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Which Way Is 'Next'?

  |  February 2, 2007   |  Comments

The latest batch of interactive marketing startups: what are they focused on?

Another week, another interactive marketing shindig. This week's installment was a beauty contest of sorts between interactive marketing firms at AlwaysOn's powwow of the hottest new startups -- at least, the ones with enough funding to fork over the fee that entitles them to make a six-minute elevator pitch to investors and the media at the event.

Dozens of companies presented. I won't pretend to have caught them all. The agenda wasn't adhered to with anything amounting to rigor, and the "always on" part was a bit too literal (you had to make your own breaks and thereby miss stuff). But over the two days of show-and-tell, some very clear themes emerged regarding what startups are hoping to ignite.

Meet the Mobile Disruptors

"Meet the Disruptors" was the conference's theme. Present, however, was less disruptive technology than technology with considerable potential to actually disrupt, particularly in the mobile arena.

Take Vringo, for example, which plays video ring tones selected by the caller for the callee on a mobile device. The video and audio clips are licensed from film, TV, and music video. Branding, sure. But as a mildly appalled Dave Weinberger leaned over to whisper during the demo, "This is to make cell phones more annoying?"

3jam sends group SMS (define) messages, making it a little hard to distinguish it from Dodgeball, which has been around for awhile. Ad Infuse promises more personalized advertising across a range of mobile devices by dynamically inserting ads when content is actually delivered to the end user (potentially a much-needed alternative to sponsorship models).

In-call ad solutions were well represented. "If you have a phone call, I can monetize it today," promises VoodooVox CEO Scott Hamilton. "A publisher for us is someone who produces a lot of phone calls." The company dynamically inserts in-call ads. Recipients can then elect to abandon their phone call and press buttons to hear more, get pictures or text messages, hear Zip Code-specific content, transfer to a call center, and so on.

Similarly, Apptera recently announced it will serve in-call ads for AT&T's 1800YellowPages service. CEO Marketta Silvera played a demo in which a caller requesting the number for a pizza restaurant in Chicago was persuaded to go instead to the advertiser's restaurant. Silvera told me the ads can be more locally targeted than by city -- but who calls directory assistance and requests a number in a specific neighborhood or Zip Code?

I'm with Google's Charles Hudson, who, after looking at these company's pitches, commented, "Most models focus on the advertiser and the publisher, not the user. We need ways to get people to want to use it. Let's think of more ways we can get people to interact with this content first."

Very Social Startups

Consumer-generated media (CGM) and social networks were by far the biggest themes at the event. Ad-supported technology aimed at getting people to participate with content, ads, and one another dominated the two days. ClipSync and MediaZone both want you to watch video while interacting with other viewers. The former works in tandem with your IM and Skype buddy lists; the latter lets you chat with strangers tuned to the same content. ClipSync's CEO Itzik Cohen dubs this "real-time social media."

But it's just not that hard to watch clips on, say, YouTube and IM with a friend simultaneously, is it? The point of integrating the apps seems superfluous and, of course, limits available content to what's on the site. Media Zone at least boasts broadband rights for events such as Wimbledon and FIBA Basketball, which may induce more viewers to participate.

Pando's idea of media sharing is to host ads for people sharing files too large to e-mail. I've been using the app for a while now, with mixed success. And although the company's branding and positioning are pretty good, it's also facing competition from others in the field, such as YouSendIt.com.

ThisNext is a social network offering shopping advice for everything from electronics to pasta sauce to doll houses. It hopes to grow by getting bloggers to adapt its tools. Marketers can become users and promote their products in a grass-roots manner, as well as identify consumer evangelists. The question is, will sites such as this one gain momentum?

American teens may soon get the opportunity to join their peers from around the world on Piczo, the number two teen site worldwide, according to the company -- and advertisers can follow. "This is the private party versus the very outwardly focused mall or nightclub MySpace has become," says CEO Jeremy Verba. Profiles are available only to friends rather than the world at large. Alternately, teens can have a second life, of sorts, in Habbo, run by Finnish company Sulaka. It's a lot like Club Penguin, or some of the virtual worlds Viacom's come out with: Virtual Hills and Laguna Beach and the just-announced Nicktropolis. Habbo already boasts 29 localized communities and 70 million registered users, and it's launched promotions in tandem with companies such as Lionsgate Films.

Structure Unstructured Information

Of the more interesting startups at the event were those trying to make sense of all the loosey-goosey types of data out there, whether audio, video, or tracking buzz.

Nexidia got an enthusiastic reception from the audience. The company makes phonetic-based technology that enables audio and video search. Vidavee has a pretty cool video ad placement toolkit, among other features. It allows marketers and publishers to identify and select very specific interest points within video content.

Finally, Kalivo is the latest buzz-monitoring tool to help marketers monitor and measure chatter about their brands, products, and services across the Web; identify influencers; and allow customers to interact with one another around the company's products.

Always Off

What's not starting up? My MacBook Pro will forever more be "AlwaysOff" as a result of the conference. Blame a giant pitcher of ice water teetering on a folded napkin at the edge of a very narrow table. You may want to avoid this configuration, particularly in the bloggers' bullpen, at your next event.

Meet Rebecca at Search Engine Strategies in London, February 13-15, at ExCel London.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rebecca Lieb

Rebecca was previously VP, U.S. operations of Econsultancy, an independent source of advice and insight on digital marketing and e-commerce. Earlier, she held executive marketing and communications positions at strategic e-services companies, including Siegel & Gale, and has worked in the same capacity for global entertainment and media companies, including Universal Television & Networks Group (formerly USA Networks International) and Bertelsmann's RTL Television. As a journalist, she's written on media for numerous publications, including "The New York Times" and "The Wall Street Journal." Rebecca spent five years as Variety's Berlin-based German/Eastern European bureau chief. Rebecca also taught at New York University's Center for Publishing, where she also served on the Electronic Publishing Advisory Group. Rebecca, author of "The Truth About Search Engine Optimization," was ClickZ's editor-in-chief for over seven years.

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