Firms Push Ad-Supported Mobile at AlwaysOn

Companies serving the mobile population are finding ways to reach users that don’t require mobile Web access. This week at AlwaysOn in New York, several companies pitched their applications to the audience and venture capital firms.

Ringtones seem to be gaining popularity as a means of phone personalization, though ringbacks, a song or sound that replaces the ringing a caller hears, have never fully reached mainstream in the North American market. While a call recipient pushes ringbacks to the caller, a company called Vringo wants callers to push video and associated audio to the person receiving a call.

Vringo recently began a private beta test, and plans to open its services to the public. The company is working with movie companies, TV networks, and even marketers to make ads available for video ringtones. It also plans to allow users to send videos captured on their handsets to friends via a call.

“We’ve opened up a huge new wealth of real estate, that is the call,” said Vringo CEO Jonathan Medved. “We’ve decided this is time to do content sharing.”

An ad model is planned. In the case of movie trailers, a “click to get movie tickets” ad may run, for example. Advertising will likely cover half the cost of the calls. Currently, and likely at launch, users must subscribe to the service.

“It combines consensual behavior with rich ads,” said Medved.

The model was met with mixed reactions. Eric Hippeau, managing partner at SoftBank Capital said, “It’s reasonable to think video is going to be the next one to come, though there are issues with handsets available today.” He continued, “There might be rights issues, and sensitive content issues.”

Mobile phone users in the U.S. may be slow to adopt the mobile Web, but some services bring content to handsets without the use of Internet and WAP sites.

One company has found a way to deliver two forms of ads through content partners. Rapid Mobile, through its interface, serves graphical ads while search results for classified ads load. Categories include autos, jobs, real estate and dating.

“We see small ads as a huge opportunity,” said Rapid Mobile CEO Richard Marshall.

Through the interface, advertisers are able to design or upload an ad, scale it to individual handsets, and place buys. The service has gone through testing and is being rolled out in the U.K. There are plans to expand to the U.S. and other countries.

Hippeau’s quick response was positive, though cautious. “It’s one in a marketplace with quite a few players; scale is going to be important.”

Charles Hudson, an executive with Google New Business Development, closed the session featuring Vringo, Rapid Mobile and a handful of other presenters with a few thoughts. “What are the content types and user models that make people want to engage in this content?” he asked. “Let’s continue to think about how to get people to interact with this media first, before we think about how to monetize.”

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