Commentary

Giving 'More of Less'

The "less is more" principle seems to have been an article of faith among mobile content and advertising programmers. Back in the early days of podcasting (did I really just say "early days of podcasting?") some of the first developers used to tell me how they strained to make the shows shorter and shorter. Audiences responded so well to one and two-minute shots of content that five minutes of programming started feeling as relentlessly epic as a Peter Jackson film... or five minutes of Ellen DeGeneres' Oscar monologue.

The trend towards brevity may have reached its natural conclusion last week when RingTales.com launched its animated New Yorker cartoon. Classic one-panels from the magazine turn into moving cartoons that last five seconds or so, until a character delivers a punch line. The lead-in credits, RingTales branding and drugfree.org post-roll sponsorship messages actually take up the lion's share of these 20-second spots. I don't know if they will be a daily part of my media diet, which now feels more like grazing than dining. Nevertheless, it represents one of the purest examples of communications efficiency for the age of fragmentation. The irony, of course, is that such brevity has been here for more than a century. The one-panel cartoon is a remarkably efficient platform that deserves revival in the mobile media age. In the hands of masters like Gary Larson and Gahan Wilson, it creates worlds of meaning by marrying an image with a sentence. Wordy writers like myself could learn a few things from these guys about the beauty of shutting up. (But we won't. Not really. Nope.)

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A related trend in mobile combines brevity with depth. Launches like the new InStyle Mobile magazine, the free FastLane mobile TV channel on Sprint, and the Toyota-branded entertainment for the FJ Cruiser all suggest a new theme for mobile: if less is more, then more of less is even better. Each of these applications offers bucketloads of very short but diverse content, much more than most users will consume in a single drive-by viewing. In a medium where it is hard enough to get someone's attention at all, these programmers are betting that volume and variety will keep us coming back.

According to Hyperfactory CEO Derek Handley, who helped Toyota and Saatchi & Saatchi deploy their campaign across multiple WAP and mobile video platforms, mobile users' appetite for more and more content is being seen in overseas markets. "This is about how deep mobile consumers are willing to dive on mobile. You can make it very deep so they come back again and again," Handley said. The FJ Cruiser project is an experiment in just how much media consumers will take, it seems. Footage from the branded entertainment TV show "Two Roads to Baja" got poured into a special FastLane mobile VOD channel and on MobiTV. FastLane is a long-promised free TV channel on Sprint from Versaly Entertainment that aims for the young male adventurer with extreme sports, standup comedy, poker tips, etc. The FJ Cruiser Baja material just looks like another channel and comes without branding fanfare. FastLane has a lot of content buckets to explore, and this simply blends in with the edgy ethos.

The landing page for the other pieces of the campaign (banners on ESPN.com and Go2 and clickthroughs from MobiTV) is another good example of more of less. The "FJ vs. Baja" mobile site can be reached by texting "FJ" to 42107. The lengthy scroll is divided into bite-sized sections with short text and links into deeper blog posts from the Baja participants, videos and downloadable wallpapers. It isn't the prettiest design on the phone, but it demonstrates a few good ideas about making more out of more-of-less. There is a natural story arc to this project, with characters and crises, so the user is compelled to return and experience the next chapter. The design also telegraphs a payoff in the form of mobile assets, not just information. Wallpapers, videos, and ringtones are the currency of mobile, and I like that most of the big pictures from the event can be downloaded for re-use. And finally, the payoff for the marketer is that by engaging the user repeatedly and deeply, you can let the message build over times. The branding is relatively subtle throughout the site and the clips. The focus is on the Baja challenge and the drivers, and the FJ Cruiser itself is left as a supporting character. When you have brevity mixed with frequency, it gives you time to let the branding message emerge naturally.

The long-lasting soft sell is another message learned long ago in the comic strip medium. Once you engage users in a creative project, a comic strip world, a passionate interest, characters they love, then you can ease back and let some meanings emerge over time.

Mobile media should query the past and ask how these masters hooked us to their worlds so effectively that we sought them out every day. We came to know Snoopy, Calvin, Dick Tracy, and Popeye incrementally. A few panels a day over the course of years built worlds we still recall. Compare this to film and even the novel, where so much information needs to be packed in a relatively small time frame in order to set the scene and communicate meaning. Because our phones have become ritualistic devices that we consult regularly, they are a perfect platform for modes of marketing and content that build incrementally over time. The trick will be keeping the messages fresh, light, and diverse and getting that favorite content close to the surface. After all, the daily newspaper was the most efficient content navigation system of all. As kids, we all learned to flip to that back page first to get our ten-second fix of fun. No boot-up time.

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