No News Is Bad News for the Wireless Ad Industry

For those of you who don’t know (though I’d suspect most of you do), ProfNet is a wonderful resource for journalists and PR practitioners alike. Basically, it allows journalists to post information to a global mailing list and then lets PR folks who subscribe to the list respond back to the journalists if they’ve got info, story ideas, or a product to flack that might fit the bill. When writing this column every week, my limited mental faculties have been helped many a time from leads I’ve received from ProfNet queries I’ve sent out.

So when I decided I wanted to write a column about wireless email/wireless advertising, (as well as speaking on the subject today, if you’re at the ClickZ Conference), I sent out a ProfNet query to troll for leads. Without getting into the excess verbiage of the whole request, basically I asked for information from companies that had run successful wireless advertising campaigns. I didn’t need anything fancy, just some simple information and case studies of results.

Guess what? I didn’t get a single response.

OK. I should qualify that. I got lots of responses from people hawking their company’s wireless advertising service. LOTS. The only problem was that as soon as I asked them for results, they became eerily silent. I got a little hemming and hawing about “getting back to me” but never saw another email.

Now this wasn’t exactly a scientific study, but it sure does make me wonder if anyone’s actually doing any wireless advertising out there. Sure, there are companies like Vindigo and AvantGo that have done some work with sponsoring parts of their systems (and, strictly speaking, AvantGo isn’t totally wireless), but as far as I know, no one has done anything of any size when it comes to wireless “advertising.”

Why? Because it won’t work.

Am I indicting the whole wireless industry? Absolutely not. But Jakob Nielsen’s article about the WAP backlash gives some clues. Basically it comes down to this: Given the screen size of current phones, the intrusiveness of dealing with incoming messages, and the way that people seem to want to use wireless (see what’s going on with Japan and I-mode for some examples of what’s working), it seems to me that “advertising” as we know it just isn’t going to work in a wireless format. It may work on the web, but the wireless world isn’t the web.

Let’s compare. Most users experience the web through a 17-inch monitor. Most cell-phone screens are 1.5 inches. The web presents a rich multimedia experience. Wireless is (for the moment) text only. Surfing the web is a continuous process that can be “on” all day. Receiving ads via your cell phone is interrupt-driven, requiring immediate attention.

The list could go on and on. The point is that (and you’ll remember this same refrain from the early days of the web) we’re working with an entirely new medium. The constraints (and opportunities) offered by new wireless capabilities will require new thinking.

What will work? A recent Forrester study that examines the issue points out that mobile devices lend themselves to fast, simple, location-based services. People using their cell phones for information and transactions are using them because they need something in particular, and they need it now. They’re not going to research their next car purchase on a one-inch screen, but they might buy a movie ticket as they walk by the theater.

Yes, I know this isn’t “advertising” in the sense that it doesn’t involve messages pushed out to users. But that’s exactly the point. In a medium that lends itself to user control and user pull, “advertising” as we know it may just be a stupid strategy. Would you want your cell phone, pager, or PDA buzzing at you with messages all day long?

Probably not. What you will want is to be able to use these devices to bring you the products, services, and information you need when you need it. As marketers, providing those products, services, and information to our wireless users in a way that builds our brands is what’s gonna work. Think apps, not ads.

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