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Mobile social networking on the rise: ad:tech panel

NEW YORK - Mobile social networking, mobile dating and social mapping -- already popular overseas -- are making major inroads into the United States market.

The rise of the iPhone, BlackBerry and other smartphones has increased the number of consumers who are chatting, surfing the Web, taking and sharing photos and videos, blogging and catching up with friends via mobile. The ad:tech New York panel "Leveraging Mobile Social Networking to Reach the Always-on Consumer," moderated by this publication's editor-in-chief, Mickey Alam Khan, discussed strategies for marketers to reach this growing audience.

"Mobile social networking is here because of a desire of the audience to share daily content with other people in a mobile context, on the go, from news alerts to knowing where their friends are," said Mike Howard, vice president of sales for Kiwibox.com, New York. "They want to do the exact same things on the mobile Web that they do on the wired Web players like Facebook and MySpace, as well as new stuff like LBS.

"There are things their mobile phone will allow them to do that they can't do on a computer," he said. "Mobile social networking is not a killer app, in that it won't kill the wired Web or SMS, and it has to be integrated, just as the wired Web must leverage the mobile Web and SMS."

While all the kinks in the value chain have yet to be completely ironed out, mobile social network already represents a significant, enthralled audience for marketers to reach out to.

"While mobile social networks are still in their infancy, it's an incredibly exciting time, because we're inventing this industry," Mr. Howard said. "We have to bring marketing messages to consumers in value-added context.

"Teens are showing their friends their mobile device, so when you engage someone in the mobile space, you're engaging them in the most intimate medium," he said. "The value to the brand of reaching consumers on their mobile phone is a lot more powerful."

As with any platform, it's best to integrate advertising placed on mobile social networks with other mobile channels.

Unsurprisingly, the most popular theme of the conference -- the election -- was brought up again as an example of pitch-perfect marketing tactics.

"The Obama campaign ran an amazing marketing blitz via mobile," Mr. Howard said. "He held an event in early September in Invesco Field [in Denver], with 70,000 people watching him and other people speak, and they put polls and trivia on Jumbotron with an SMS call to action.

"They got 30,000 text messages in just a few hours," he said. "Think of all the new people in the database, unique identifiable mobile numbers that can be marketed to and brought into the fold using mobile marketing, gathering lifelong evangelists of your brand."

Mella Media estimates that the mobile audience in the U.S. is 255 million consumers, with roughly 50 billion text messages sent per month, making it clear that consumers are doing more with their phones than just calling friends and family.

"A lot of the stuff you read about mobile isn't quite accurate, for example, women over the age of 35 are great text messaging targets, because they use SMS to communicate with their children -- and the exposure American Idol gave texting hasn't hurt either," said Jordan Greene, principal of mobile media for Mella Media, New York. "Brands are trying to engage their consumers in the flow of their daily lives, and mobile is perfect for that."

A wide variety of brands are engaging in mobile marketing, from migraine medication to the New Jersey Transit.

When engaging in mobile marketing, whether via SMS or banner ads on a mobile social network, it's important to stay concise.

"Most people aren't carrying smartphones, they're carrying dumbphones, if you will, with small screens, so how do you engage consumers?" Mr. Greene said. "Wordy banner ads won't play well, so you have to make an elevator pitch.

"Free offers tend to get the consumers' attention very quickly, and they're an effective way to drive action, click through to mobile Web site or text in," he said. "Make the call to action simple."

Mella Media ran a campaign with Warner Bros to promote the movie One Missed Call to 13-to-16-year-olds.

"Mobile is the most effective way to go after demographic, and the best thing we did is we asked consumers to text in the word DIE to a five digit short code, which had the kitsch factor," Mr. Greene said. "We had advertising placements on Facebook's mobile application and MySpace Mobile, and we pushed a baseline of traffic to a mobile site and from PC sites to a mobile environment.

"We found these teens going back to Yahoo Answers, Wikipedia, their own Facebook pages and blogs telling people how they could get a ringtone or video associated with the film," he said. "We got 600,000 visits on a mobile device, and the client was thrilled."

Many industry insiders are comparing the state of mobile to the state of the Internet a decade ago.

Mobile has the potential to evolve more quickly, however, because the Internet model is already in place.

"Mobile social networking is growing quickly, and the biggest social networks today, MySpace and Facebook, have mobile initiatives, such as the BlackBerry app that lets people update their status," said Polly Lieberman, vice president of advertising sales for buzzd, New York. "People are doing the same things on the mobile phone as they are on the wired Web.

"The location sensitivity of mobile will play a larger part as handsets and location detection becomes more sophisticated," she said. "It will encourage more people to consume data, as well."

"Brands have seen more success with mobile than they have with any other medium, and while mobile banners ads are effective, is there a next big unit that's going to come out, is mobile video next big thing?"

Many say that if you look at the trends that happened with the Internet, that will give you an idea for what is in store for mobile. However, mobile will open up many possibilities that are impossible on a PC.

Another niche of mobile social networking is mobile dating.

"We have dating, chatting, flirting and a bunch of different services -- it's social dating, not social networking exactly, not regular dating, but a sandbox for people to come together and strike up whatever sort of relationship they want," said Andrew Osmak, senior vice president of business development for Lavalife, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. "We offer the Lavalife.com power dating tool on mobile, which is the best medium if you're on the go and all you have is your cell phone.

"We weren't really sure whether we should just take Lavalife.com and shrink it or start from scratch, so we did both," he said. "The pure mobile communities we started from scratch are doing far better than the shrunken ones.

"I believe in paying respect to the medium, sites that are thoughtfully adapted for customer to the mobile medium."

Another niche within the growing mobile social networking umbrella is social mapping, a term coined by Loopt.

Apple just launched an national TV ad campaign featuring the Loopt iPhone app.

"New niches develop around use cases that are unique to mobile, and Loopt is about finding where your friends are so you can go out and do something with them," said Evan Tana, director of product management and marketing for Loopt, Mountain View, CA. "The mobile phone is the most social, most intelligent, most personal device, and consumers have it on their person 24 hours a day.

"What we're seeing now in the mobile space is just the tip of the iceberg, the acceleration in the mobile space in past six months has been incredible," he said. "It's a really fast-moving space, and things will continue to change, probably for the better.

"Standards are great, but innovation is most important."