Commentary

The Future of Advertising via Wireless Devices

The future of wireless advertising is inextricably tied to the future of how wireless devices are used to access information. The problem is that those within the wireless industry are split on how to access it, myself included. Though I wasn't there, Elliot Drucker reported in the April 2, 2001 issue of Wireless Week that CTIA 2001, the major wireless industry show, could be called "the two faces of wireless internet."

Some argued that wireless devices are unique and demand their own sites, content, and ads geared specifically for them. Others thought that the way to go is to improve the devices so they can surf the Internet normally.

At different times, in different conversations, I have agreed with each camp. My own ambivalence stems from the considerable sense behind each argument, and the considerable number of folks involved on both sides. The future of wireless advertising depends on which one of these sides "wins out," assuming a victor is inevitable.

The first step in predicting a winner is identifying the three primary limitations of wireless devices that prevent them from being the equal of the personal computer connected via land-line. These are 1) small screens, 2) inferior software, and the 3) low-speed connection.

I consider that other factors such as clumsy interface and slower processing speed to be secondary; to my knowledge there have not been sites designed especially for the awkward keyboards and touch pads of laptops, for example, nor ones explicitly designed for slow computers.

Limitations of a device must be accounted for, which is why some web sites offer content that is optimized for connection speed. From purely anecdotal knowledge, this happened only after a critical mass of users with a radically different connection speed came onto the scene.

Now that we have identified the limitations of wireless devices, we can take a step five to ten years into the future and make predictions about whether or not those limitations will still exist.

1) Small Screens. I will be very surprised if there is not the technology to make an affordable (yes that is part of the challenge), energy-efficient screen for portable devices that is large enough to adequately view most web pages at 800x600, yet light. If we have digital paper now, we have this screen in ten years.

2) Inferior Software. As the power of the devices increases due to further advances in chip miniaturization, wireless devices will narrow the power gap between them and their oversized cousins. As the distance of this gap decreases, so will the number of applications that a wireless device cannot run. Take into consideration the possibility of almost all one's applications residing on servers, a la Internet appliances, and software is not an issue.

This last is dependent on improvement of 3) Low-Speed Connection. In my mind this is the biggest hurdle. I have been extremely unimpressed by what I have seen to date, and I'm not sure we'll have any sort of wireless broadband in the next five years. I'd like to think that we could in ten years, though due to physical constraints, it may always be less reliable than land-line.

If connection speed is even marginally improved, screen size increases as I outlined above, and the software becomes more powerful, I think that the answer is clear; the Web will be accessed wirelessly, there will be no large need for separate wireless webs.

Breathe a sigh of relief. Not only does this mean that as a user you will be free from the oppressive tyranny of lame content, but as an advertiser we won't have to deal with a whole "separate medium." Instead, it will sit snugly under the umbrella of interactive advertising, where it can be integrated using the same creative, the same sites, and the same syndicated research.

In ten years, when you plan a buy, the research runs may indicate that your target likes to access its content largely via wireless devices. Instead of placing a buy with a company that offers a specialized application, such as today's Avantgo and Vindigo, you will place it with interactive properties that index well towards your target. You will ask them to target by wireless use, or if their content is largely accessed by wireless users (as indicated by the research of the future), you may just buy ROS and save your money.

Your super cool video creative, which will work with most wireless users, may not with some. That is why your third-party ad server will identify the appropriate creative to serve based on device limitations, or user preference (see my Universal Cookie concept from last Monday's MediaPost), and deliver a static or even text banner to those that need/want one. Your third-party ad server will also be able to measure the success of the campaign employing current metrics instead of reverting back to the click-through as we are currently being asked to do.

Disclaimer: I don't know the future. Device improvement may take significantly longer; it may be here in two years. Regardless, in the future, advertising to wireless devices will be much more integrated. That's a fact.

Eliot Kent-Uritam is a Media Planner at Mediasmith, Inc., a San Francisco and New York based Integrated Interactive Media Agency and Consultant.

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