Mobile Advertising Goes Graphic

The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday — but never jam today. –Lewis Carroll

For I don’t know how long now, the Year of Mobile Marketing has always been next year. Now that it is next year once again, will 2007 be that breakthrough year? Or is mobile still holding fast to its ever-elusive next-year timetable?

There’s certainly been a major flurry of activity in mobile advertising the past couple weeks. The day after Christmas, Verizon Wireless announced it would start selling banner ads on news, weather, sports, and other sites its subscribers access on mobile devices. A week later, on the day after New Year’s, AT&T (which recently gobbled up Cingular and BellSouth) followed suit, promising banner ads on its mobile phone service (as well as on the company’s TV and broadband Internet services).

(This past October, Sprint Nextel unveiled plans to begin selling ads on its deck, too.)

Verizon says it expects to “make significant dollars in mobile Web advertising in 2007,” according to a “New York Times” article. AT&T, meanwhile, estimates its take could be “several billion dollars” per year in the next five years, according to “Wall Street Journal” coverage.

Verizon boasts just over 51 million subscribers, while AT&T boasts just shy of 59 million. Will advertisers shell out billions to reach these consumers? Media executives I’ve spoken with all express strong reservations — and not without reason.

If You Build It, Will They Come?

As these major wireless providers were coming out with their groundbreaking announcements, a flurry of studies on mobile Web usage and marketing was also emerging — to considerably less fanfare. They all corroborate what you probably already feel in your gut: not a lot of people are going to be seeing mobile banner ads anytime soon.

ComScore’s October “Mobile Tracking Study” finds only 19 percent of U.S. Web users access the Net on cell phones or mobile devices. And that figure looks rosy compared with more recent research. M:Metrics learned in November only 13.9 percent of mobile users say they accessed news and information in any given month, while 70 percent said they’re “very unlikely” to browse the Web on a wireless device in the coming year.

Forrester published the most recent study, in which an overwhelming 79 percent of consumers say they “find the idea of ads on their mobile devices annoying.” Not hugely surprising, actually. Consumers traditionally downplay their receptiveness to advertising of any kind when surveyed. More quantitatively, Forrester’s research backs up the other two reports. It points out 24 percent of U.S. households don’t even subscribe to a mobile service, and a paltry 11 percent of U.S. mobile users say they access the mobile Web. Of those who do use mobile data services, SMS (define) reigns supreme, overwhelmingly in the 12-21 year-old demographic.

I sought, but couldn’t find, data on how many mobile users habitually disable images when browsing the not-so-speedy mobile Web for faster page loading. I know I do on my Sprint Treo, and I suspect I’m not alone. If that’s correct, the potential audience for these ads shrinks even more. My T-Mobile BlackBerry is a lot faster at surfing, but no word from that company on graphic advertising — yet.

Everything Old Is New Again

Three independent, and very recent, studies strongly indicate the mobile Internet remains a genuinely nascent medium. We’re barely baby steps beyond text-only SMS campaigns, still rather cutting edge in their own right.

What’s that? Text messaging cutting edge? Companies are about to introduce… banner ads (teensy-tiny, static banner ads)… into a not-at-all widely adopted interactive channel? Into an environment in which ads are neither expected nor welcome? Mobile banner ads are, moreover, expensive and notoriously difficult to measure.

This feels exactly like 1998, doesn’t it? It’s déjÀ vu all over again.

Telephone marketing, such as it was, was laid to rest three years ago with the introduction of the Do Not Call Registry. Today, telephone carriers hope to become major media entities.

Maybe next year?

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