Local mobile advertising will continue to be as promising as it is challenging. The perennial problem for digital advertising on the local level has always been finding a self-serve technology or an on-the-ground sales force that can really educate and recruit the local mom-and-pop service sector. If the first ten years of my covering the Internet is any indication, then I guess the next few years of reporting on mobile will be filled with new and novel schemes for activating the local market. Here we go again.
As it is, the local mobile ads that I do see coursing through the apps and mobile Web sites leave a lot to be desired. Google's ad bug is unappealing and the ads feel pretty random.
Local directory and discovery provider Where seemed to feel the same way about the ads it was getting from the ad nets. "We always received feedback from users that they didn't like the ads," says Dan Gilmartin, vp of marketing. The Where app was among the first local directory apps available in the Apple App Store last year, but you will find it on many of the carrier decks and across Android, Blackberry and Palm as well. In searching for a better way to monetize the free service without ticking users off with scattershot and irrelevant ads, Where.com has erected its own "hyper-local" mobile ad network that it is running at its own apps and sites, as well as offering to others. MocoSpace, Jambase, Geocade and Superpages.com are running the Where ads now.
Where is partnering with other local ad sales teams and publishers that already have relationships with merchants in their area. By aggregating listings from several sources, it is getting a decent critical and hyper-local mass of sponsors so that the ads that get served to my MocoSpace pages or within the Where app feel truly local. I am now getting banners at the mobile social network that push me to vendors for local gyms and even "STD Express," which gives quick turnarounds on disease testing. Relevant for a meet-up site? Yes. Creepy and icky? Hell, yes! Sometime "hyper-targeting" hits a little too close for comfort.
To be sure, there are still a lot of irrelevant clunkers in the system. Flood emergency vendors pop up, as do truck rentals, etc. for no particular reason. Gilmartin tells me that the system is targeting contextually when the information about the page is distinct and available to the system. So queries into the weather or traffic information in the Where app should return relevant banners along with the information. Mocospace generally is serving ads that are relevant to social networking states of mind.
I am not as sure that the relevance is quite there yet, but they seem to be doing better at targeting hyper-locally than some of the other local mobile nets I have seen.
More to the point, however, is the visual experience of the ads. Rather than a typical text bug, most of the banners in the Where system use some sort of friendly prompt or local call-out like "Newark, check this out..." or "Newark, We Recommend." While the difference seems slight, it may be enough to make an ad feel more like content. Gilmartin says that since Where deployed its own network, many customers are thanking them for "taking out the ads -- but we hadn't taken out the ads."
Instead, the ads now feel like directory listings. One of the other smart things that Where did was create uniform landing pages for all of the local merchants advertising in the system. A big weakness in mobile ads generally and text links especially is that the user is more reticent to click in this environment because she doesn't know what she is going to get. Recovering from a lousy link is just more annoying on a mobile browser.
These Where banners actually have an iconography, so the type of advertiser (mechanic, restaurant, etc.) gets its own icon in the left corner to telegraph to the user a bit more about what to expect even if the ad copy isn't explicit. The Where ads all click through to an attractively designed listing page that includes the phone number, service description, link to the merchant's page and in some cases links to special offers like coupons. Managing user expectations in this way makes visitors more comfortable about exploring the ad.
According to Gilmartin, changing ads' relevance, look and feel has made a big difference in user satisfaction and in income. "The revenues on a per-user basis are much higher," he says. "We are seeing a 300% increase on click-throughs."
Getting the user targeting right and growing a critical mass of merchants is going to be an ongoing challenge for local mobile ads. But job one should be helping them look less crappy, less random, less disposable.