Microsoft Pulls Trigger on U.S. Mobile Ad Network

Microsoft has finally kicked off a mobile ad network on its home turf, announcing its first publisher relationship here and naming a new global sales exec.

The company will be the exclusive seller of display inventory reaching CNBC.com’s U.S. mobile audience in a deal it hopes will be followed soon by others like it. That ambition puts Microsoft into more direct competition with mobile ad networks such as those run by Yahoo, AOL’s Platform-A, Nokia, and AdMob.

Additionally, Marc-Henri Magdelenat was recently chosen to head up global mobile ad sales for Microsoft. A co-founder of ScreenTonic, which Microsoft acquired in 2007, Magdelenat came to the U.S. two months ago to spearhead Microsoft’s U.S.-based mobile ad sales operation. He will be based in New York and oversee sales for Microsoft-owned properties MSN Mobile and Windows Live Mobile as well as network sales in the U.S. and Europe.

The CNBC agreement extends an existing relationship between Microsoft and the NBC Universal-owned cable network. The parties agreed last December the cable network’s Web site would receive technology and ad sales support from Microsoft, and be sold as part of its MSN Finance vertical.

CNBC.com claims to reach 1.1 million mobile users a month. That would place it ahead of business news purveyor Bloomberg News (952,000 monthly mobile users, according to ComScore), but behind Reuters (1.2 million mobile users). ComScore does not measure CNBC’s mobile traffic directly.

No surprise though: Mobile traffic to business news sites is dwarfed by that to general news and information sites such as Yahoo (6.6 million users in July) and Google News (6.9 million).

Microsoft’s own MSN Mobile drew 3.2 million visitors in July — a reminder that the Redmond-based firm has plenty of experience with mobile publishing and ad sales.

Magdelenat claimed Microsoft’s total mobile ad reach is 20 million unique visitors globally. Most of that traffic is due to ScreenTonic’s activities in the U.K., France, Belgium, and other European countries. The ad network at one time focused mainly on carrier relationships, but over time has shifted its attention more toward Web sites. Independent publishers now make up the bulk of ScreenTonic’s mobile ad inventory, he said.

As Microsoft puts the pedal down on its mobile ad network plans, the question arises whether it will attempt to win publisher relationships by offering guarantees or payments to media owners; Google offered guarantees to win search ad distribution on MySpace, and it’s been rumored that Microsoft did the same to secure its ad deal with Facebook. Magdelanat wouldn’t say whether this is a possibility, but indicated the company would do what it takes to advance its mobile reach through such network deals.

In July, 16.4 million people in the U.S. — 7.2 percent of all mobile subscribers here — accessed news on their mobile browser, ComScore estimates.

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