing where a consumer is at a given moment, and mobile brings all of those targets to the point-of-sale. But even more than that, mobile allows behavioral tracking to understand the different kinds of behaviors people evidence in different places. "If you can start to create behavioral profiles that are segmented not just to the time of day but the location of that user you can start to make better judgments about what they are likely to be interested in or to respond to," says Tenglar. In other words part of a personal profile can be how someone behaves and what they want when they are in different places. Forget for a moment the dark prospect of surveillance marketing that this raises. The technology also raises the possibility of concierge marketing, services and offers that people really do want to have from their trusted vendors when they are in different places.

Location-based behavioral tracking also engages the interesting idea of being able to build behavioral profiles that are not just attached to people but also to places. What people search for on their phones or do with their phones in different locations can tell marketers a great deal about what others tend to do in the same place whether you are tracking a specific user or not. "You can get a multiplier effect based on the behavioral analysis you have done on the known populations," says Tangler.

Mobile is not only a new platform and opportunity for targeting ads against behaviors. It is also a tool with which marketers could gain even greater knowledge than they can online about what consumers want, where they want it and when they want it.

1 comment about "The Meaning in Being Mobile".
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  1. Jim Dugan from PipPops LLC, June 19, 2009 at 4:37 p.m.

    We solved this little challenge with

    Businesses choosing to advertise at one site for those on the go to see with their internet-enabled phones.

    Allowing the advertisers to create and edit their own ads including barcoded mobile e-coupons and also seeing the results of views and redemptions in real-time is a breathtaking breakthrough.

    Businesses love it when they take the time to understand mobile and all of us on the go couldn't be more pleased.

    Make me an offer I can't refuse. I have my mobile with me ~

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