sxsw-2008-groundhog-day-mobilestance.jpgIf this year’s SXSW is any guide, we all may have to wait a little while longer before the arrival of Springtime for mobile marketing.

SXSW. Four letters that have come to stand for authenticity, innovation, and unrequited cool.

Yet unlike last year’s festival, mobility and mobile marketing at this year’s show seemed content with recycled tactics pioneered at other festivals, some of which are now more than three years old.

On the consumer facing-side of the festival, ringtones, SMS mobs, giveaways, mobile blogging and the ubiquitous “mobile festival guides” ruled the day, while the mobile-related panels at the industry-focused SBSX Interactive Festival seemed equally content with sales-heavy “forums” and other the conference mainstays.

Mobile marketing-related festival highlights are as follows:

  • Festival Guides. Several SMS and mobile web-based apps provided attendees with a “mobile guide” to the countless panels, parties, performances and film premieres punctuating the hipster-friendly event. eZee, creator of WebClip2Go, created the most robust of the mobile show guides in their “SXSW Interactive Companion” mobile-web service, aggregating numerous show-related feeds into an easy-to-navigate festival portal. Other notable mobile show guides included SXSW’s official mobile site, sxsw.mobi (including a version formatted for iPhone), and an impressive offering of SMS alerts, indexed by close to thirty keywords correlating to specific festival topics such as “musicparties”, “pizza” and “wifi.”
  • Mobile Marketing. As if the above mobile festival guides weren’t enough, Toyota and Urban Outfitters also offered SMS show alerts as a compliment to their sponsorship of “Free Yr Radio”, which touted itself as “an online resource to make your SXSW 2008 better than ever.” An online promotion also featured a “Win YR Way to SXSW 2008” sweepstakes, as well as an online form to sign up for mobile alerts from Toyota and Urban Outfitters. An “Airport Pickups” service rounded out the Toyota sponsorship (a glamorous ride in a Toyota Yaris, no doubt).
  • Panel Sessions. There was no shortage of mobility-related talk at the SXSW Interactive Festival. Hats off to anyone willing to brave the hours of laborious sales pitches masquerading as info sessions in order to glean the occasional “key learning.” Mobile marketing-related panel topics included “Video Production for Mobile Devices” (Jason Meil, Sr VP, Current; David Todd, VP Content & Strateg, Eyespot; and Hank Blumenthal, Program Mgr of Emerg, Schematic), “Increase Revenue by Mobile-Enabling Your Services” (Shawn Bose, Director of Prod Strategy, uShip; C. Eric Smith, Pres, UnWired Nation Inc; and Bill Flitter, CEO, Pheedo Inc), “Mobile Media You Can Move To” (Michael Epstein (Founder, Untravel Media Inc; Silvia Vergani, Untravel Media), “Mobile Phones: International Devices of Mystery” (Nathan Eagle, Research Scientist, MIT; Jonathan Donner; Neil Churcher, Head of Design, Orange) and “Using Entertainment to Create Effective Mobile Advertising” (Adam Zbar, CEO, Zannel Inc, Lathan Hodge, Co-Founder, Rapstation; and Eric Eller, SVP Prod/Mktg, Millennial Media).
  • Awards. In the “11th Annual SXSW Web Awards” Mosio took the top prize in the “Sites optimized for handheld and portable devices” category, which is odd in that Mosio is a text message (rather than web)-based application. Similar to ChaCha, Misio features a human-powered search engine whereby helpful Netizens happily answer your mobile queries (this, unlike ChaCha, which utilizes paid human “search responders”).
  • Miscellaneous. Location-based mobile social network Loopt teamed up with Filter Creative Group to provide original, geo-specific editorial content to Loopt subscribers, this according to Fierce Wireless. The service “deliver[ed] real-time, location-based broadcasting from [SXSW]… Eight correspondents from Filter magazine provid[ed] location-specific mobile commentary to alert attendees to the most promising bands, events and parties.” Finally, Opera debuted version 9.5 of its mobile browser, releasing it at their “Rock Opera” party, an event which seemed to be noted more for its swag than for the software it was promoting. While cherished by some, it seems that at this pace Opera will finally be ready for mass use around the same time as full HTML-capable, cookie-supporting mobile browsers become commonplace (thus making Opera altogether obsolete)

Analysis: While unfortunately none of the aforementioned mobile applications (other than the Loopt piece) seemed to break any meaningful new ground in terms of functionality and consumer application, what is truly disappointing is the lack of innovation displayed by the festival’s sponsors with regard to their application of “mobile marketing.”

While giveaways and alerts have their place, how many “show guides” does a consumer really need? None of the mobile web applications referenced had any real mobile advertising component to speak of, other than “The Interactive Show Guide”, which gave a half-hearted mobile adverting effort in that it was running Google Mobile AdWords ads. Perhaps it was a simple lack of sales effort (or desire) on the part of the application developers to integrate marketing offerings from the festival’s sponsors (or competitive brands looking to ambush the show), but either way this was a real missed opportunity to extend actionable, relevant, branded messaging to festival attendees and fanboys alike.

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.