Mobile Ad Trend Grows

Advertisers from telecom provider Verizon to olive oil brand Bertolli are experimenting with new mobile ad offerings from business listings providers Citysearch and WhitePages.com, and mobile ad software outfit Third Screen Media. Coming on the heels of mobile ad experimentation by Yahoo and Google, the new products and partnerships evince a trend towards monetizing mobile content through ads.

Unilever’s Bertolli is the current sponsor of two recently launched mobile business directory services from IAC/InterActiveCorp’s Citysearch. The advertiser’s brand is promoted below Citysearch business listings sent via SMS to user’s mobile devices.

“Mobile advertisers are getting more and more mainstream,” said Charles Golvin, principal analyst at Forrester Research.

Available since last week, the newest mobile listings feature from Citysearch allows users to request listings by sending a keyword such as “plumber” and a zip code or geographical location via text message to short-code “CS411”. In response, users receive up to four individual text messages, each featuring one business listing followed by an advertiser message from the current sponsor.

“The opportunity to deliver a really highly relevant message is increased with location…especially in the search domain because you know what the customer is looking for,” said Golvin.

A similar function, available through Citysearch for the past two months, lets users send specific listings from the Citysearch site to their phones. Those SMS listings also precede a text message from the program’s current sponsor.

Visa was the inaugural sponsor of the mobile listings program, according to Scott Morrow, Citysearch EVP of products and marketing. Thus far, the sponsorships have been sold on a monthly basis.

WhitePages.com “would not rule out” providing an SMS listings delivery service similar to the one offered by Citysearch, according to Derek Netelenbos, VP online ad sales and operations for WhitePages.com. However, for now, the business directory publisher has chosen to serve listings via its WAP-enabled mobile sites 411.com and WhitePages.com.

Cingular recently ran small banner ads targeted to handheld device users through WhitePages.com’s recently-launched service. Wireless users can visit either of the two domains to search for business listings in the same way they do on the WhitePages.com site. Verizon is now testing similar ads. Advertisers can target ads by device type, day and hour, said Netelenbos. The publisher also plans to add maps and directions functions to the mobile site.

In the future, WhitePages.com expects to serve ads from multiple advertisers at once. “We’re in the preliminary stages,” continued Netelenbos. “I suspect it ramps fairly quickly.”

Mobile ad platform company Third Screen Media has formed several partnerships over the past few months in an effort to connect advertisers with mobile content. Third Screen has linked up with content developers and platform providers like Action Engine, Bango, Gold Group, Hands-On Mobile, iLoop Mobile and Nellymoser, in addition to others yet to be named. The goal is to use those relationships as a sales channel to connect Third Screen with publishers looking to offer mobile advertising.

According to Third Screen’s COO Jeff Janer, the firm has signed deals with three other content providers and is in talks with six more. Though the agreements are not written as exclusive, Janer said, “technically they are” since working with the software firm requires the content companies to spend time learning Third Screen’s ad system. The need to train on other systems would be a deterrent from forming similar relationships with other partners.

Essentially, Third Screen enables its mobile service partners to offer banners and other display ad opportunities to their publisher clients. For example, Hachette Filipacchi Media U.S. is using Nellymoser’s platform to serve up mobile content for its Shock and Car and Driver titles. Both Third Screen and publishers are handling the mobile ad sales, Janer said.

Publishers are beginning to realize consumer burnout could hamper future growth of subscription-based content models, according to Forrester’s Golvin. “There are only so many $2.99 and $5.99 subscriptions you can sell the poor consumer before they say, ‘I’ve had enough,'” he said.

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