You Gotta Hear This

Now that my darling teen has gotten herself a boyfriend, my hermit-like existence has only become more shut in. Literally, I have boxed myself in via two house rules: no driving in his car and no boys in the house without parental supervision. The upshot of these sensible restrictions is that Dad gets screwed. These days I spend an awful lot of time here at the home office while the two of them are above my head playing "Guitar Hero III" and "Halo 3." There are days when I really wish I hadn't gotten that subwoofer.

I also am completely out of the loop when it comes to pass-around media. At lunches, gatherings, and even on line at grocery stores, I often get exposed to tons of new mobile media just by people showing it to me. Many of them know I write about this stuff, so I get a lot of "You gotta see this." In fact there are entire segments of mobile media that informally depend on this kind of public viral distribution.

One company that seems to be making a strong model out of viral distribution is a voice and text service, RHBrands, which runs the Rejection Hotline, It Could Always Suck More, and scores of other comic call-in programs. This has been going on since 2001 -- and according to CEO Bryan Kujawski, the company gets between 2.5 million and 3.5 million calls a month and up to 8 or more million when a new program really goes viral. The Rejection Hotline is a phone number in any major area code singles can give to lousy prospects they meet in the wild. Victims call the number to find it is a fake and then get a gag reel about why they might have been rejected. There are other programs, too -- like the Santa hotline that crashed RHBrand's own servers last Christmas after pulling in more than 9 million calls.



We talk a lot about creative messaging in mobile text and banners, but I have heard little about ad formats in this emerging voice channel ad platform. Kujawski, who you may recall as one of the co-founders at 360i, says that a brief pre-roll mention followed by a more detailed post-program audio pitch seems to work well. When I called into the Rejection hotline, I was teased with the possibility of getting free ringtones, but then the full ad for the mobile content advertiser comes at the end.

On paid services like a mobile content subscription, Kujawski says they typically get 3% to 6% opting in to press the star key and get more info via a text message. If a free ringtone is involved, like in a recent film promotion involving Souljah Boy, the response can climb as high a 5% to 15%. What is interesting about the audio ad model is the flexibility it gives you with creative. In the ads I sampled, you get to hear the free ringtone you can receive. In the Souljah Boy ads they can run his song throughout the pitch. And because these are comedy routines, more adventurous advertisers can even get product placement -- if they don't mind having their products included in the wiseass one-liners.

RHBrands is also building a brand for itself as a clever source of phone-in pranks and comedy. The company has an opt-in SMS subscription base of 300,000 who ask for notices of new services. The challenge for the company is growing the inventory, with a constant stream of new concepts that also lets them differentiate audiences and target age groups, areas codes, etc. The beauty of the model is that it can go viral with virtually no marketing spend. "Dosing" the company's MySpace page with 15,000 friends sometimes is enough to spark a word-of-mouth juggernaut. My guess is that those 300,000 RHBrands SMS subscribers are the Typhoid Marys of viral media, the people we all know who pass along the off-color joke or site link via email to everyone in an office. In the SMS world, you can forward a text message to a contact easily to get them into a call-in content network like this.

The voice channel remains the under-utilized content path on mobile. Being able to quickly and easily call into a dose of content, headlines, a quip from a favorite personality, a comedic one-liner, last night's Letterman Top Ten list, makes the mind reel. Using SMS as a notification system that links to the call and keeps people in the content loop could be a marvelous way to double-down on marketing. Imagine a system where the SMS reminds you of new content and includes a preparatory bit of creative that gets executed in the audio format. The ad in the audio clip then lets you opt into the advertiser, sealing the deal. RHBrands is already playing with techniques like this, and it seems to me a promising way to knit together the mobile platforms for maximum effect.

And it may be the only way I catch new mobile viruses for a while, isolated as I am here in the basement. I try to keep telling myself that I only need to worry when the sound of video gaming carnage from upstairs stops for more than 30 seconds at a time. So long as the subwoofer keeps thrumming, I know that all four of their hands are safely gripping game controllers.

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