Deal Or No Deal: Trading Content For Consciousness

The bargain between advertisers and consumers has always been as clear as it has been unspoken. We'll underwrite your media, even let you get a lot of it for free--and in return you lend us your attention span for a few minutes out of every media experience. We'll call it even.

That fair exchange of value--content for consciousness--has always been explicit to two sides of the triangular relationship, media and advertisers, who actually put a cash value on that slice of user attention in the form of CPMs. For the consumer, however, the bargain has always been more cloudy and implied. That fog is lifting rapidly, as the consciousness market grows up. In so many ways, consumers are becoming explicitly aware of the value of their own attention span. The business models behind new media platforms, like all things in the media business, are now part of general discourse. As new platforms come onto the scene, from VOD to Web sites, podcasts to DVRs, the debate between fee vs. free content models plays out again and again in the public square. At this point in media history, no consumer misses the point that they have something of value to leverage in the marketplace.



I don't think it is at all coincidental that mobile is the space where consumers may flex this newly discovered market power most clearly. We are already seeing multiple schemes that place tangible value on attention span. Mobile is so personal, the potential for intrusion so acute, that here is where consumers are ready to unmask the formerly veiled bargain and talk terms: if you want our attention, especially in our pocket, you pay for it. At last week's MMA Forum, Third Screen Media CEO Tom Burgess said he fully expected to see carriers eventually offer three models for downloadable apps: one-time fee, monthly subscription, and free-with-ads. Xero Wireless plans to launch an entire phone service that awards free airtime for watching and interacting with an on-deck video ad. Virgin Mobile beat Xero to the punch with its newly launched SugarMama service. Virgin customers who opt into the plan offer up their demo details, watch online Ultramercials (the same ones that get you a day pass at, and then answer questions about the messaging online or via SMS exchanges. The SugarMama members then get additional minutes on their prepay account.

Now consumers will know that watching this last ad was worth precisely this much to the advertiser and the media company. That is a powerful equation to put into consumers' hands, and my guess is that on mobile they may want to see more value than some of these early schemes allow. Xero is aiming to give back up to a third of the plan costs for heavy users, but is that going to be enough to feel like a good bargain? Virgin's SugarMama (am I just too old to know what SugarMama means?) seems to want users to interact with brands quite a bit; you must answer quiz questions about ads to get your minutes. I may be willing to rent my head to you for a few seconds at a time, but I don't think I want to be tested on it. I have also been looking at a few of the ad-supported, free downloadable apps arriving on the scene from marketers like mfoundry. These little Java programs with consumer reviews, horoscopes, and drink recipes are unspectacular, but acceptable for being free. So far, my attention span is not compelled to deal.

I suspect that as consumers become more aware of the inherent market value of their consciousness, they will raise the price on their brains and expect to see clearer value in the exchange. I am not sure that any of the mobile plans or ad-supported products thus far will make that cut. WAP pages with dynamic ad banners are one thing, because they port a familiar online model and do not exact a specific additional cost from the media company. But when carriers start running dynamic advertising on those $50-a month decks, or when fee-based apps also run ads, we will sail into uncharted waters. Mobile marketers keep telling me that some kind of hybrid model (fees and ads) will emerge on mobile--"just like cable and print," they say. I am not sure it will be that simple on mobile. I agree that customers are more willing to accept advertising on their decks than we expected just two years ago, but I also think that consumer thinking about the value of their own attention span has evolved substantially too. Cable and print have older hybrid models grandfathered in, and we are accustomed to the rhythms of ad pages and 2-minute breaks. Mobile is fresh and intimate, and we have had total control of it from the beginning. Ad-subsidized services will have to make a strong case for being there. I think consumers will want to see the value of mobile ad support plainly stated and quantified before they decide--deal or no deal.

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