Commentary

When Outdoor Talks Back

Walking through the typical American shopping mall this season is a bit like traversing a medieval bazaar. The salespeople at the small stands in the causeways seem to have gone rabid on us. No longer satisfied with barking their wares to some anonymous audience, they now single me out, ask personal questions about the dryness of my hands, the state of my will, what I pay for heat. They toss themselves in our paths with an in-your-face style that makes me wish my iPhone had a tazer. I lose my sense of human sympathy after a few laps around my mall. Call me jaded and lacking in holiday spirit, but I don't have a problem with ProActive and financial services salesmen in tazer spasms in front of a nearby Foot Locker or Gap.Ho, ho, ho, jackasses.

The possibility of Bluetooth-enabled mobile marketing fills me with the same sense of dread. What if nearby marketers could reach out to our phones as we pass by stores? Would we make it down a city block without getting hit with ten offers? Bluetooth is the close-range wireless protocol now common on phones that makes remote headsets possible but is also used increasingly in Europe to share media peer-to-peer. U.S. audiences are not well-acquainted with the Bluetooth media sharing features, but that may change shortly.

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In a deal announced this week between Clear Channel and Bluetooth content distribution provider Qwikker, thousands of out-of-home ad properties will be able to talk to your phone directly and download robust content. The deal could be an important development for mobile marketing generally, because it ties handset devices to the fast-moving outdoor advertising market and one of its biggest networks, Clear Channel. The company controls a lot of real estate at bus stops, shopping malls and airports. Clear Channel's global director of digital media, Michael Hudes, is calling this "Outdoor 2.0" because it makes static signage immediately interactive and in rich ways.

Instead of short coding an SMS prompt on a billboard or navigating to a WAP link, passersby will be able to activate their Bluetooth receiver on a phone and accept an invitation from the signage to interact. Qwikker devices embedded in the locations handle the communications. According to Saul Kato, founder and CTO of Qwikker, there will be device detection built into every remote location so content can be transcoded on the fly for compatibility. The sign will be able to send movies, music, images, and applications to the nearby phone directly and off the carrier's grid. Kato argues that being completely off-deck is especially important. "The transfer is free and doesn't rely on data plans. There is no cost to the end user," he says. "This has been a big issue for brand advertisers. Just putting content on a portal doesn't mean people will download it. For it to be ad-driven it needs to have a free delivery mechanism."

There are some inherent advantages to a Bluetooth distribution system. First, since it is tied to outdoor advertising, there is room for deeper messaging off the deck. And unlike on deck mobile marketing campaigns, this approach is carrier-agnostic. Kato estimates that up to 70% of new phones sold this year will have Bluetooth built in. Theoretically, there is the potential here for good reach. The technology also allows for entire channels of content and applications to be downloaded. Marketers like movie studios and beverage makers are interested in the Clear Channel project because it may also let them give users branded applications with a full range of video and personalization content.

Nevertheless, there is a learning curve for Bluetooth. Users not only need to activate the feature but also make themselves "discoverable" to devices like Qwikker's. The signage will have to advertise a product, offer a call to action and then instruct users how to configure their phones. All this while waiting for a bus, or rushing to a plane? I am not so sure. And while there is good reach potential here, it is more likely that the outdoor creative will have to do the work of pulling users into the exchange. It seems unlikely that we will keep our phones discoverable so any marketer can dash out of his storefront like a kiosk jackass and ask whether my hands are dry.

While I don't expect to be overrun by Bluetooth messages any time soon, I had to ask Kato about the dangers of keeping my phone discoverable in an environment of near-range mobile marketing. To be sure, within certain settings like the mall, you might want to have your phone receive certain offers. There is a real possibility here for making a phone a kind of consumer-initiated shopping radar. Imagine walking into a space and being able to read what specials are available in an aisle?

Qwikker has a capping system that will stop sending messages to specific phones if the user has refused opt-in prompts. "Longer term, I think what will happen is there will be privacy levels [on phones]," Kato says, "so you can decide whether to get a buzz, a pop-up, or a notification."

Now this is an option I would love to have with these shopping mall barkers: something that telegraphs to them that I don't want to be bothered. And yet in the short term I am still willing to go to bat for the tazering concept. Given a choice between learning Bluetooth and enabling a phone tazer that will take down an herbal moisturizer salesperson -- I don't think American Mall crawlers would even think twice.

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