Innovation in Advertising

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According to Esther Franklin, a self-styled “media anthropologist” at Starcom, no one has an attention span anymore. While that might pose a problem to content providers — and I am one of them — it’s an even bigger problem for the advertising industry. If Law & Order can’t hold your attention anymore, then how on earth will a corn chip ad? If a newspaper headline just takes too long to read, then who’s gonna look at a Google ad?

As consumers shift their attention across an exponentially expanding media terrain, advertisers are carefully monitoring their movements. The new breed of Mad Men, as those Madison Avenue guys were once called, must figure out not only where the herd is moving, but how tolerant it will be of new sales pitches in new places.

For example, many mobile phone customers may be outraged — outraged! — when they receive their first unsolicited 1-800-flowers ad on their phone. They probably wouldn’t think twice about the appropriateness of the same banner ad on Slate, but a mobile phone is different. It may have many of the same capabilities as a laptop, but people don’t regard a cell phone in the same way. It’s a smaller more intimate object — one that you keep in your pocket or purse — and you pay subscription fees to maintain it. So maybe mobile ads are a bad idea?

Maybe not. At a recent industry conference called Digital Hollywood, panel after panel chewed over the new media environment and the ripe opportunities it offers to advertisers. Hundreds of ingenious little companies have blossomed whose ultimate goal is to monetize content — especially “user generated content” — using a wide variety of advertising models. A few examples include Pheed (they place ads in RSS feeds), AdMob (they’ve already served over 3.4 billion ads on mobile devices), and SpotXChange (they auction highly targetted video ad space).

Perhaps more surprising are the companies that somehow convince fans to make and place their ads for them. Atari, for instance asked its fans to create ads from content posted and pre-approved by Atari. They see it as an attempt to engage their customers in the brand and the product, while exercising control over the source materials. Mixercast takes this concept a step further by offering an entire publishing system to its users who can select professional content from a wide range of publishers and add their own personal multimedia commentary. Then they select the ads that will accompany both. The incentive? They get a cut of the ad revenue.

Buzz Logic works this strategy from the opposite end by developing a method of identifying the web’s most influential people . . . Not the media moguls who own the sites, but the individuals who post their content and opinions there. Needless to say, advertisers want to know who these people are, what they’re saying about their clients’ products, and whether they’ll accept an ad.

The new strategies reach well beyond laptops and mobile phones. If you’ve been in a fairly new elevator lately, there’s a chance you’ve been watching the appropriately titled “Captivate” network, where TV screens display a series of newsy tidbits, which are accompanied by graphically appealing animated ads. Companies like Ripple are also in this space, honing the fine art of “push technology,” by providing local content and ads to their TV screens, which you’ll see in your local Borders, Jamba Juice or Coffee Bean.

Advertisers see stars when they think about the possibility of using GPS technology to place ads, and even the most cynical of us may see the bright side here. While there are myriad technical problems to combat — one panelist estimated that there are 450 parameters for running a simple banner ad on a mobile phone — the will is there and maybe someday, the ads you see all around you may actually pertain to the place you’re in.

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