If you crack open a cell phone and actively fish around for signs of these biggies, they are not always easy to find. More often than not, a display ad on mobile content is a come-on for more mobile content, "free ringtones" and screensavers. Sometimes the mobile platform looks like a flea market where the sellers are also the most important buyers of other people's stuff. Mobile publishers sell inventory to other mobile publishers, so that it seems like the whole eco-system is just selling crappy ringtones to one another.
Of course there are major advertisers here, whether they are just testing the waters or really thinking strategically about mobile. I see Lexus and BMW here on occasion, and entertainment properties are starting to run display campaigns around show dates and premieres. Visa may be the closest thing to a ubiquitous advertising presence. But on the whole, it has been hard to gauge who is really buying inventory on mobile
Yesterday M:Metrics got us closer to the kind of metrics we expect from print, TV and Web. Its new M:Ad Tracker monitors clickable mobile display advertising across a set universe of sites to give us a picture of who advertises what creative when and where. While I haven't dug into the new service myself yet, the basic concept is a sound extension of the kind of market intelligence buyers expect from serious media. Advertisers in a category need to know if their competition is already on the platform, and publishers need to know which brands in what categories are already sipping some mobile Kool-Aid.
But one of the tricky things about the mobile universe is how diverse and hidden so much of it is. Young mobilistas can make their favorite WAP destinations go super-viral very quickly - meanwhile, none of us in mainstream media ever heard of the site. Vice President Mark Donovan says that the M:Metrics sample embraces about 120 sites from some of the more trafficked and visible brands. He notes that the company's own metered group of smartphone users sees over 36,000 top-level domains from 25,000 different companies moving through their mobile browsers. As we have discussed in several columns recently, mobile media is capable of growing an exceptionally long tail. "But from an audience perspective, you still have a concentration at the head where you have a relatively small number of sites," Donovan says.
The real surprise is the level of ad presence among major players. In its first slice of data for October, M:Metrics is seeing campaigns from Ford, Home Depot, Proctor and Gamble, and Time Warner. In fact, at least a dozen Fortune 100 companies are in the mix. The leading categories are publishing, which does include SMS alerts services, WAP sites and horoscopes, but it also includes entertainment like magazine and film promotions. The other big ad category is retail, and here we get the ringtones, wallpapers, etc. But Donovan says M:Metrics is also seeing large campaigns like Electronic Arts' promotion for Madden 98 running wide. "The clear indication is that it is becoming much more than selling ringtones on mobile."
In recent weeks I have seen stories and heard tales about a lot of unsold inventory in the mobile channel, especially among the social networking sites that are generating hundreds of millions of page views and not yet attracting many major sponsors. On the other hand, some publishers brag about their high CPMs on sold-out inventory. Donovan says he is seeing a similar mixed bag. "I hear two totally different sets of things," he says. "Some ad buyers will say they want to spend money on mobile and so far it is pretty hard. They can't do the spend easily." But also, "some people are claiming huge CPMS and inventory sold out. I am not sure I buy that. We don't have data on unsold inventory but we do visit sites that have no ads."
What we really need are more metrics like this that give early-in buyers and publishers even a basic map of what buying really is going on in here, and where.