Real Reasons Why Traditional Media Can Really (Still) Win Big In Mobile Advertising

Published 24th March

Guest post published on mSearchGroove 

EDITOR’S NOTE: Mobile advertising is certain the hot topic at CTIA, where Mobile Web And Apps World Forum (Ajit Jaokar’s CTIA partner event) was standing room only. (Well done Ajit!) Players from across the ecosystem are anxious to explore new models to monetize inventory, apps and services. However, as I pointed out during my panel — moderated by well-known analyst and author Chetan Sharma – there’s still is a lot of mileage left in established models such as text and MMS approaches to advertising before we focus too much of our effort on the whiz-bang new ad units and creatives. In his guest contribution, Martin Wilson – MSG columnist and owner of Indigo 102, a strategic consultancy with a focus on media and mobility and a deep understanding of the local space— argues that traditional media owners also have a lot of untapped energy and assets.


Advertising based on location is set to be the most valuable and highly contested sectors as players including AdMob, AOL/ Third Screen Media, Jumptap, Millennial Media, and Quattro Wireless jockey for position. Who will be in the winners’ circle? So far, traditional media owners and directory publishers appear to be the laggards and not the leaders in this race – although they clearly have the capabilities mix to dominate this space. Why are they hell-bent on missing the boat? Martin Wilson argues traditional media owners and directory publishers can still be among the champions, not the casualties, provided they act fast.

Mobile advertising has come a long way in a short time. No need to ask ourselves when it finally be the “year of mobile advertising” because the recent flurry of activity tells us mobile advertising has arrived.

First, it was the milestone acquisitions – Google buying AdMob, Apple snapping up Quattro Wireless and Opera surprising us by purchasing AdMarvel. Then it was the funding – Millennial Media led by New Enterprise Associates and Glam Media led by Aeris Capital – that sealed it. Mobile advertising has been validated.

Almost overnight our attention has turned from fixed online advertising to mobile. Now mobile – a personal device that enables brands to market to an audience of one – is widely regarded as the Next Frontier companies must conquer. Little wonder that companies – including Apple, Facebook, Google, Millennial Media and Yahoo – are lining up to do just this.

The market is crowding and muddying our understanding of what matters most.

Predictably, we want to reuse our understanding of old media (online and TV, for example) to comprehend the role and importance of mobile, the new mass media. Thus, we are fixated on size and those players with high volume inventory. Unfortunately, mobile advertising is not just the same numbers game.

Take the narrow view communicated in a controversial report by U.S. research agency Interactive Data Corp (IDC). It estimated the total 2009 mobile advertising spend in the U.S. at around $290 million, a figure based on total page impressions. It calculated market share according to share of total spend and concluded Millennial Media leads the pack with 18 percent ($51 million), followed by AdMob with 14 percent ($40 million), Google with 10 percent ($28 million) and Quattro Wireless in sixth place with 7 percent ($21 million.).

It was also reported by IDC that Glam Media counts 160 million monthly visits to the sites they control or represent, resulting in some 2.5 billion page views. Does this make them a market leader?

Maybe on paper.

However, as I argue in this column, it’s not about page impressions. That is not where the battle will be fought (or won, for that matter).


The money is in local advertising, or more accurately advertising based on location. That’s not just my view. Google has been clear about its interest in local online mobile content – and its intention to own the space. In its fourth-quarter earnings call, Google described local mobile advertising as a “huge” opportunity and more recently at the 2010 Mobile World Congress (MWC) claimed to have made mobile its number one priority.

Interestingly, going local (delivering advertising based on location) brings with it a whole new challenge. For one, it is infinitely more difficult to deliver relevant advertising to people
(which is the way brands must deliver advertising on a personal device such as our mobile phones). The opportunity to target an individual based on location is hugely powerful, but the room for error in these brand messages is frightfully slim. Get it wrong and the advertising performance diminishes — significantly.

Put another way, local advertising can’t be a matter of hit-or-miss. Generic advertising is a “fail” and tactical, targeted advertising is – literally – spot-on.

But it sounds easier than it is. This approach – though essential – flies in the face of how we measure advertising success. Suddenly, our singular focus on numbers and quantity (high volume and market share) is irrelevant. Local means delivering quality advertising. It also requires a totally new skillset, a whole new understanding of what we mean by context and how we should deliver relevant advertising.


If you say ‘mobile’ and ‘local’ in the same sentence, two scenarios spring to mind: ‘where I am now’ and ‘where I am going to be’. But which one is it? It depends. A common mistake is to assume your current location is important, that your location at that point in time is key.

Often it is not.

Mobile is about being ‘mobile.’ It’s about roaming. Mobile location can be a related to a number of things, places nearby or places close to my final destination. Deciding what is relevant is core to the success of any service or proposition delivered via mobile. I’m amazed by the number of services that get it completely wrong.

Why? Because there is more to delivering a mobile location service (let alone location relevant mobile advertising) than knowing the location of the individual. Companies need a detailed knowledge of what is really nearby.

In the U.K. alone, there are over 30,000 recognised places or points of interest. And that’s before you take into account synonyms, postcodes and street names. Linking them together in a meaningful way is no simple task. What are the postcodes or streets in London’s West End or Soho? The taxonomy is complex. When expanding a location to deliver results the relationship between places is important to get right – otherwise the service will deliver meaningless results and fail in the consumers eyes.

With so much as stake, I wonder why companies are so willing to take risks. By adding location to the mix they think they are growing the size of their inventory. In reality they also increase their chances of failure.

Currently, mobile advertising companies work on serving relevant ads based on generic attributes such as country, mobile network, handset type, time of day or theme of the page content. Add location as an attribute and everything changes. Relevancy – potentially down to a micro level – has to be on the mark. Delivering advertising based on locations becomes a mammoth task with a very different set of management challenges.


Advertising is content and people will pay with their attention. The structure of the content is important, and keep in mind at all times that mobile is a ‘pull’ medium. Give the people what they want and need. Provide enough information to attract, influence and help inform the decision or action.

location advertisingYou also need to remember that ‘local’ at a micro level is all about offering rich content – which can be challenging to deliver and scale. At the other end of the spectrum, ‘local’ at a macro level is all about providing comprehensive content – which can be challenging to deliver with added-value and competitive differentiation. A rule that applies to both types of ‘local’ content: Content gives a service credibility, interest and value if there is a valid reason (that consumers can understand) why a particular content is shown to them at a specific point in time.

Poorly targeted content is more than a potential annoyance. For many consumers, being exposed to irrelevant content (this includes advertising) on their mobile phones represents a ‘fail’ that interrupts what they are doing and – depending on data plan – costs bandwidth and money. Get it wrong and deliver the wrong content and the consequences can be severe and instant.

Content also needs to be inclusive not exclusive. If a user wants a pizza place nearby, they mean it (!) The service should deliver them details on the restaurant nearby and not the one 15 miles away simply because that business owner paid a premium for it.

Put another way, a location-based social network service should offer people loads of places people can check-in to, and not just the ones a handful of ‘power users’ know, mark and promote. Likewise, a local guide service must have all the places of interest for a town or city, not just the well—known ones in the surrounding area.

Why do local services need to be all-inclusive?

Because the consumer is empowered. They are spoilt by choice and demand the content they want. The Long Tail taught us all that one-size-fits-all doesn’t work in entertainment content. And there is mounting evidence that the same focus on the mainstream will no longer be tolerated in location-based services.

Relevance, as I have shown, is critical in content services.

The consumer’s perception of relevancy is enhanced when:

  • They are offered greater choice
  • They are empowered to select from a range of options
  • They are ultimately responsible for the due diligence and decision

Of course, offering a broad choice of content (in this case, location related information and location relevant advertising) requires the service provider has a stockpile of content to start.


Above all, a location-based service has to pass the toughest road test there is. It has to show the consumer what they know is there. Put simply, consumers judge the true accuracy and relevancy of a local service by its ability to offer breadth, choice and insight into the places and businesses they know are nearby.

If the service can pass the test, it earns consumer trust.

Thus, a shopping guide needs to list the shops nearby and not the ones across town. It needs to drill down to the hyperlocal level and present up shops in the area – even better if lists the shop they can see in the distance. Then they can feel secure knowing the service is up-to-date and mirrors the real world around them. (And isn’t that what we all expect of a service that professes to offer local information?)

The same goes for mobile advertising. A guide to city nightlife should be chock-full of bars and clubs and their promotions.

How do service providers get their hands on all this content and advertising?

They partner with companies that have it as their stock in trade.

Take the directory publisher Yell in the U.K. It boasts over 2.3 million business listings –that satisfies the requirement for basic core and structured content. Yell also has over 200,000 searchable online advertisers – that fulfils the demand for depth of differentiating content.

Surely tapping into this content (listings and advertising) is the first – and essential – step to building a strong foundation of content linked to location. What’s more, it’s shortcut to offering the wealth and breadth of content – including familiar content – that consumers have come to demand.

It seems self-evident. But some companies fail to grasp it. In the last weeks I have seen a number of services – TopTable,, Center’d to name just a few – come to market with neither basic core and structured content nor in-depth and diffentiating content. Predictably, they were instantly knocked by consumers.


As I have shown, the success of a service linked to location depends on the breadth and depth of content (listings and advertising) it offers. It’s content that has long been the lifeblood of directory publishers, but nowhere is it written that these giants will beat the nimble newcomers moving on their turf.

Granted, it will take time for these newcomers to learn the ropes and collect and index the location linked information core to competitive edge. However, there is little reason for more traditional media players, who sit on a stockpile of location linked content, to assume that time is on their side.

Take the case of uLocate Communications, a location services company, headquartered in the U.S.

Sensing a business opportunity it moved fact to fill the gap in the current mobile advertising environment and recently launched Where Ads, a hyperlocal and holistic ad network that pulls together local ad providers that work in other mediums, including directory services, coupons, events and other aggregation services.

Partnerships will be increasingly important. Even for the traditional players it is unlikely that they will excel alone. The recent pairing of directory publisher DexOne and Yelp in the U.S. is a testament that neither company has the critical mass and/or appeal to succeed in isolation.

The new network underlines the importance of getting the right players to the table. Strategic partnering brings a new dimension to the service offer and delivers value to the consumer. But it’s knowing whom to partner with that will decide if a service flies or fails. Picking the right partner requires knowledge and focus. It also helps if the partners we choose have a track record in local and a proven ability to generate revenue.

While the newcomers may have the ambitious mobile strategies, it’s the traditional media owners and directory publishers from the online space that have mastered the capabilities necessary to convert consumer activity (a need/desire to know what’s really nearby) into revenue.

Case in point: Pages Jaunes, the French directory publisher. In 2009 the company counted 885 million visits and online revenues of €461 million. That’s equivalent to €0.52 per visit – a staggering conversion to value. Imagine a scenario where consumers conduct the same number of searches using Google – it’s nowhere near the same conversion rate (or revenues for the advertiser, I might add).

Make no mistake: No other organisation can even potentially come close to the conversion rates and value delivered by traditional media owners and directory publishers. Their ability to create value is inextricably linked to their superior capabilities. They have infrastructure, sales teams and existing customers to target.

In the online space traditional media owners and directory publishers lost their edge to search giants such as Google and Yahoo and have been struggling to catch-up ever since. Mobile is a new game with new possibilities. It’s also a space where location linked content – and lots of it – combined with the capabilities to deliver this content when/where consumers need and appreciate it most can mean the difference between success and failure. These market conditions play in favour of traditional media players and directory publishers. Now it’s up to these companies to recognise their advantage and work with the right people/companies to evolve their businesses, embrace mobile and deliver what users demand.


Context, relevance, critical mass and content quality are all key components to a successful and sustainable service in the local mobile space. Who will own this space? Hard to say. But don’t be too quick to write off the traditional media owners and directory publishers that lost the plot in online. They could make a collective and explosive comeback in mobile. Success will be achieved by the companies that see the opportunity, accelerate their efforts, focus on their core strengths and bring the people and partners on board who have mobile expertise.

Get this right and you’re more than fit for the fight ahead.


Editor’s note: Martin’s next column will focus on how companies should evolve a digital strategy that harnesses mobile to complement existing digital services and thus generate more value. As he shows us: in digital, the outcome can be worth more than the sum of the parts.

Martin WilsonMartin Wilson has been involved in digital media for over 14 years, during which time he gained a wealth of experience in the fixed line and mobile Internet. In January 2008, Martin established Indigo 102, an independent consultancy, to assist organisations (including digital advertising agencies, directory publishers, media owners and online service providers) take their brands – and value propositions – mobile. In this role Martin has supported the development and launch of mass market mobile services across three continents. You can contact Martin directly ( and follow on Twitter (@indigo102).

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