Virgin Mobile Users: Will Watch for Minutes

Virgin Mobile USA’s core teen customer base can now earn mobile minutes by watching multimedia ads.

The ads in question appear not on subscribers’ phones, but on the Web, as young people generally don’t have the money for multimedia-ready handsets and the video quality on phones is generally poor.

Virgin Mobile is partnering with ad technology firm Ultramercial and interactive mobile marketing company Vibes for the new SugarMama program, which allows opt-in users to earn talk minutes for viewing online Flash ads, receiving mobile text ads or responding to an advertiser’s survey.

During the initial three months of the program, ads will run for charter sponsor brands Xbox, Diet Mountain Dew, and the youth smoking prevention campaign, truth.

Users will be able to sign up through the Virgin Mobile site to view “adtime” ads on the SugarMama site, receive “textime” ads via SMS text messaging, or participate in “qtime” advertiser surveys. Set to launch June 14, the program offers users one free minute of talk time for each Ultramercial ad viewed or each text exchange they conduct with an advertiser.

The number of minutes offered for qtime survey participation will vary depending on the length of the questioning. Registration data on opt-in users including name, cell phone number, zip code, and demographic information such as age and gender will be collected. However, all ads will be served to all opt-in participants initially. Users must be over 13 to participate.

“We didn’t attempt to develop something that’s for the general market,” explained Virgin Mobile USA Chief Marketing Officer Howard Handler. Like the carrier’s pay-as-you-go system, the SugarMama program will appeal to its customer base of 14- to 24-year-olds because “it’s about advertising with the control and access in the hands of the customer,” he said.

After conducting a focus group, Ultramercial and Virgin Mobile determined that the one-ad-for-one-minute tradeoff was “absolutely OK” with the wireless carrier’s users, according to Ultramercial President Dana Jones. “The message itself has a direct benefit to the user,” he added. Jones said users can earn up to 75 minutes per month by participating.

The focus group also made clear to Virgin Mobile that its audience was not ready to view rich media ads on their phones. Not only can many of them not afford pricier phones that enable multimedia, “the video experience on phones right now is really spotty and clunky,” opined Handler, adding, “Our customers are on the PC all the time anyway.” The carrier has four million users in total.

According to Virgin Mobile’s Handler, ads for Microsoft’s Xbox, Pepsi-Cola North America’s Diet Mountain Dew; and the American Legacy Foundation’s truth campaign will vary in content and appearance. If desired, advertisers can include multiple choice questions at the end of the Ultramercial ads.

The textime component, enabled by mobile marketing firm Vibes, will let users register to receive text messages on their phones from advertisers. These may ask customers questions about products and then deliver a discount offer to their phones. Users garner a minute of airtime for participating in a text dialogue with an advertiser.

Ultramercial is working exclusively with Virgin Mobile on the new effort, but this isn’t the only mobile-related offering up its sleeve. According to Jones, the firm is developing ad formats for mobile devices and is working with a publisher to create a campaign to offer mobile ads in exchange for access to mobile content. This format would extend to mobile devices the company’s standard online ad service, which enables publishers such as Salon.com to offer users free access to premium Web content in exchange for viewing a full-page Flash ad.

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