Only you can save mobile advertising

Between Google's continued Android push and its recently launched voice service in the US, it looks as though I may not be able to get through these monthly missives without mentioning Google at least once - which should tell you everything you need to know about the current state of the telecoms sector.

Anyway, the buzz over Android and Google Voice is all good and well, but there was another Google announcement last month that received comparatively less attention but deserves highlighting: 'interest-based advertising'.

The idea, now in beta, is simple enough. Google wants to use its AdSense program to deliver ads to your web browser based on where you surf and what you watch on YouTube, and to allow you to refine your preferences accordingly. Google breaks ads down into categories (i.e. entertainment, games, finance and insurance, etc) and lets you select the ones that interest you - or none at all, if you want to opt out entirely. Result: more relevant ads will be displayed on AdSense-powered sites you visit.

Where things could really get interesting is how Google eventually applies this to its mobile strategy. Mobile advertising is a massive work in progress, but one recurring point is the need to ensure that mobile-based advertising, be it SMS alerts, mobile web banners or interstitials flashing on the screen as the phone rings (as Gigafone recently demonstrated for me), is relevant to the target. Mobile's always-on and heavily personal nature practically demands it.

Andrew Grill, head of business development at Gigafone and self-styled mobile advertising evangelist, noted on his mob ads blog London Calling that the Google model on the web could help the mobile advertising case by providing a case study to show brands and agencies that the real value in mobile ads is relevance, rather than reach - provided it respects the '3 P's' of mobile advertising (privacy, preference and permission) that ensure users have complete control over what appears on their handset.

However, the issue of privacy and control in mobile ads could be far more complex than it looks. In his debut weekly column for Fast Company, futurist Jamais Cascio addressed the Google announcement and expressed doubts about reconciling the theory of relevant ads with the reality that people often don't use the web the way advertisers expect. 'Machines get shared, people use multiple browsers, and, increasingly, web users are savvy about being able to block ads, regardless of how targeted they may claim to be.'

Advertising 'arms race'

In fact, Cascio goes on, the web is already experiencing an advertising 'arms race', in which users find ways to block ads and advertisers find ways around those blocks. Taking the web mobile will escalate things, especially once mobiles evolve into the 'blended reality' paradigm of immersive mobile displays (think wearable computers) that overlay the real world with digital data.

Leaving aside the blended-reality angle, Cascio is on to something here. Up to now, the mobile internet has really been a tightly controlled walled-garden affair. The rise of smartphones, open-source software and Web 2.0 is changing that, and while that will mean more mobile content innovation than we've seen in years, it also gives users far more control over how to filter content they don't want.

That's not necessarily antithetical to mobile advertising, since user control is a core requirement to its success.

 

The downside is that it's not the advertisers that adhere to the '3 P's' that will escalate the filter wars - it's the ones that don't. Users' trust in the permission-based mobile model can be derailed by bad targeting or a handful of unethical jerks who invent the equivalent of pop-ups for smartphone browsers.

To be sure, web advertising has weathered the same challenges and survived as a viable business model. And it didn't have the benefit of relevancy-based ad targeting. It will be interesting to see if relevancy will see mobile advertising through its own personalized trial by fire. But it's worth remembering that it's the users who will shape the business model that emerges on the other side.

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