cbs-loopt-logo-lockup-mobilestance-copy.jpgCBS Mobile will begin incorporating GPS and other cell tower-based location data supplied by Loopt, a location-aware mobile social networking service, as a targeting parameter for advertisers purchasing banner ads on its suite of mobile websites, such as CBS Sportsline Mobile (http://cbs.volantis.net/sportsline/) and CBS Mobile News (wap.cbsnews.com/news), this according to The New York Times. Loopt has stated that their deal with CBS is not exclusive, opening the door for other mobile publishers and ad networks to follow in CBS’s lead.

While the move is notable in that CBS Mobile becomes the first North American publisher to bring location-based mobile web adverting inventory to market, it should also be noted that Loopt is currently only available to Sprint Wireless (and Boost) subscribers on a limited number of handsets. Loopt, a Silicone Valley startup, recently raised $12MM in Series B funding.

Eagerly awaited by some, the concept of true, location-based mobile advertising has, overnight, moved from the realm of the hypothetical to the desert of the real. For years, it seems, we have all been nibbling at the margins of the issue, exploring and debating from a safe distance. Now, as this once academic curiosity becomes cold reality, we are forced to examine the issue from a more practical perspective.

  • Privacy. It seems that the idea of Location-Aware Mobile Advertising cannot be explored without first discussing privacy. But while previously the focus was on generic privacy issues such as transparency and security, we are now free to explore the issue in the most concrete of terms: Has Sprint / Boost / Loopt specifically secured user permission to pass (or sell) their personal location data to third parties (such as CBS or their ad server) , or is a more dubious, “opt-out” mechanism being employed? Who will be held responsible if an unthinkable security breech occurs, such as a the “hijacking” of a user’s GPS data for malevolent or even criminal purposes? Clearly none of CBS’s major brand advertisers are eager to chart this new territory themselves, as it has been reported that (as of press time) none have purchased any of CBS’s GPS-targeted mobile advertising inventory.
  • Scalability. Privacy issues aside, there will be plenty of local, regional and national advertisers saying, “Great! Where can I get some of this?” This will be good news for CBS, as their mobile inventory is likely not flying off the shelves (this assumption is based on the fact that the network currently feels the need to augment its national sales force with four mobile ad networks – Third Screen Media /AOL, Millenial Media, AdMob and Rhythm New Media – in order to begin to fill its mobile inventory). How then, will advertisers purchase the GPS inventory? How will the local ad inventory be parsed, tracked and forecasted (this, across all of CBS’s five individual sales channels no less, most if not all utilizing different (if not incompatible) ad serving platforms!).
  • Economy. From the media buyer in me: How much of a price multiple does one place on GPS targeting? Will it follow current media targeting models, and increase based on the granularity of the location-targeting? Surly some areas (say – 5th ave, between Central Park South and 46th St) should cost more than say, the outskirts of Palm Desert… but how much more? Sure, we can all agree to “let the market” decide – but this is the same market that has settled on $45 on deck CPM’s and an estimated 16% monthly inventory fill situation (sources confidential)… not exactly a trustworthy market to be sure. Where’s the self-service, auction-based play on this one? (AdMob, are you listening?)

Analysis: While on its face the Loopt / CBS deal represents a minuscule number in terms of actual audience reach (not to mention reach potential… with Loopt users probably representing less than 1% of the US pop), the marketplace affects cannot be easily overstated. We’ve finally gotten beyond relatively simple questions of if or even when a major US carrier will start utilizing GPS data to target mobile ads, and into the much more interesting realm of real world applications.

Bloomberg.com published a piece today about how the carriers are keeping the cost of mobile advertising artificially high due to carrier revenue share. Google, Yahoo and Microsoft are apparently upset that they must pay the carriers a percentage of ad revenues generated by carrier referral traffic (i.e. traffic coming from the carrier portal, or “deck”).

I’m a bit neutral on the topic myself. The carriers have every right to charge for what is a pretty big value add in mobile – generating traffic. If the portals feel they don’t need the traffic, let them try to survive on a 100% off deck model (as opposed to the hybrid strategy currently employed by most major mobile publisher brands). Obviously the portals value the traffic generated from their presence on the carrier deck, or they wouldn’t be there in the first place. What I do take issue to is the artificially high CPM “price floors” set by the carriers, but that’s a topic for another day.

I must (partially) disagree with Chad Stoller of Organic, who is quoted in the piece as saying that “the carriers are too busy trying to protect the money they are making now to look at the next way to make money.”  In my view the carriers are simply grabbing the money now while they can. Most agree that their walled gardens are on borrowed time, and with the open handset alliance and other initiatives, it’s only a matter of when – not if – the carriers iron grip on the mobile spigot will come loose. Until then, it’s hard to begrudge a company for leveraging their position for immediate gain, just so long as the long term prospects are not jeopardized.

Long term, the carriers face a bleak scenario anyway – one of the dreaded “dumb pipe” syndrome (ad integrated location data notwithstanding). But let’s face it, that’s really what they are… they’ve just been damn good at pretending they’re providing value in other business value chains (media, entertainment, commerce) for the purposes of immediate revenue streams.

And for those that are willing to do some digging…  quality off-deck inventory is available for way less than the $50 CPM often quoted in the industry press.