Commentary

Back To School

One of the real problems with the major carriers throughout their content and marketing chains is their sheer scale. When multimillion-subscriber companies are going head to head for market share, it is difficult to focus on your own segments. Branding messages for the tier-1 companies have been hopelessly broad for years (more minutes, better network coverage, free phones), with little effort to target specific groups very effectively, even though a range of age and ethnic demos come at their phones very differently. There is a real need here for content and service companies to cultivate the segments.

"At the end of the day, they are mass market providers," says Jim Ryan, newly minted president and CEO of MobileCampus, which targets mobile data and marketing services to college environments. "I was seeing an incremental opportunity to serve more niche markets and target segments." For years, Ryan enjoyed a unique vantage point, since he ran the data strategy at Cingular/AT&T and was a fixture in the fledgling mobile content industry. He left AT&T just as the iPhone was about to launch, and according to reports was involved in making that deal with Apple. But in placing his bets with the small startup we covered last year in this column, Ryan is signaling that it is time for mobile to get targeted, and for the nascent ad model to follow.

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Ryan says that the early stages of mobile marketing may be a bit misguided in following the carriers' lead into the mass market mentality. "Most of the existing players are large media companies used to the mass market and mass media advertising. They want large volumes of people. So they talk about millions of users and page impressions."

MobileCampus partners with universities to deliver free messaging services to students who opt in. The SMS system can range campuswide -- from the administration to ticklers and scheduling notes from individual sports teams or clubs. The school and its groups get the service free, with ads and offers from local vendors underwriting the cost.

Ryan believes that ad-supported systems like MobileCampus can change the mobile marketing equation. If you have tightly targeted users and you know their needs and habits well enough, then you don't need to carpet-bomb the platform or the user with ads. He expects students to receive one marketing message a day -- but a message that relates to their immediate environment and their likely needs. "It's about the value of the message, not the volume," he says. "Mass media is about volume -- millions of WAP pages -- and it uses the same model as already exists . Our model is very different. Our approach is 180 degree different."

Charging 20 cents a message, a campaign for a tech vendor like Dell might spend less than $1,000 reaching all of the tech enthusiasts on a large campus. "If we can get 30% to 40% to check it out, that translates into a lot of activity" for a small cost relative to papering the local media with ads, Ryan says. He believes that while MobileCampus is focused on the universities right now, the model is portable to a host of different demographics and niches and that this is a more appropriate way to use mobile. "I think there is a huge opportunity to evolve this market. There will be a real revenue opportunity for the company that leads that charge. To do that, you have to start with specific content."

As with all highly targeted marketing ideas, the challenge is less in the effectiveness of the promotion when it hits its target, but in the scalability. Is it worth it in the end for the sponsor/client to segment the creative, the deals, the partners into all of these niches? Yes, there is a lot of waste in mass media, but there are also efficiencies of scale. We are already a decade into the ad model online, and how many of the targeting methods available are really being used? The technologies and their proposed business and marketing models always seem to be well ahead of the ad industry infrastructure.

Ryan is right. Mobile seems to be the medium that is best positioned to lead the charge into a lot of marketing models that have been more on the periphery of digital media for years. If marketing and media are moving from mass to me, from corralling eyeballs to finding the right customer with the right message, then mobile offers a necessary challenge to the entire chain of production. But to make messages that are highly relevant to these segments, the marketers themselves have to segment their efforts and their infrastructures. How do you address so many possible niches -- and what new processes and structures within organizations are necessary to make a post-mass media world work? These are all questions that fragmented media are raising across the board, not just mobile. Everybody is back in kindergarten now.

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