Commentary

I Am Only Here For The Ads

Football I can fake. With baseball I got enough knowledge during my thirty seconds in Little League to be believable until someone starts using those acronyms and averages. When it comes to basketball, I am not even on the court. I understand that in America playing sports entails dressing in very silly costumes and then having the temerity to act manly. But basketball outfits just look too much like pajamas for me to take the sport seriously. I see enormous guys on TV traipsing to and fro on a small wooden floor and I feel like I just caught boys at a slumber party acting up. Hey you kids, stop playing ball in the house and get to bed.

And so March Madness is one of those media events I hear about sometime in April when companies boast about their ratings. Every once in a while I get the urge to have someone explain to me what a "bracket" is, until I realize that he might actually explain to me what a "bracket" is.

But the mobile wings of Sports Illustrated, ESPN, CBS and Go2 are taking March Madness very seriously, and for good reason. I recall a couple of years ago hearing from attendees at some of these games that many people in the crowd had their cell phones open to check the current scores at the other games. Apparently, the audience was getting a little mobile competition going over whose mobile scores service was quickest in getting the latest updates.

The only thing sillier than guys in PJs acting tough is guys watching guys in PJs from the stands and then competing over who dials up a WAP site fastest. The phones were beating out the overhead scoreboard in most arenas for monitoring the other games.  Clearly, March Madness was the kind of moment where content, situation and audience need to come together to help sell a platform. Not surprisingly, then, all the major sports news outlets are on the court this season.

I haven't secured examples of all these offerings. I understand Sports Illustrated has a downloadable ad-supported app for Windows Mobile, and I am still trying to figure out the best phone to use for CBS Sports. So far, I am impressed (in my own thoroughly sports-ignorant way) with go2's very concise execution (marchmayhem.go2.com). It is as direct as mobile should be, in that the site's first two choices are links to "Live Results" and "Yesterday's Results," and the section below links to paragraph-sized previews of upcoming contests.

But what interests me most so far is the quality of the advertising. A large banner for the upcoming film "The Signal" offers the good come-on "This is not a test," and it clicks through to a landing page that can call me with a sample of the film's "signal," although I am not sure I quite got it. The page also clicks into a film synopsis and a sharing mechanism. An even better banner for BlackBerry asks if I want to "Do More," shows three models in the banner, and prompts me to click through to compare them. The Toyota 2009 Corolla ad lacked any call to action, but the landing page was an elaborate and well-made microsite for exploring the model.

One downloadable widget in the Toyota site looked enticing, but it proved incompatible with my phone. In fact, in clicking through about a dozen ads on March Madness mobile sites, two things are apparent. First, the level of mobile ad play clearly has been raised. Ordinarily, even on premium sites, there is a mix of strong creative from recognizable brands and low-rent "free ringtone" dross.

It is good to see that a major event like March Madness is attracting serious media buyers with their better creative executions. But at the same time, technical glitches persist. On a Samsung feature phone, CBS's mobile Sportsline site was returning error messages persistently. On the iPhone, the call back from "The Signal" was so ambiguous I couldn't tell if I actually got the "signal" or not, although I think the idea of a banner initiating a call back audio ad is excellent. In one case a VH1 banner kicked me over to the full Web site instead of a mobile-ready version. I still don't know what handset that Toyota widget will need. And that Sports Illustrated Windows Mobile app? Well, okay, I will try to fish out a working unit somewhere. But launching a major app like that from a major brand on a platform with a fraction of the market is like announcing a new Web site that only runs on a Sony PSP.

We are a quarter of the way through what many promised would be the year that mobile breaks through. I am sure most of those soothsayers will justify their claims by looking at spending stats and stray quotes from brand managers and agencies about their enthusiasm for the platform. Let me suggest instead that we keep our eye on the game rather than the stats. It is in events like March Madness, and how consumers actually experience mobile marketing, that we will get a better gauge of how we are progressing. From what I can tell, so far, we are on the court and ready to play -- but some of the passing feels rough. And I think we forgot to change out of our pajamas.


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