Ads on your mobile: Believe it or not, you may welcome them

Until now Australians have been exempt from receiving the barrage of advertising that infects every other aspect of modern life on their mobile phone. That will soon change, but the good news is you may welcome the ads.

Until now Australians have been exempt from receiving the barrage of advertising that infects every other aspect of modern life on their mobile phone. That will soon change, but the good news is you may welcome the ads.

Many people find the concept of actually asking to be advertised to hard to believe -- why would someone willingly seek out an ad for its own sake? The answer comes from the advertising industry, which wants you to look at its ads, and is concerned about the new m-generation which has shown an increasing tendency to avoid or ignore anything it does not want to deal with. This generation communicates mostly via mobile phone, so the advertising industry is in the early stages of exploring the new medium -- sometimes referred to as the "third screen" behind your computer and television screen.

However, mobiles are highly customisable, and in order to get an ad to the mobile screen advertisers have to convince the user that the ad is not only worth watching, it is worth going to the effort of downloading and watching - ads need to improve dramatically in style and substance. For example, ads for major retailers could include discounts at their stores, or ads for films or musicians could come in the form of special trailers that would be sought out by fans and potential consumers. Hypertag, a UK company, is promoting a technology that lets poster ads beam information to mobile phones via infrared and have used the technology with movie posters in London cinemas and the Underground.

The UK Direct Marketing Association has already formed a Mobile Marketing Strategy Group and its first conference was massively over-subscribed, indicating how eager advertisers are to learn how to promote to a mobile phone. The few advertisements that have made it through to mobiles have been mainly SMS messages, with a few MMS versions thrown in. However, with the new multimedia capabilities of the latest handsets advertisers are looking at ways to get their message to the individual holding the phone. In many overseas countries these concepts are already being tested, or actively pursued. Australian telcos are not as aggressive in looking for ways for third parties to advertise on their network, a large part of which is probably due to the much cheaper price they paid for 3G bandwidth.

One system being looked at plans to take advantage of a new service known as 'video shortcuts', developed by MX Telecom. It allows 3G mobile users to dial a shortcode, opt for a video call and receive streamed video content to their mobiles. 3UK, the British version of Australia's first 3G mobile operator, has already launched the new service.

However some companies are looking at using the technology to stream videos advertising their brands to the 3G handsets. The good news for the consumer is they won't receive the ad unless they actively type in the shortcode. Several reasons spring to mind as to why consumers would do that. Some ads can be very entertaining and people want to watch them for that reason - consider the existence of TV shows like "World's Best Ads". The ads could offer a payoff to the viewer, with special offers or content the person wants to see. The first advertisers are predicted to be music and television companies, who could offer previews of music videos or cult TV shows designed to promote their product.

Some brands want consumers to watch their ad over and over again, and even interact with it. They've taken product placement in games to a whole new level, creating games based around their own brands - advergames. Many large companies have already made these games - for example Nokia has produced a snow-sledding game to promote SMS. After each race your results are messaged to a phone that appears on your screen, and better sleds are available by SMSing yourself a secret password.

More subtle is the idea of 'contextual marketing'. Web-browser company Opera has created a Web browser that runs on BREW enabled phones. The benefit for carriers is that it offers services based on what the consumer is doing at the time. For example, if the user is checking the latest basketball scores the browser can offer a basketball game for the mobile, or perhaps a basketball-themed screensaver and ringtone. This will especially appeal to telcos which have avoided the "walled garden" approach, and allow their users to roam the World Wide Web.

And there are plenty of opportunities for companies to take advantage of current technologies, opportunities which so far haven't shown up on the radar but are technically possible. For example, screensavers and backgrounds on mobile phones. The most popular screensavers currently tend to be based on movies and TV shows, and are effectively advertisements keeping the show in the consciousness of the consumer.

However, this concept can be taken further. A service could be offered which updates the background or screensaver automatically, to show the latest ad. Although it's possible to show random ads, this service would be most suited to strong brands. For example, the TV show Big Brother could offer the service and provide ads detailing upcoming events and promotions, or Virgin Megastore could provide the service to customers and promote the latest albums and giving special offers.

Ringback tones also offer an advertising opportunity. Ringback tones can be purchased by mobile users to replace the normal ringtone people here when they call the phone. Ringback tones are already being used in several countries, including China, and spokespeople for Vodafone Australia and 3 told ZDNet Australia  they planned to introduce the service some time in 2005.

It would be possible to play a short ad instead, with the person who had the commercial as their ringback tone receiving some benefit, such as cheaper calls. Of course, they may receive a certain amount of antagonism from their friends and family...

These advertising channels are independent of ads that come with content. One obvious source is the push by some segments of the wireless industry to bring broadcast television to mobile handsets, which is more than likely to bring ads with it. Optus already offers CNNi, ABC and SBS on its Optus Zoo service, and expects the quality to improve when it introduces 3G in 2005.

The good news for consumers is that, at least with current proposals, they will have to actively participate in looking at an advertisement. This means that they will only look at ads for things they are interested in, and will find the quality of the ads and the special offers improve as companies exert themselves to be worthy of that active participation.