Wireless and Adless, Thank You Very Much

Most wireless ads are spam. And the wireless ads that broadcast only nearby relevant stores are worse than spam — they actually make people cross streets to avoid certain stores and their corresponding messages.

Wireless ads inside stores remain pretty “spammy.” Although I admit wireless ads that are broadcast inside stores and that are customized to an individual’s preferences and past purchase behavior could potentially be a powerful medium.

Tom Hespos has done a laudable job describing rather concisely why ads that appear on cell phones currently remain a nonstarter, so I won’t elaborate much. I’d just like to add that the first ad exec to sully my Motorola Timeport with an unwanted message will have his or her personal mobile and home phone numbers published on the web with an incentive for the audience to call at 3 a.m. Repeatedly.

The Real Wireless Ad Value

There are, indeed, instances in which the wireless platform becomes useful in advertising. We’ll always have the banner-ad equivalent of some text sponsorship appearing on the phone adjacent to messages, pages, the web, etc., but this isn’t really all that much more useful than, say, banner ads. Valuable, but not sexy, and certainly not something to warrant several more rounds of VC funding into your floundering wireless ad start-up.

The real value comes from the ability of a wireless device to be pinpointed with enough precision to know exactly where the user is. This could, theoretically, offer that same user a customized message based BOTH on where he or she is AND on a profile of his or her preferences and previous purchase behavior.

This is not what happens when Starbucks spams your phone with coupons every time you walk by a store (which, Tom tells us, will cause him to throw his hardware under any passing truck).

The scenario, instead, would run something like this: Tom arrives inside a Starbucks. His phone vibrates unobtrusively, notifying him that it has information about the establishment. Flipping the phone open out of curiosity, he is informed that Sandi, the barrista, makes the strongest espresso (she packs it down properly), but that Karl likes to spit in his foam, perhaps because of Tom’s shifty looks. Now here’s information you can use.

I used the above example not to be funny but to point out that the information real users will find valuable will be information the establishment doesn’t necessarily want you to have. If Starbucks wanted to tell you it had a 40-cents-off special when you’re in or near the store, it would be a whole lot more efficient to put up a sign.

Sure, there are times when an establishment might want to promote certain items based on a user’s profile. And this can be useful. For instance: Tom, a well-known fashion plate among tech journalists, walks into Brooks Brothers on Fifth Avenue. His phone vibrates, notifying him that it has information available. He flips his phone open, which reveals he has a few options. He can see what slacks might be in inventory that will go with the sock garters he purchased last time. He can see his Brooks Brothers bill is past due, allowing him to sneak out the fire exit before he’s recognized. He can also see the seven brands within the store that have special offers for lightly muscled individuals.

Proper Wireless Ads Are “Below the Line” Marketing

This is getting into an advertising realm in which ad agencies and most clients have very little competence: place-based advertising. We are talking about “below the line” advertising, much like promotions. Or, as a CEO of a major ad agency network termed it: “chicken shit.”

Ad agencies hate doing retail work. They don’t make money at it. They aren’t structured to implement the complex databases and react quickly to the shifting needs of retail consumers. In short, the ways in which we will find wireless advertising to be useful are ways we’re not very good at implementing, barring those few promotion agencies that have interactive units.

We have to adjust our attitudes to properly explore the wireless markets. We have to foster a greater respect for local advertising, promotions, and place-based advertising before we’ll be mature enough as an industry to properly mine the value awaiting wireless exploitation.

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