Commentary

The Ad Store

Now that the iPhone App Store is open for business, we have to consider what kind of marketing vehicle we have here. The ad-supported mobile applications model surely gets a boost from the platform. One company, Medialets, has announced dynamic ad serving into the apps. Aside from media brand extensions (NYTimes, MySpace, Salesforce) we aren't seeing any branded media apps yet, but I understand a pile of them are in the mobile marketing labs ready to drop soon.

There are a handful of ads and marketing partnerships already in evidence in the apps, and they render very early lessons in how and how not to leverage the kinda-sorta-more-than-it-was openness of the iPhone platform.

Some developers are making a misstep that should have been obvious, kicking up the Safari browser from an ad link. One mediocre real estate application, Puluwai, does a home listings search. The application is unsatisfying, since it pulls in minimal details of the listing and a single picture. Worse, the home listing itself pauses for a second while the app pulls in an admob text link. The link invariably calls the Safari browser to hit its target. Now the user must leave the browser, find the Puluwai program again and relaunch it in order to continue. And of course, Mr. Magoo seems to be behind the targeting. Every home shopper wants ringtones or "Fun and Friends" or a game of Monopoly, doesn't she?

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And while we are on the subject of interrupting the application experience, what exactly were the Google-ites thinking in releasing their bizarre app? At its best, this Google program offers a very usable predictive input algorithm that suggests a search term and then can iterate it with suggestions for more refined queries. This is excellent. The problem comes in the execution of results. You never know if you are getting a results page in the app or getting kicked over to the Safari browser. All of the Google apps (Reader, Gmail, etc.) just open up their Safari versions. What am I missing here? Doesn't the current Google Web app seem more integrated and seamless than this?

On the classifieds and directory side, CareerBuilder and YellowPages.com both port listings to their respective apps nicely. YellowPages offers a results page tab that brings sponsored results to the top, and they click through to enhanced results. Surely the canvas is large and lush enough here for real display ads and mini-sites.

Two multimedia executions, Pandora and vSNAX Videos, have no ads now but show tremendous promise. The magnificent Web radio project Pandora is already available in a fee-based mobile version from some carriers. The company announced recently that the iPhone free extension of a user's Web radio service will leverage both display and audio advertising at some point. The app creates a playlist around a band or a genre of your choosing. On the Web, Pandora does a good job of wrapping the player with relevant rich-media advertising and offering sponsored stations. Both of these models would work very well on iPhone. Who wouldn't want their own ad creative featured alongside some of the world's best and most memorable album art? This is the sort of context that demands creative directors to up their digital game.

Rhythm NewMedia, which already runs ad-supported video channels in the U.K., has far and away the most sophisticated iPhone app so far. The player window lets you browse other clips while the main clip runs dimly in background. Rhythm pulls in some of its major media partners like CBS News, Ripe TV, VH1 and Ford Models. In addition to the obvious brand extensions and branded video placements, the interface itself offers ample opportunities for pre-rolls as well as overlays. Both Pandora and vSNAX seem to understand better than some others in this catalog the fundamentals of the content business. If you create lush and appealing editorial environments, then advertisers will want to be there.

For now at least, the most sensible ad execution I am seeing among the iPhone apps is at NYTimes.com. While the Times app is sluggish and frustrating, its bottom banner for Westin Hotels demonstrates the simple efficiency of ads in applications. Clicking into the ad keeps the user in the app but opens a Westin mini-site where you can find a hotel, access promotional deals and call for reservations. All of this takes place within the NYTimes editorial navigation frame, so you can go back to your original article or move laterally throughout the site from anywhere in the sponsored mini-site experience. The ad links to a deep engagement with the sponsor, retains the editorial imprimatur of the host pub, and does not disrupt the user's experience.

Even a cursory glance reveals the promise of ad-sponsored apps. The iPhone Home page makes all of these programs much more accessible than most other phone interfaces, so they are not easily forgotten. The media company retains control over the look and feel, navigation and ad experience much more effectively here than on a WAP page. It's a win-win-win. Except of course for the carriers, who once again lose a march to a company that two years ago wasn't even in the mobile game.

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