Wireless Energizes Outdoor Advertising

In the brutally fashionable world of Internet marketing, where buzzwords soar and fall like the mythical Icarus, no terms are hotter right now than “wireless” and “convergence.” Not that the hype is unjustified: Aspects of both are changing online media and marketing.

So it was with considerable interest that I approached a blinking red light on a bus-stop advertisement in downtown Manhattan last week. Next to the blinking light was a little icon representing a Palm device. When I pointed my PDA at the light, I was beamed a shopping guide for the advertised store, along with discounts, store directions, and descriptions of merchandise.

The technology that enables outdoor advertisements to communicate to any device that runs the Palm operating system is called Streetbeam and was launched on December 1. Its mission, according to Jan Renner, the company’s president, is to “wirelessly enable outdoor displays with interactivity.”

Here’s how it works. Outdoor advertising on kiosks, bus shelters, and other outdoor media vehicles are equipped with infrared signals that can beam a small file into someone’s PDA. These files provide promotional content about the product or company advertised and encourage consumers to go to the Streetbeam web site.

When the web site is accessed via a computer, people can download the Streetbeam “conduit,” which then provides updated promotional information every time the PDA is “hotsynced.” From then on, the person can request information by simply pointing at a Streetbeam-equipped outdoor advertisement. In Europe, the technology works on WAP devices, and syncing is unnecessary, but the principles of Streetbeam work pretty much the same there.

A few months ago, I wrote about :CueCat, a superfluous application that allows consumers to scan print advertisements in order to pop up ad-related web sites. Because :CueCat is a pain to install and solves a problem for advertisers, not consumers, I argued that prospects for mass adoption were bleak.

Is it the same story for Streetbeam? Perhaps. Any time someone tells me that an application’s value proposition for consumers is targeted advertising, I am highly skeptical. And Renner’s claim that the technology makes outdoor advertising “interactive” doesn’t seem quite accurate. At present, Streetbeam only provides another channel for advertisers to continue a promotional monologue.

But Streetbeam sits at the tip of a huge iceberg. I believe mass adoption of wireless devices offering location-based, personalized information is an inevitability. People like to buy things, and many like to get information on merchandise, promotions, and deals. It is conceivable that many will want to take advantage of the opportunity to selectively request product information, even when walking down the street.

The danger, of course, is that advertisers will kill the golden goose by abusing the goodwill of consumers, similar to what is happening to opt-in email. The minute that people start to get “speamed” (wirelessly spammed) by advertisers will be the beginning of the end for building relationships via wireless platforms.

What is most intriguing about Streetbeam is the added measurability and accountability that it brings to outdoor advertising. From the beginning, online advertising success has primarily and wrongly been measured by CTRs. While Renner told me that the prospect of measuring the effectiveness of an outdoor advertisement by the number of people who interact with it “could be dangerous,” it is possible that convergence could begin to saddle offline media with online success metrics.

Streetbeam certainly isn’t the killer app that will drive mass adoption of wireless devices, nor will it open the floodgates of wireless advertising. But thinking about people having web access in their hip pockets, and hyperlinks all over town, definitely sparks the imagination and may present us with new opportunities.

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